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Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Scherzer's relief appearance destined to become the stuff of legend


DETROIT — It was destined to go down as the decision that launched 1,000 talk-show topics, throughout the entire offseason.

A decision that could be endlessly second-guessed — no matter how it turned out.

Should Detroit Tigers manager Jim Leyland use the option to pitch starter Max Scherzer out of the bullpen, on short rest in Tuesday’s must-win Game 4 of the American League Division Series?

It’s not something Leyland likes to do, for sure, considering it’s less than a sure-fire proposition.

“I wouldn’t risk any pitcher that’s going to do something that — doesn’t always work when you bring those starters out of the bullpen. Sometimes it does,” the manager said before the game.

“It’s a great story, and it’s a great question, ‘Why didn’t you use him?’ I haven’t had a lot of luck with that, myself, bringing a starter out. We’ll see.”

Should Leyland choose not to do it, the question — especially if the Tigers were to lose to the Oakland A’s, ending their season — would be why he did not use all the bullets at his disposal.

Should he choose to do it, however, and it backfires? Well, that would be even worse.

It was trending in the latter direction when — after announcing pregame he might, if “all the stars line up,” use Scherzer for a couple of innings — Leyland ordered his Game 1 starter out of the bullpen in the seventh inning of a tie game.

“I came in today, we played catch and I told Skip, I got a couple of innings in me if you want it. The way the game unfolded with Dougie (Fister) going six, my number was called. I was ready,” said Scherzer, who tried to make it seem as much like a start as he could. “For me, I tried to make it the same. I know that the context of the game is different, but it’s still 60 feet, 6 inches, and you gotta throw strikes and that’s the most important thing.”

He didn’t. Not all the time, at least.

And the A’s were making him pay for that little bit of wildness.

Four pitches after Scherzer came into the game, Stephen Vogt singled on a change-up. Representing the go-ahead run, Vogt was sacrifice bunted over into scoring position, and did just that when Coco Crisp singled up the middle on a 2-2 change-up. Ten pitches into his relief appearance, Scherzer had gotten one out — that one offered up willingly by the A’s — and given up the lead.

No matter. His teammates took him off the hook in the next half-inning

Victor Martinez tied the game at 4-4 with a home run, and Austin Jackson ended his series-long slump with a shattered bat single to drive in the go-ahead run, making it 5-4.

Posted to a one-run lead, Scherzer proceeded to begin the process of giving it back, loading the bases without recording an out.

“It’s definitely not a good feeling. Especially with that Oakland team,” Martinez said.

Scherzer led off the eighth with a five-pitch walk to Brandon Moss.

Yoenis Cespedes then whacked a 1-1 change-up to right field for a double, putting the tying and go-ahead runs both in scoring position with no outs. Leyland chose to intentionally walk Seth Smith to load the bases, and pitch to Josh Reddick.

“I thought he had the best chance to get a strikeout,” Leyland said. “I hated to load him up, but Smith has been so hot and Max is a strikeout guy, so you take your shot.”

The shot almost misfired, too.

After pitching coach Jeff Jones made a trip to the mound, Scherzer went 3-1 on Reddick, coming perilously close to walking in the tying run. Scherzer went to his bread-and-butter pitch, the fastball, and Reddick fouled it off.

Scherzer threw another fastball. Same result.

Time for a different tack. Scherzer offered Reddick a change-up outside the zone — Ball Four — and got a swing and a miss.

“I think the first time I threw a fastball and I wanted to challenge him and he was able to foul it off, and I just thought at that point in time, I shook Alex (Avila, the catcher) off, that if I executed a change‑up that there was a chance I could get a swing and miss,” Scherzer said. “I bounced it on the wrong side of the plate. I pulled it. But it still had the effectiveness of looking like a fastball, because it got a swing and miss. That was a huge out for me to be able to get in that situation.”

It’s hardly the first hitter to look a bit silly on Scherzer’s change-up.

“It’s hard for any hitter to cover all of Max’s pitches, especially when he’s got his change-up going. ... Max has made a lot of hitters not look so good. Sometimes, when a hitter is trying to cover all his pitches, and you get one that looks a little bad on a pitch,” Avila said.

“The thing about his change-up is, it’s very unpredictable. Sometimes times it goes down and in like that, sometimes it goes away. It’s tough to tell mid-air when it’s coming toward you, it can break one way or the other. It’s hard to judge sometimes.”

Vogt fouled off two fastballs and a change-up before Scherzer threw a 98-mph fastball by him for a second strikeout.

With two outs, fastball-crunching pinch hitter Alberto Callaspo sliced a liner down the third-base line that dropped in just a handful of feet foul. Had it been five feet the other way, it may have cleared the bases.

“Sure enough, he put a swing on it and I thought I gave up the hit. I thought the ball was down and tailed just enough foul,” said Scherzer, who was elated when it was.

Five pitches later, on a full count, Callaspo ripped a liner into center field that Austin Jackson made a running catch on.

“Same thing happened full count. You know, I had to challenge him with my best pitch and I know he’s a great fastball hitter, but I had to come with my best and he put a good swing on it and hit it hard,” Scherzer said. “I thought it was down, but Austin made a great play to be able to run that play down and that was an unbelievable play.”

Out of the jam, an amped-up Scherzer pumped his fists as he headed for the dugout. According to Elias Sports Bureau, it's the first time an MLB team facing postseason elimination has survived a bases-loaded, no-out jam in the eighth inning or later, while preserving a one-run lead or tie.

“That was amazing. He got himself in trouble and got himself out of it. That was pretty intense. I think all Tigers fans and Tigers players would have rather it be three-up, three-down, but it made for a great story, didn’t it?” Justin Verlander said. “Pretty intense.”

What was it like watching him try to wiggle out of the jam?

“In sports, we always overuse adjectives, stuff like “incredible”, “awesome” is overused — and “big-time” — so they lose their meaning, but it’s definitely all those things and more,” Avila said.

“He’s just had an incredible season. Sometimes, it’s just hard to describe it.”

With the Tigers scoring eight runs after being no-hit for the first four innings, Scherzer was the pitcher of record in the 8-6 win, which sent the series back to Oakland for a deciding Game 5.

According the Elias Sports Bureau, it's the fourth time in Major League Baseball history that the regular-season wins leader earned a win in relief in the postseason, and just the second time since 1930.

Pedro Martinez, the last man to do it, in 1999, later said on the TBS postgame show: “Watching this guy pitch really gave me goosebumps.”

He's not the only one who felt that way.

“Everybody in the dugout, everybody in the stands, everybody anywhere rooting for the Tigers is pulling for him. Doing everything that they can,” Fister said. “Physically, we’re not out there helping, but we’re right there behind him.”

Crisis averted.

And decision justified.

Now, instead of being the decision that’s constantly second-guessed, it will become a matter of cult legend. Remember that time Scherzer came out of the bullpen in a playoff elimination game, and got out of a bases-loaded jam?

“It was surreal to be able to get an out in that situation and keep the one‑run lead with bases loaded, no outs in the eighth inning. That’s the stuff you dream of, maybe it’s not the ninth inning, but that’s the stuff you dream about pitching, bases loaded, eighth inning, no outs and I was able to do it,” Scherzer said.

“It’s such a different experience. Like I said, to be able to get out of that jam, I mean, that’s something I’ll never forget. That’s something I’m not really asked to do, and tonight I was. Obviously Skip had the confidence in me to stick with me. I thought with the lefties coming up, he might go with Drew Smyly. For me to be able to get those left‑handed hitters out in that situation that’s something I’ll never forget.”


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