DETROIT -- Tigers fans have an appreciation for great players in their history, so it was no surprise to see fans at Comerica Park on their feet to give Mets ace Max Scherzer an ovation on his way off the mound he once ruled as a Cy Young winner for Detroit. The surprise was that it happened with one out in the fourth inning Wednesday night.
“Bittersweet,” Scherzer said. “It's tough to have something feel good when you don't pitch well. But I'm very appreciative of the fans here and their support."
Eric Haase was one of those fans growing up, a local high school star just as Scherzer was emerging alongside Justin Verlander. Teenaged Haase, he said, would never believe he’d homer off Scherzer one day.
What was expected to be a trip down memory lane with one of the best pitchers in Tigers history instead became a drubbing by a young, aggressive lineup of hitters who would love to lead this team back to the success it enjoyed behind Scherzer a decade ago. Beating the former Detroit ace is a step that resonated strongly with the club.
“It's awesome,” said former Central Michigan star Zach McKinstry, whose walk and single bookended Scherzer’s start. “Good to get out there and compete against one of the best pitchers in the game, best competitors in the game. We had our ‘A’ stuff today and he didn't, so we ended up winning.”
The last time Scherzer gave up this many runs at Comerica Park, the soon-to-be American League champion Royals tagged him for 10 runs in four-plus innings on June 17, 2014. It was one of the rare blemishes of his contract year, when his AL-leading 18 wins helped Detroit land its most recent postseason berth.
Scherzer faced the Tigers twice before Wednesday, tying a record with 20 strikeouts in Washington in 2016, then fanning 14 over eight innings here in 2019. He had struck out at least one Tiger in 17 consecutive innings against them until Wednesday’s opening inning, when the Tigers converted McKinstry’s leadoff walk and Riley Greene’s infield single into Nick Maton's sacrifice fly and Spencer Torkelson's RBI double.
“Just really good at-bats,” manager A.J. Hinch said. “I mean, he's tough. He comes in ready to go. I know he hadn't been out for a while, so we didn't really know what style of approach he was going to take. Was he going to stay mostly heaters? Was he going to throw secondary [pitches]? So we had to feel him out a little bit and our at-bats got better and better, first at-bats especially. So to be able to put a couple runs on the board against him and put some pressure on him opened the game for us.”
Not until Maton’s second at-bat did Scherzer record his first strikeout, a changeup at the knees for a called third strike. By then, Haase had added to Detroit’s lead by crushing a hanging slider deep to left. Matt Vierling did the same with a fastball over the middle of the plate following a leadoff single by Akil Baddoo for a two-run homer in the fourth.
Perhaps Scherzer battled rust, having missed 10 games following his ejection and suspension for excessive rosin in his last start on April 19. Tuesday’s chilly conditions might not have helped, either. Whatever the cause, the Tigers capitalized on pitches in the strike zone, hitting six balls with exit velocities of 98 mph or higher. Much of that damage came off Scherzer’s fastball, which drew six of his 10 swinging strikes but also had a higher exit velocity (95.8 mph) than pitch velocity (92.7 mph).
“When he's executing, he's still a problem,” Haase said. “Even though [his fastball] might not be 95-97 [mph], his 92-94, located pretty much wherever he wants, plays just as well. He made a couple mistakes today that, thankfully, we made him pay for and changed the game early on. But it seemed like at will, when he wanted to, he could run it up there a little bit, spin it, shape pitches. That's just pure time on the mound.”