DETROIT — When Max Scherzer walked off the mound in the seventh inning on Sunday, he was welcomed to a standing ovation and a handshake from Tigers catcher Brayan Pena.
With 101 pitches under his belt, it appeared Scherzer’s day was done.
But as he reached the top of the staircase in the dugout, manager Jim Leyland didn’t extend his hand for Scherzer to shake. Instead, Leyland asked him a question.
“He wanted to know how I felt. I told him, ‘I’m good,’” Scherzer said. “He asked if I was sure, and I said, ‘Yeah.’”
Scherzer had cruised through six shutout innings before Kansas City finally put a chink in his armor after Billy Butler and Alex Gordon opened the seventh with a single and a double, respectively.
Salvador Perez plated Butler with a groundout to second and Gordon scored on Emilio Bonafacio’s double to deep center. It appeared Scherzer was finally running out of steam.
Not so, said Scherzer.
“I still felt like I had a good 15-20 (pitches) left in me, with some
bullets to go with it,” he said. “Even if I got in a situation, I knew I could
fight my way out of it.”
That’s all Leyland needed to hear. Scherzer went back out in the eighth, and nine pitches later, he walked back to the dugout, head held high after working another perfect frame.
“I knew I was strong,” Scherzer said. “I knew I still had something in the tank. Even if I was around 100 pitches, I still felt strong.”
But was there enough in the tank to pull off a complete game?
“Probably,” Scherzer said. “But sometimes, you don’t want to be reckless. Once you pitch through eight innings, that’s a successful outing.”
But it’s not a complete game.
It’s the one glaring milestone, as small as it may be, that has eluded Scherzer during his Cy Young-worth 2013 campaign and throughout his six-year career, which spans 157 career starts.
“I don’t obsess about it, but that’s definitely something I want to do,” Scherzer said. “I want to pitch a complete game.”
And, if there was ever an opportunity for Scherzer to go nine innings, it was Sunday.
Scherzer’s season high in pitches sits at 122 — a mark he set on July 13. He had 110 after eight on Sunday.
But with Butler, Gordon and Perez due back up in the ninth, Leyland called on closer Joaquin Benoit to pitch the final inning in a non-save situation.
Scherzer had held the trio to 2-for-9 on Sunday, but Leyland clearly didn’t want to take any chances after what he witnessed in the seventh. Scherzer agreed with the decision.
“With our bullpen, they can close it down,” he said. “That’s when you have to use your head and be smart. At that point, there wasn’t a reason to push it.”
But if there was ever a day to push it, it was Sunday.
With an off day scheduled Monday, every pitcher in the Tigers’ rotation will get an extra days’ rest. That’s precisely why Justin Verlander threw 124 pitches in Game 1 of the club’s day-night doubleheader Friday.
“We took the pitch count up, which was OK in this case because (Verlander) gets an extra days’ rest this next time,” Leyland said Friday. “That’s why we were able to do that.”
Shouldn’t he have offered the same courtesy to Scherzer?
“I’m very vocal and very honest with Skip and (pitching coach) Jeff Jones about how my arm feels and how I feel in certain situations,” Scherzer said. “There’s been times this year when I’ve said I’m not good. They might want me to go back out, but I’m just done.
“But, the situation (Sunday), I felt strong. I felt good. I didn’t use a lot of bullets. It wasn’t a high-intensity pitch count. For me, I know my body, I know my arm, I still felt good.”
Leyland wasn’t wrong to pull Scherzer when he did. Why take the risk? There’s an off day Monday, and there was a strong chance Benoit would be available again on Tuesday.
More importantly, the Tigers still need to keep an eye on Scherzer given his history with shoulder issues.
Remember the concern about Scherzer near the end of last season? He was forced to leave his start Sept. 19 after only two innings because of a fatigued right shoulder.
Scherzer has dismissed talk about limiting his innings at the end of the season, and has said his right shoulder feels stronger than ever right now. That said, it’s clear his health is still being closely monitored and the Tigers are taking a cautious approach with him.
But are they babying him at bit too much?
Scherzer has been truthful with Jones and Leyland all year regarding the strength of his shoulder. He claimed he still had at least 10 more “bullets” left in his tank.
I say, give him a shot. Let him throw those 10 pitches. At 18-1, he’s earned it.