DETROIT – Max Scherzer and Brad Ausmus both knew early on Thursday afternoon that something special might be happening.
Their reactions were slightly different.
When Scherzer struck out eight Pittsburgh batters in the first three innings, Ausmus was thinking of two of the worst days of his playing career.
“I’ve been the victim of two 20-strikeout games, and when he started out that fast, I was starting to wonder if he could put up a huge total,” said Ausmus, who faced Roger Clemens in his 1996 20-K game and Kerry Wood two years later. “He was making pitches that looked like the ones Kerry was throwing that day.”
Scherzer also knew a big number was possible, but he didn’t care about records.
“I was thinking about it, but not for the reason you probably think,” he said. “When I’m getting that many strikeouts early, it means I’ve throwing all four of my pitches, I’m getting hitters into the kill-zone counts and I’m putting them away. When that’s happening, I know I’m probably going to have a good day.”
As it turned out, Scherzer had to settle for only 14 strikeouts in eight shutout innings, leading the Detroit Tigers to a 5-2 victory.
“He pitched like a Cy Young winner,” Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle said. “The volume of pitches that he can throw and command is impressive. I think there’s 29 teams in this league that could find a spot for him at the top of their rotation.”
Scherzer (14-4) took another step toward a second straight American League Cy Young Award, holding Pittsburgh to three hits and two walks. Since June 22, Scherzer is 6-1 in 10 starts with a 1.78 ERA and 85 strikeouts as opposed to only 52 hits.
Scherzer’s performance and a homer from J.D. Martinez gave the Tigers a much-needed sweep of the short two-game series and a split of the four games in the home-and-home series that started Monday in Pittsburgh.
Francisco Liriano (3-9) took a tough loss for Pittsburgh, allowing two runs on three hits and four walks in six innings. He struck out nine, but wasn’t able to match Scherzer’s brilliance.
The game was a classic pitcher’s duel early, with Scherzer striking out 11 batters in the first five innings while Liriano hadn’t allowed a hit through four. Martinez, though, changed things with a long homer off Liriano to start the fifth.
Detroit posed a much bigger threat to Liriano in the next inning, loading the bases with one out. Torii Hunter struck out, but Liriano walked Martinez with his 99th pitch of the game to make it 2-0.
That was enough for Scherzer, who cruised through eighth innings without much stress.
“We needed a win, and our bullpen needed a break,” Scherzer said. “So this was a huge game for us.”
The Tigers broke the game open in the eighth, scoring one run on a throwing error by Michael Martinez before Nick Castellanos added a two-run single. That became important when Gaby Sanchez hit a 2-run homer off Phil Coke in the ninth.