OAKLAND -- There has been a great deal of debate about Max Scherzer most of the season. Do his 21 wins really mean much, since the win is such an imprecise statistic? If you consider advanced metrics, was his season really that far above the performances of the other elite pitchers in the American League? But the postseason is no time for debate, it's the time for performance, and Scherzer's effort in Detroit's 3-2 win over Oakland in Game 1 of the AL Division Series could only be judged as near impeccable, whether you're old school or new.
He allowed just three hits and struck out 11 in his seven innings, and his only real mistake was serving up a 95 mph fastball that Yoenis Cespedes sent into the left field stands for a two-run home run in the seventh. The sellout crowd at O.co Coliseum, which proved the A's made the right decision in taking off the tarp that usually covers the upper deck, desperately wanted more reasons to wave their yellow towels, but Scherzer gave them none. Other than the pitch to Cespedes, he was masterful, blowing away A's hitters with his high 90s fastball the first time through the order, then tantalizing them with a devastating changeup in the 80-mph range in the later innings. "He has a pretty big gap between his fastball and his offspeed pitches," A's manager Bob Melvin said. "If you don't see him that often, that fastball seems to get on you a bit quicker."
The A's might see Scherzer again quite soon -- in the deciding Game 5 of this series, if it gets that far. A year ago, these two teams met in the ALDS and the difference was the Tigers' ace, Justin Verlander, who shut them down in Games 1 and 5. Scherzer has been this year's Verlander for the Tigers in many ways -- their security blanket, their most trusted starter.
That role means a great deal to him, according to everyone but Scherzer himself. "I don't get caught up in the hoopla, worrying about where I'm pitching or if I'm pitching Game 1 or Game 5," he said. That's not how Tigers manager Jim Leyland saw it. "He was thrilled to get Game 1," he said. "I think it meant a lot to him, even though he said it didn't matter which game he pitched. I think he responded like we expected him to respond."
He had the right response for Leyland after giving up the bomb to Cespedes in the 7th, on his 106th pitch of the night. The Tigers manager visited the mound, ready to make a pitching change depending on what he heard from his pitcher. "I still have something left in the tank, if you want it," Scherzer told him. "It's yours," Leyland said. "With the season he's had, he's earned the right to keep going if he says he can keep going," Leyland said afterward.
Scherzer rewarded Leyland's faith by inducing an easy flyout to left from Josh Reddick and a pop to short from Stephen Vogt. Then he struck out Daric Barton. The inning was done and so, essentially, were the A's. Relievers Drew Smyly and Joaquin Benoit got the last six outs for the Tigers, five of them on strikeouts. That brought the strikeout total for the A's batting order to 16, including three each from Reddick, Barton and Brandon Moss. Oakland obviously has to make better contact going forward, which might not be that easy against Verlander -- still formidable even in a down year -- in Game 2 on Saturday.
The A's are lucky there is a Game 2 and beyond, that this wasn't one of those nonsensical one-game wild card playoffs. If it had been, their postseason would have been effectively over after the first inning. Tigers leadoff hitter Austin Jackson opened things up by slicing a double down the right field line, and after A's starter Bartolo Colon hit Torii Hunter, Miguel Cabrera hit the first pitch he saw from Colon back up the middle, giving the Tigers a 1-0 lead after only six pitches.
Hunter came home on a double-play grounder by Prince Fielder, but the Tigers weren't done. Victor Martinez doubled to left center and Alex Avila's roller trickled under the gloves of both first baseman Daric Barton and second baseman Alberto Callaspo, allowing Martinez to score for a 3-0 Detroit lead.
From there it was all about Scherzer, doing what he has done all season. Both clubhouses were reciting the "it's only one game" and "it's going to be a long series" platitudes afterward, with the exception of the excitable Benoit. "It feels like we're on the verge of another World Series," he said. It's still a little early to say that, but Benoit's enthusiasm was understandable. Having an ace like Scherzer to turn to can make a team feel like anything is possible.