Baseball / Sports

Detroit Tigers relief pitcher Joba Chamberlain in the eighth inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Comerica Park in Detroit on Wednesday, July 9, 2014. The Tigers won, 4-1. (Julian H. Gonzalez/Detroit Free Press/MCT)

Max Scherzer has pitching efficiently figured out against Dodgers

It isn't the crackling, late-moving fastball that will earn Max Scherzer gobs of money this winter. It's his brain.

The same instrument that used to get in his way now keeps him on the top shelf with baseball's best pitchers. Wednesday's knockout 4-1 win against the Dodgers at Comerica Park was his latest offering, the fourth straight dominant outing after a mental recalibration a couple of weeks back.

Perhaps you recall the start that forced him to make a change. It came mid-June against the Royals in Detroit. Scherzer gave up 10 runs.

"But it wasn't necessarily the runs," he said.

No?

"When I analyzed that game, I was able to pick apart situations I wasn't efficient in," he said.

Those inefficiencies, in turn, "allowed (Royals hitters) to prolong at-bats, and (eventually to) capitalize on my mistakes."

In other words, Scherzer wasn't aggressive. He'd get ahead in the count, then get cute, trying to paint a corner.

"I needed to do a better job when I'm in a position to control at-bats," he said.

Indeed. Those extra pitches not only give a hitter more chances -- and chances to pounce on mistakes -- they also drive up the pitch count, which shortens the outing, stresses the bullpen and ... well, let's give Scherzer the floor.

"I'm more aggressive right now, going at the hitter. I'm not just trying to throw a breaking ball off the plate or throw a fastball just for show. I feel like I'm doing a much better job forcing (the hitter's) hand at those situations," he said. "That's typically when I have success."

And success he has had in his past four starts, striking out 35 while giving up five runs over 28 innings.

He pitched seven innings against the Dodgers, giving up a solo home run to Miguel Rojas in the fifth and not much else. He did this despite beginning the game without his slider, a crucial pitch for right-handers when facing a heavily right-handed lineup like Los Angeles.

Good thing for him he discovered the pitch in the second inning. It came in especially handy in the sixth, after the indomitable Yasiel Puig doubled to lead off the inning and Hanley Ramirez had worked a favorable 3-1 count.

Scherzer wanted to throw a fastball at that point, understandable because 98-mph heat that dances as it hisses over the plate is a heck of a weapon to ignore. Alex Avila didn't care.

"He called for a slider," Scherzer said.

The maturation of an analytical mind requires accepting ideas from other places. It's even harder to do this when the pressure of a moment encourages us to retreat to the familiar.

Scherzer didn't. He threw the slider. Ramirez missed, and missed awkwardly.

That clued Scherzer. He realized Ramirez didn't know what was coming. That he had him on a string. Now the count was full.

"I knew I kind of had him sitting between speeds," he said.

This was the perfect time for a fastball, because Ramirez would be overthinking, which meant he would be hesitant.

Scherzer knew this and let if fly. Ramirez lunged and whiffed. Puig stayed at second the rest of the inning as Adrian Gonzalez grounded out and Matt Kemp struck out.

It was the sort of performance seen in the playoffs from Scherzer, a combination of velocity, movement, command and variety, the last as crucial as the rest.

Scherzer began the season uncertain of when to be aggressive with his off-speed pitches. His fastball is so good he got results anyway, just not these kinds of results.

"I made a little tweak in my mind-set a couple starts ago," he said.

One of the best arms in the game is in concert with one of the best minds.

(c)2014 Detroit Free Press

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Distributed by MCT Information Services

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