DETROIT — If Max Scherzer or Detroit Tigers fans felt any type of way about his return to Comerica Park for the first time since he pitched for the home team five years ago, neither of them betrayed it. On Friday, the Washington Nationals ace admitted he didn’t know whether he would be emotional, but he vowed to keep things “business as usual.” Two days later, he did just that.
There was no rousing applause when his name was announced as he headed to the mound in the bottom of the first inning, no standing ovation when he departed at the end of the eighth after striking out the side. Yet in between, Tigers fans witnessed the kind of dominant performance they remembered from Scherzer’s time here, what has since become the right-hander’s normal. Aside from a solo home run that barely got over the right field wall, Scherzer mowed through the Tigers — eight innings, one run, four hits, no walks, 14 strikeouts — to secure a series-clinching, 2-1 win Sunday afternoon.
“Just in rhythm,” said Scherzer, who was announced as an all-star for the seventh consecutive season after the game. “Rhythm with my mechanics and have the shape of every off-speed pitch — all five of them, really — to be able to execute them where I want to.”
The bats did just enough to let the Nationals (42-41) squeak by the floundering Tigers (27-52). Washington got its first run in the fourth on an RBI single by Scherzer’s battery mate, Kurt Suzuki. After Brandon Dixon’s blast off Scherzer tied the score in the seventh, Anthony Rendon — later named an all-star for the first time — extended the Nationals’ home run streak to a team-record 15 games to reclaim the lead in the eighth. Sean Doolittle sidestepped a two-on, two-out jam in the ninth to record his 100th career save as the Nationals completed a 5-1 road trip and finished June 18-8, one of the team’s best months under Manager Dave Martinez. They now stand 1 1/2 games out of a wild-card spot.
“It’s kind of business as usual at this point,” Doolittle said of Scherzer. “I don’t mean that as a cliche. He set the bar so high for himself that, no matter how the game starts or what his stuff looks like early, he’s going to find a way to go seven, eight innings. . . . It’s awesome.”
Somehow — at 34, in the fifth season of a seven-year, $210 million deal, in a stretch that features two Cy Young Awards and a runner-up finish — Scherzer is in the midst of one of the best runs of his career. He is one of the top pitchers in baseball, but the past six weeks have been impressive even by his standards. In his past eight starts, he has a 0.95 ERA and 83 strikeouts against eight walks in 57 innings. On Sunday, he registered 10-plus strikeouts for the 90th time in his career, the eighth time this season and his fourth start in a row.
As he has several times in this stretch, Scherzer credited Suzuki for his game plan and pitch sequencing. Scherzer said he will be thinking of the perfect pitch to use next when Suzuki throws down a sign for the same thing.
“I don’t even have to shake to it,” Scherzer said, smiling. “That’s kind of the rhythm that we’re in.”
Scherzer’s foil Sunday, Tigers starter and former Nationals pitcher Jordan Zimmermann, served as a reminder of how brief the pitching peak can be. The two briefly overlapped not just in location but in caliber. In January 2015, when the Nationals signed Scherzer, he and Zimmermann had finished the previous year fifth in Cy Young voting — Scherzer in the American League with Detroit, Zimmerman in the National League with Washington. Since then, their career trajectories have diverged.
In the past five seasons, Scherzer has become arguably the best free agent signing in baseball history. After Zimmermann departed for the Tigers before the 2016 season, he has struggled mightily. In 3½ seasons, injuries have sidelined him three times and his ERA has ballooned, with his 5.31 mark for Detroit entering Sunday nearly two full runs higher than his career ERA with Washington (3.32).
Yet Zimmermann seemed to recapture a bit of what he had lost, at least for this matchup. In the first inning, he escaped a first-and-third situation with no damage. In the second, Scherzer navigated around a two-out double.
Zimmermann cracked first — the RBI single by Suzuki — but Scherzer later did, too. Yet, as he has so often done, Scherzer pitched through it. When he ran to the mound for the eighth inning, his pitch count sat at 100 and he saw an old teammate, slugger Miguel Cabrera, step into the on-deck circle as a pinch hitter.
“I knew it was going to be on,” Scherzer said.
Scherzer needed to focus on the first hitter, Gordon Beckham. He didn’t want to allow a base runner because he knew how “lethal” Cabrera can be. He eventually dispatched Beckham with a low-and-away fastball.
Against Cabrera, Scherzer jumped ahead in the count 0-2 but left his third pitch over the plate. Cabrera fouled it straight back and grinned at Scherzer. The pitcher stared blankly back and, on the next pitch, got his old teammate to swing through a slider in the dirt for a strikeout. Five pitches later, leadoff man JaCoby Jones whiffed at a change-up, and Scherzer had struck out the side on 15 pitches.
“That’s full adrenaline right there,” he said. “That’s what you put all the work in for.”
Scherzer was in a different uniform Sunday, but his latest start in Comerica Park looked like plenty that had come before it.