Thursday, October 10, 2013

Maxwell’s Surreal Hammer

By Jeff Kallman

You expect to see tigers in the circus, but you don't expect them to perform a high wire act. (Do you?) Someone forgot to tell the Detroit Tigers and, specifically, Max Scherzer that little fact in the top of the eighth Tuesday.

Scherzer had said he'd be available to come out of the bullpen before the game. Manager Jim Leyland certainly must have appreciated that. As he said he might if it came to that, he brought Scherzer in to pitch the seventh and eighth. Even Leyland couldn't have expected what his man, the best pitcher on staff this season, had in store for the eighth.

Load the bases with nobody out? Strike out the next two and get the fifth toughest man in the Show to strike out to line out to center? Like Scherzer could do it in his sleep? Sure. Just another day at the office.

Bad enough the Tigers spent most of the day playing catch up before finally finishing the Oakland Athletics off for Game 4 of their American League division series. You could imagine one or two Tigers asking each other as Scherzer pressed on in the eighth, "Is this nineteenth nervous breakdown really necessary?"

And Scherzer's no help, either. "It was surreal," he told reporters after the Tigers finally shuddered their way to an 8-6 win. "Maybe it's not the ninth inning, but that's the stuff you dream about pitching–bases loaded, eighth inning, no outs and I was able to do it." Sure, Max. Channel the A-Team. We love it when a plan comes together, too.

Assuming, of course — after the Tigers wrung their way back to a 5-4 lead in the seventh — that the 3-1 walk to Brandon Moss leading off, Yoenis Cispedes doubling to somewhere in the nether regions of right field to set up second and third, and a free pass to Seth Smith to load the pads—was the eighth inning plan in the first place.

You had to see Scherzer's mug, normally a study in the unholy union between a Looney Tune and laughing gas, to believe it as he pitched on. As if he was saying, to himself and maybe to his catcher Alex Avila, "We do this kind of stuff to 'em all through the picture."

A called strike, three straight balls, two fouls, then striking out Josh Reddick on a swing that had the look of a man who'd gotten his 3-2 fastball one pitch earlier, swung like he could reach the lake on the fly, fouled it off ridiculously, and now took a downtown swing on a Scherzer changeup that did the cha-cha-cha all the way low and inside.

Three fouls to open from Oakland catcher Stephen Vogt, then an equally violent swing right through Scherzer's gasball.

Alberto Callaspo, pinch hitting, in a classic at-bat, missing a double down the left field line by the hair of his chinny chin chin over the foul line, taking a pass on Scherzer's changeup, fouling another one off, taking two more balls, then hitting a high liner that Quentin Jackson in center field awaited like an inheritance check and caught almost as if to say, "What took you so long?"

I don't know as I write whether Leyland wanted to thank or spank Scherzer after that hair raiser. But at least we have an idea why Leyland brought in his previously-designated Game Five starter, if it got that far, to spell Doug Fister after Fister, starting the game, allowed three runs and seven hits in six innings' work.

"We took our best shot," Leyland told reporters. "And we had to, because we were behind the 8-ball a little bit. We took that shot and, hey, both teams are going to have a good pitcher going two days from now."

For the Tigers, it'll be Justin Verlander, coming off an off (for him) regular season, but pitching brilliantly against equally brilliant A's rookie Sonny Gray in Game 2. (It doesn't hurt the Tigers' chances that in last year's ALDS Verlander threw a Game 5 shutout in Coliseum to send the Tigers to the League Championship Series.) For the A's, it was supposed to be Bartolo Colon, whose rotation turn it would be come Game Five, but Gray could be an option on normal rest and considering his masterful Game 2.

Until Scherzer's one-man impersonation of the Flying Wallendas, the early game looked as though Jed Lowrie and Coco Crisp had designs on winning the game for the A's by themselves. That was Lowrie, the former Red Sox comer, singling home Crisp (also a Red Sox once) with one out in the top of the first to start. That was also Lowrie and Crisp teaming up again in the top of the fifth, with Crisp aboard on a one out single and Lowrie with two outs sending one over the right field fence.

Alas, that was Jhonny Peralta — one of the regular season's Biogenesis bad guys, returned from his suspension but playing left field with Jose Iglesias settled in well at shortstop — tying things up in the bottom of the fifth. With Prince Fielder (leadoff single) and Victor Martinez (followup single) aboard, Peralta swung on Oakland starter Dan Straily's 2-2 service and served it into the left field bleachers.

After Crisp singled home Vogt off Scherzer with one out in the top of the seventh, Martinez had an idea about re-tying the game at four. He hammered a one strike pitch toward the right field fence. Reddick tried leaping for it and couldn't grab it. Replays showed a fan behind the railing atop the wall reached for the ball, though not over the yellow home run line.

The umpires called for a replay review after Reddick and Crisp protested interference. Crew chief Gary Darling said on review that it didn't look as though Reddick had a real chance at grabbing the drive. I saw about five replays myself and it looked extremely close even without a fan or two swiping at the ball.

Later in the inning, Jackson dumped a single into shallow right that sent home Andy Dirks, pinch running after Peralta followed Martinez's disputed dinger with a double. After Scherzer finished playing the daring young man on the flying trapeze, Oakland reliever Ryan Cook found himself with the bases loaded and two outs and Brian Anderson coming in to spell him. Anderson wild-pitched pinch runner Hernan Perez home and surrendered a 2-run double to Omar Infante.

Tigers closer Joaquin Benoit performed his own little high wire act in the top of the ninth, surrendering a 2-out, 2-run single to Cespedes before a showdown with Smith. Smith fouled off three Benoit heaters and then swung nowhere near Benoit's changeup hitting the deck.

None of which got even close to comparing to the Scherzer show.

"It's such a different experience," he told reporters. "To be able to get out of that jam, I mean, that's something I'll never forget. That's something I'm not [normally] asked to do, and tonight, I was."

I suspect that if you were to ask Leyland if he'd actually asked Scherzer to load the pads with nobody out before blasting his way out of it, Leyland might tell you. But then he might kill you. Whether he'd do it before or after reading Scherzer the riot act just might be one secret Leyland takes to his grave.

Contents copyright © Sports Central 1998-2017