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ROIT -- The consolation prize for the Detroit Tigers on Saturday was actually very good. It was Max Scherzer pitching the way he's capable of pitching.
The performance Scherzer produced against the White Sox deserved a happy ending. What the Tigers got instead was a blown save from Jose Valverde on a two-run homer by Adam Dunn in the ninth inning and a 3-2 defeat.
It was a discouraging finish, but for the long haul, Scherzer's turnaround outing could easily prove to have greater significance. He had a rocky start to the season, compiling a 7.77 earned run average over his first five starts. In his last start, he issued a highly uncharacteristic seven walks in 4 2/3 innings against the Yankees.
But on Saturday, Scherzer was in top form. He produced seven superb innings, retired the first 11 hitters he faced, allowed only one run on four hits, walked none and struck out nine. He took a line drive off the right foot from A.J. Pierzynski leading off the fifth, but he was unhurt and unfazed.
"He was attacking with his fastball and he was very aggressive today," Tigers catcher Alex Avila said. "And everything else played off his fastball.
"We've seen it before. He's got the stuff to be one of the best pitchers in this league, so I'm not at all surprised. If he's able to repeat it and pitch like that, that's what we need out of him."
"Oh, boy, he was terrific today," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. "That's the Scherzer we need, and that's the Scherzer we're capable of getting very often. He was absolutely terrific today; really, really good. That's good news.
"I think he was on a mission today. I think he knew that he probably needed to step it up, he wanted to step it up. You know, he's a smart guy, he figured it out. He was aggressive, pounded the strike zone, had a little extra on his fastball when he needed it today."
Scherzer had not exactly been drained of confidence during his early season difficulties.
"I always believe in myself," he said on Saturday. "My confidence never wavered when I was struggling. I always believe that I'm going to go out there and have an outing like today."
Scherzer made one mechanical adjustment after his last start, and it obviously worked for him.
"I'm breaking my hands higher [now]," he said. "When I was going to the plate, my hands were breaking lower, and my front side was flying open. So we made the mechanical change of breaking my hands higher and I did countless reps trying to get that to feel natural over the course of the last five days. I kind of thought about it in the first inning, but after that I just pitched. That was the change."
Despite the loss, his performance, combined with the fact that Doug Fister is scheduled to come off the disabled list on Monday for a start against Seattle, puts the Detroit rotation much closer to being able to reach the high level of expectations. With the consistently impressive performances by rookie left-hander Drew Smyly, with American League Cy Young Award winner/MVP Justin Verlander, with the potential of Rick Porcello, this is group with a truly high ceiling
Of course, expectations for the 2012 Tigers are sky-high, after winning the AL Central by 15 games in 2011 and then adding slugging first baseman Prince Fielder in the offseason. At 13-13, the Tigers have not performed up to those expectations. A presumably high-powered offense hasn't yet produced consistently, ranking seventh in the AL in runs scored.
"We've got to score more runs," Leyland said. "We're a team that's supposed to score some runs. We need to bust out and score some runs, but we need to do it on a more consistent basis. And we will."
It is early. The Tigers remain confident. And given their track record, why not?
"We believe in ourselves," Scherzer said. "We believe that we have a really good team, in all facets of the game. Obviously, this one stings a little bit -- losing in the ninth. But going forward, we like our team.
"You believe in this group of guys, that we've got one of the better teams in the AL. Over the course of the season, things happen, but we're OK. You can look at it any different way you want, but the way we look at it in the clubhouse, we're not panicked, we're not fretting. We know the talent we have in this clubhouse. We know if we come consistent with the hungry edge every game that we feel like we've got a very good team."
Scherzer did his bit to turn high expectations into reality Saturday. His performance did not result in a victory, but it offered another indication of why this team could be exceptionally good.