DETROIT -- The deltoid soreness that knocked Tigers starter Max Scherzer out of a start last week has put his stretch run and potential postseason in question. In turn, Scherzer's situation has put the Tigers' run towards a potential American League Central title in serious question.
Rookie left-hander Drew Smyly will start in Scherzer's place on Friday night in Minnesota, where the Tigers open a three-game weekend series. Since Scherzer was lined up to start Detroit's regular-season finale on Wednesday in Kansas City, it's possible Smyly will make that start as well.
At this point, the only timetable on Scherzer's return is when he can get the soreness out of his shoulder. Asked if he believed he'll start again before the end of the regular season, Scherzer -- who describes the injury as a strain -- didn't have a firm answer.
"It's just tough to say," Scherzer said. "I want to be able to, but at the same time, when you have a recurring injury like this, you can't get back onto the mound again before you're 100 percent. So at this stage, it's just a matter of how much I can recover from the strain and how fast I can."
Scherzer left his Sept. 18 start against Oakland after just two innings, as deltoid soreness caused a sudden drop in velocity from the power fastball that helped him lead the Major Leagues in strikeouts for much of the past two months. He recovered enough to start last Sunday afternoon against the Twins and pitched five innings, but his fastball was still down a tick or two from his usual power.
"I have no regrets making that start," Scherzer said, "because I really felt 100 percent."
Scherzer said he felt the same soreness he usually does after a start, and worked to loosen it up during a between-starts side session on Tuesday. That's when it worsened.
"My arm was still kind of recovering from my start," Scherzer said. "I was able to loosen it up and able to throw my 'pen. But after that, I lost the range of motion that I had gained by loosening it up, and it became painful to do a couple specific range of motions. Once I lost the range of motion in a couple rotational things within my shoulder, that's when I knew I had taken a step backwards."
Scherzer has essentially become a co-ace alongside Justin Verlander in the Tigers' rotation with a 16-7 record and a 3.82 ERA on the season. Scherzer is 11-3 with a 2.62 ERA in his last 18 starts since mid-June, striking out 140 batters over 113 1/3. His summer success would've put him in the conversation for the AL Cy Young Award if not for early-season struggles that ballooned his ERA to 7.77 in April.
Smyly took a no-decision in a spot start on Sunday night against the Twins, holding Minnesota's lefty-heavy lineup to an unearned run on three hits over 4 1/3 innings in just his second start since early July. He spent the first half of the season in the rotation, going 4-3 with a 4.42 ERA before an intercostal strain put him on the disabled list. By the time he was ready to return, the Tigers had traded for Anibal Sanchez, leaving Smyly to join the rotation at Triple-A Toledo before Detroit recalled him in mid-August.
Logistically, Smyly can slot into the rotation for the stretch run without much trouble as the Tigers try to hold on for a second straight division title. Figuring out a potential Detroit postseason rotation without Scherzer, however, is much trickier.
Verlander is in line to start either a one-game division tiebreaker, if needed, or a Division Series opener, with Doug Fister and Sanchez seemingly falling in line after that. Without Scherzer, however, the Tigers would have to decide on a fourth starter between Smyly, a 23-year-old finishing just his second full pro season, and struggling Rick Porcello.
Porcello is winless since Aug. 7, and hasn't pitched six full innings in a start since Aug. 24. He allowed four runs on seven hits in four innings on Wednesday against the Royals before manager Jim Leyland pulled him out of concern over a drop in his velocity in the third inning.