DETROIT -- The last time Jordan Zimmermann faced his former club, he went to Nationals Park three years ago and tossed seven quality innings, only to be outpitched by a former teammate who struck out 20 Tigers.
That ex-teammate, Max Scherzer, built his Tigers tenure around the goal that his final 15 pitches should be his best of the game. So when Scherzer, now with the Nationals, took his old home mound at Comerica Park on Sunday for the first time in five years and shut down his old club for six innings, few could’ve predicted Brandon Dixon connecting with his 93rd pitch of the day and sending it just over the right-field fence for a game-tying home run.
The battle between Scherzer and Zimmermann, two former teammates facing two former clubs, ended with one run apiece. But Scherzer wasn’t done after Dixon’s homer, nor was he anywhere near his final pitches.
“I think maybe there are other words you would use, like 'pray' that we wore him down,” manager Ron Gardenhire said after the Tigers’ 2-1 loss, “but that didn’t work out.”
Once Anthony Rendon’s homer off Joe Jimenez put the Nationals ahead, Scherzer came back out for the eighth and threw his actual final 15 pitches. They ranged from a 98-mph fastball to a nasty slider, and they struck out the Tigers in order, including pinch-hitter Miguel Cabrera without much trouble.
“That's what you put all the work in for,” Scherzer said. “Everything I train for is to make sure that I'm at my best and throw the best pitches I can late in the game. Those are the deciding pitches if it's a tie game or if we're winning.”
That’s the Scherzer that the Tigers remembered. He didn’t receive the applause from fans that fellow ex-Tiger Justin Verlander did upon his return, but he received the respect.
“He’s just a warrior,” Gardenhire said. “I’ve seen it. You guys have all seen it. He’s a warrior, and he’s going to keep pumping it in there and going at them, and he did.”
Scherzer’s first outing at Comerica Park since Sept. 25, 2014, featured few of his teammates from that year. For that matter, it featured few of Scherzer’s victims from his 20-strikeout performance against the Tigers three years ago. With Cabrera out of the starting lineup, the only member of the starting nine who played with Scherzer here was Nicholas Castellanos, who didn’t face Scherzer in 2016. He struck out twice Sunday and flew out. So did Christin Stewart, the outfielder the Tigers drafted with the compensation pick they received when Scherzer signed with Washington as a free agent.
Though Niko Goodrum’s second-inning double down the right-field line took away any thoughts of a no-hitter, Scherzer looked dominant for much of the afternoon, using his power fastball to set up hitters for his slider, which drew 11 swings and misses, or his changeup, which drew eight more.
Zimmermann, making his third start back from an elbow strain that cost him two months on the injured list, did his best to keep pace, striking out four over six innings and holding Washington to four hits. His only extra-base hit allowed was a leadoff double in the fourth by ex-teammate Rendon, who came around to score on Kurt Suzuki’s single up the middle.
“Max is a tough competitor,” Zimmermann said. “It’s going to be tough to score runs, and I think we all knew that coming in. I tried to put up zeros as best I could.”
Scherzer took the lead and rolled, striking out five Tigers in a six-batter span of the fourth and fifth innings. He had retired eight of nine batters when Dixon connected on a 95-mph high fastball and sent an opposite-field loft that carried out to right. The ball had a relatively low .370 expected batting average, but it used all of its 358 feet of projected distance to clear the right-field fence for his 11th homer of the season.
“You’re just looking for a pitch to hit,” Dixon said. “I kind of got a fastball out over the plate, and the short porch kind of helps out every now and then.”
It was the last hit Scherzer allowed. For that matter, he allowed only one other ball in play before striking out Harold Castro to end the seventh, followed by Gordon Beckham on a fastball, Cabrera on the slider, then JaCoby Jones on a changeup in the eighth for a 14-strikeout performance.
“That's full adrenaline right there,” Scherzer said of facing Cabrera, whom he struck out three times in his 20-strikeout gem. “When you see him get in the box, that's who you want to face. You want to face the best. That's when you want to throw the best pitches you got, go right after him, and it's fun to face him. I have the ultimate respect for what he can do at the plate, so it's my best vs. you.”
The consolation for the Tigers was that Scherzer’s 15-pitch eighth was his last inning. Castellanos greeted Nationals reliever Sean Doolittle with a single in the ninth before Dixon’s walk moved the tying run into scoring position. Goodrum connected with an 0-2 fastball but flew out to left to end it.
“We knew it was going to be a tough day trying to score runs,” Gardenhire said. “You just hope somebody clicks on one. Unfortunately, we didn’t do too many of them. But it was a good battle all the way to the end.”