Max Scherzer broke the MLB's longest streak among active pitchers without throwing a complete game. (John W. McDonough/SI)
Max Scherzer picked a great time finally go the distance. In the marquee matchup of Thursday night, he not only outdueled Chris Sale at U.S. Cellular Field, he spun a three-hit shutout and ended the longest active complete-game drought while halting the Tigers' three-game losing streak and his own four-start slump. The Tigers ended up beating the White Sox 4-0.
The defending AL Cy Young winner had never thrown a complete game in 178 previous major league starts, the highest total of any pitcher never to finish the job. He took over the top spot earlier this year:
Note that all of those pitchers hail from the past 20 years, a reflection of the way the game has changed via pitch counts and specialized bullpens. To find a pitcher with the most starts without a complete game whose career didn't at least cross into the post-1994 strike era, one has to go all the way down the list to 33rd, with Scott Scudder failing to finish the job in 64 starts between 1989-1993. Scherzer's lack of a complete a game wasn't a reflection on any lack of quality so much as it was his style of pitching deep in counts and notching high strikeout totals under managers who preferred the comforts of their closers (as shaky as Detroit's have been). He has pitched exactly eight innings 18 times, all for the Tigers under Jim Leyland or Brad Ausmus, and had previously gone nine innings once, against the Twins on Sept. 1, 2010, but was removed from the game after 106 pitches with the score knotted at 1-1 heading to the 10th.
Scherzer came into Thursday night in a funk. He had allowed 20 runs and 40 hits in 26 1/3 innings over his last four starts — none of them quality starts — against the Indians, A's, Mariners and Red Sox. The Tigers managed to win two of those games. They came into Thursday having lost three straight, including the first two of the series, and eight out of their last 10 as their AL Central lead was trimmed from 5 1/2 games to two.
Scherzer was efficient at the outset, needing just six pitches to get through the first inning and 11 more to get through the second. He labored in the third, throwing 23 pitches and walking Alejandro De Aza and Adam Eaton, but that was the only frame he surpassed 15 pitches. He didn't allow his first hit until the fourth, when Alexei Ramirez laced a two-out double down the left field line. That hit sent Conor Gillaspie, who had reached first base on a Miguel Cabrera error, to third. That was the closest to scoring the White Sox would get. After falling behind Dayan Viciedo 2-0 to start the next plate appearance, he escaped by inducing a flyout.
From there, Scherzer retired 11 of the next 12 hitters, yielding only Tyler Flowers' fifth-inning walk, and needing just 27 pitches to work the sixth, seventh and eighth. It took until two outs in the latter frame before the White Sox connected for their next hit on a Gordon Beckham double that went for naught. Adam Dunn's ninth-inning single — initially called a catch but reversed upon review — was Chicago's only other hit.
If anything, Sale was even more dominant, at least at the outset. He retired the first nine Tigers, striking out four including the side in the third. Rajai Davis' single to lead off the fourth was the first hit he yielded, but Davis was thrown out trying to steal second. The only run he allowed came via a solo homer by Victor Martinez to lead off the fifth — an inning that saw him allow two more singles. He surrendered just one more on the night, a seventh-inning single by J.D. Martinez. He struck out 10 over seven innings and 116 pitches.
Once Sale was gone, the Tigers added two in the eighth on a trio of singles against Jake Petricka. On the last of them, a Miguel Cabrera chopper that didn't leave the infield, Beckham tried to barehand the ball as he crossed over second base, but he couldn't find the handle. The Tigers added another against Daniel Webb in the ninth to cap the scoring.
Scherzer threw 113 pitches and generated 18 swinging strikes, seven on his four-seamer, five apiece on his slider and changeup, and one on his curve. He threw 21 first-pitch strikes out of 34 hitters he faced, and got ahead on 0-2 11 times. Five of eight strikeouts came via the heater with two of those called strikes, including the game-ender against Viciedo.