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A sometimes-irreverent look at Detroit's Boys of Summer, the Tigers, as they try to return to the top of the American League Central.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Scherzer waits out the rain, saves the bullpen

The clock was ticking.

The minute the umpiring crew waved the players off the field, and the Comerica Park grounds crew put the tarp on, putting Sunday's game between the Tigers and Rockies into a fourth-inning rain delay, the clock started ticking on the viability of each of the two starters to remain in the game.

Each minute that passed made it less likely they'd continue. No manager likes to put a starter at risk, by letting them cool down, then trying to ramp them back up again.

Colorado manager Jim Tracy, who'd liberally employed his bullpen all weekend long, did not hesitate to bring in Guillermo Moscoso after the 53-minute delay, replacing starter Jeremy Guthrie.

Tigers manager Jim Leyland had a tougher choice, considering his bullpen had been so strapped, his general manager had needed to make a roster move Friday night to get him an extra arm as insurance.

The ticking clock was that much more dramatic for him, as he debated keeping starter Max Scherzer in the game against the need to dip into his pen again.

"Somewhere between 45 minutes and an hour is usually our time limit. We probably would have stretched that a little bit today because we were a little bit short," the skipper said. "That's a tough call."

"It was extremely important, especially for me to be able to go eight innings," Scherzer said. "We’ve been using our bullpen a lot, and they’ve got tired arms. So especially for me to be able to go out today and really save the bullpen, plus we’ve got the day off (Monday), that’s a big thing for the team."

It looked like the cell of rain, which had also delayed the NASCAR race 70 miles west at Michigan International Speedway, might blow through. The grounds crew came out when the sun did, standing at attention near the tarp, but were waved off the field again when the pace of the rain picked up again.

The Tigers were in the clubhouse waiting it out, but Scherzer was trying to stay locked in, watching the clock, and the radar. 

"Oh, yeah. I was on, looking at the radar, seeing when this thing was going to push through. I thought it was going to be quicker than that. I’m trying to play meteorologist, trying to push that weather through, as quick as possible, so I don’t get taken out of the game," said Scherzer, who was so locked in pregame, he hadn't even known rain was in the forecast for Sunday until pitching coach Jeff Jones told him the game was set to start on schedule. "For me, it was just get away from everybody, go sit in the batting cages, throw a few balls into the net, keep my arm loose, and keep that mentality that you’re still in the game. That’s the biggest thing about rain delays: You’ve always got to believe you’re in the game, no matter what. Today was no different. I can’t be in the clubhouse, playing cards, laughing."

It wouldn't have been a laughing matter, if he'd had to come out of the game, either.

He was staying in come hell or ... well, high water.

"Yeah, otherwise, I was flippin’ chairs," he said with a grin. "I wanted to stay in that game. I didn’t care if we were playing at 9 o’clock at night. I wanted to stay in that game."

So did his teammates, who'd seen his 98 mph gas, and six strikeouts before the delay, and knew this was one of those days he was on.

"I was watching the (radar) gun, and go ‘Wow, he’s throwing 98?’ I know he got it, but he was outstanding," said Ramon Santiago. "I don’t know what the rule is. Some pitcher have a long delay, they don’t come back. And to see him come back, that was really huge, because he was pitching great game. When you’re pitching like that, you don’t want to come out of the game.

"Seeing him there was like ‘Yeah!’ We need it."

After the 53-minute rain delay, Scherzer took the mound almost exactly at 3:15 p.m., and needed just two pitches to induce a fielder's choice from Rockies second baseman Chris Nelson, getting himself out of the two-on, two-out jam that he'd been working himself into when the rain came.

"It was early enough in the game that my arm was still loose and fresh," Scherzer said, "and when the rain ended, it was even kind of nice and humid, so it made it even better pitching conditions for me."

It didn't hurt that he had all four of his pitches working, in spades, and had tweaked his change-up back to where he wanted it, giving him enough velocity variation from his fastball to get swings and misses. Scherzer would add six more strikeouts before he was done, pushing himself over the 100-strikeout plateau for the season, becoming the third pitcher in baseball — along with teammate Justin Verlander and the Nationals' Stephen Strasburg — to reach the century mark.

"He really had good stuff today. I mean, 97, 98, slider, changeup, command of the strike zone. He just attacked the strike zone with outstanding stuff today. Really kind of overmatched them, to be honest with you. He was really good, really good."

Scherzer not only come back out to finish the fourth, but he'd return for the fifth ... and the sixth ... and the seventh. Even after a discussion with Leyland following the seventh, he'd head back out to the mound to go an eighth inning, his longest outing in the span of 27 regular-season starts. 

"Yeah, I didn’t know what was going to happen. My arm felt OK," Scherzer said. "I thought the rain delay was going to get me out of there, but he (Leyland) asked if my arm was OK — our bullpen has been used a lot — so anytime there’s a chance I can help out the team, go out there and save our bullpen, I’m always down for that."

He'd turn his shutout over to Brayan Villarreal, and watch as the rookie pitched a 1-2-3 ninth. Rather than tax the bullpen, it instead saved it, giving the overused arms another day — with the off day Monday — to get back in line for the stretch drive before the All-Star break. The Tigers don't have another off day until July 9, after a span of 20 games in 20 days.

And the credit for that goes to Scherzer doing his part — and more.

“He came out stronger after the rain delay, and threw over 120 pitches. That’s the performance of a warrior and a stud,” Tracy said.


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