OAKLAND -- Hmmm. Apparently, Max Scherzer can also win when he doesn't get great run support. Funny how good pitchers can do that.
Scherzer received the third-highest run support in the majors -- nearly six runs per game -- during the regular season, leading some critics to complain that his 21 wins were as much a testament to his teammates' bats as his pitching. That is, if they gave any credence to wins at all.
And sure enough, the Tigers looked like they would provide Scherzer with the run support equivalent to an all-you-can-eat buffet by giving him a 3-0 lead Friday night before he even took the mound. As it turned out, however, those three runs were the only runs Detroit scored against Oakland and Bartolo Colon all night in Game 1 of the AL Division Series, leaving it to Scherzer to make certain those three runs were enough.
The likely AL Cy Young winner did. For the first six innings, Scherzer shut down Oakland's lefty-heavy lineup as if it was the federal government -- or the O.com Coliseum plumbing system -- striking out nine and allowing only one hit in that span. Scherzer struck out 11 total – he fanned Josh Donaldson, Brandon Moss and Josh Reddick two times apiece -- and gave up three hits in seven innings as Detroit went on to a 3-2 victory in a rematch of last year's division series.
"Max is one of the best pitchers in the game,'' right fielder Torii Hunter said. "Twenty-one wins? Don't think it's the run support. He can hold it down if he wanted to. And today he showed that.
"He had all his pitches working. He had an explosive fastball today. And he put it out there early. Usually, he's throwing 92, 93 early and preserving the 96-97 mph for the eighth inning, ninth inning. And he was blowing it past those guys, and they're a good fastball-hitting team. He showed he doesn't need a lot of run support to get it done.''
"[Scherzer] was awful determined,'' manager Jim Leyland said. "He was thrilled to get Game 1. I think it meant a lot to him, even though he said it didn't matter much which game he pitched. And I think he responded like we expected him to respond.''
Scherzer showed that resolve in the seventh inning. Yoenis Cespedes, who tripled in the second inning, blasted a home run nearly to the Oakland hills in the seventh. That made the score 3-2 with nobody out, Scherzer at more than 100 pitches, and the largest Oakland crowd in nearly a decade on its feet and roaring. But no matter. Scherzer retired the next three batters.
"The last 15 pitches indicate how your outing goes and the wheels could have come flying off,'' Scherzer said. "But I thought I kept my composure and was able to continue and execute curveballs and changeups to those left-handed batters to help generate some outs. Those last 15 pitches mean a lot, and when you can do it in the postseason, that means even more.''
Detroit's pen came through as well, especially closer Joaquin Benoit, who retired one batter in the eighth and struck out the side in the ninth.
Then again, the Athletics didn't have any success against anyone. While they were third in the American League in runs during the season, they struck out 16 times in 34 plate appearances Friday. It must be fun taking a four-day break and then trying to get things going against the likely Cy Young winner.
The only real concern for the Tigers continued to be about probable MVP Miguel Cabrera and his sore groin. Cabrera has only two extra-base hits since Aug. 26, and he looked even slower than a Molina running to first base on a groundout in the eighth inning. Leyland removed him when the Tigers took the field in in the bottom of the inning.
"It looked like it bothered him a little, to be honest with you,'' Leyland said. "I wasn't comfortable taking him out of a one-run game, but there was a little more to it. This is a ballpark with a lot of foul territory and I felt, at that point, if they hit a popup over there that he can't get to that someone else could get to easily. That's an out we might give up.''
Still, the Tigers have a 1-0 lead in the series with former Cy Young winner Justin Verlander on the mound Saturday night against Oakland rookie Sonny Gray, who has pitched only 12 games in the majors. Verlander struggled some over his usual form but had three scoreless outings in September, including his final two.
"Trust me, Verlander is going to try to match [Scherzer's performance],'' Hunter said. "He's a competitor. He's going to go out and give his best. And his best is always goooood."