Max Scherzer and the Detroit Tigers are in a 1-0 hole to the Orioles in the American League Division Series partly because the 2013 Cy Young Award winner spent the first two innings trying to avoid one on the mound.
Scherzer and Orioles starter Chris Tillman began their windups in a similar spot early in the game, the Tigers starter said, creating a hole in the dirt near the pitching rubber. Scherzer compensated by taking a wider step off the rubber to start his motion, which threw his deliver out of whack and allowed the Orioles to pick up five of the seven hits they got off Scherzer — and three crucial early runs — before he adjusted.
“It's no excuse — I can execute pitches like that — but that was the difference after the second inning,” Scherzer said. “Just standing in the hole put me on a much more direct line with home plate, and after the second inning I was able to fill up the zone.”
After Scherzer adjusted, he looked every bit the pitcher who was named the American League's best in 2013 and earned a second straight All-Star appearance in 2014 with an 18-5 record, 3.15 ERA and career highs in strikeouts (252) and innings pitched (220 1/3).
But the Orioles had already taken an early lead.
Adam Jones then hit into a double play, but Scherzer gave up a two-run home run to Nelson Cruz. Scherzer said he tried to go down and away on Cruz, but the pitch was up and the slugger smacked it to right.
An inning later, after two home runs evened the game, Scherzer again struggled with command. After a one-out walk from Ryan Flaherty, Jonathan Schoop and Markakis singled to put the Orioles up, 3-2.
Then, thanks to a correction from pitching coach Jeff Jones, the shutdown version of Scherzer that will earn him a mammoth contract after next season arrived.
“We could tell right away that the mechanical adjustment had a positive effect,” Tigers manager Brad Ausmus said.
Including a groundout to end the second inning, the 2006 first-round pick set down 12 straight before first baseman Steve Pearce singled off the left field wall with two outs in the sixth. Scherzer threw just 78 pitches through six innings.
“Max Scherzer was as advertised,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said.
Once he settled in, Scherzer told himself that keeping the Orioles off the board would allow his own quick-strike offense a chance to even the game. But J.J. Hardy homered to lead off the seventh — the second home run Scherzer allowed on the night, and the fifth he's allowed in his postseason career — to give the Orioles a cushion that only grew.
Scherzer was charged with a fifth run after De Aza chased him with a one-out double in the eighth, then scored when Tigers shortstop Austin Romine booted a ground ball by Jones and allowed De Aza to score, kicking off a monster inning.
Scherzer took the loss, striking out six but allowing five runs on seven hits in 7 1/3 innings.
He exited to jeers, and the Orioles unloaded on the Detroit bullpen for seven more runs — both hitters and fans likely glad to have not only bested Scherzer, but to possibly be done with him.
Barring a sweep, that won't likely be the case. Scherzer has been used in relief on three days' rest in elimination games twice before for the Tigers. He didn't know if he'd be needed in that role against the Orioles.
“That's something that Brad and the rest of the [coaching] staff will formulate,” Scherzer said. “It's on me to recover and prepare myself to give them that opportunity.