Tigers one back after Scherzer's gem

Tigers one back after Scherzer's gem

Tigers one back after Scherzer's gem
DETROIT -- The big showdown for the Tigers and White Sox awaits Sunday night. The big performance from Detroit's other shutdown pitcher put a little bit more on the line for it.

If the Tigers are heading for another late-season run to take the American League Central, that combination of Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander might be the best factor in their favor.

Whether Verlander can take the mound Sunday night and duplicate the eight scoreless innings and nine strikeouts Scherzer posted in Saturday's 5-1 win over the White Sox won't decide the division race, not this soon. It did last year around this time because the Tigers were already ahead, but Saturday's win just brought them to within one game of first-place Chicago.

If Verlander can get back to his usual form, hold down the White Sox and outpitch Chris Sale, though, it turns the AL Central into a 29-game sprint with the two teams tied heading into Labor Day. Detroit would have Scherzer and Verlander for potentially 12 of those games, including two of the four games in Chicago in two weeks.

The White Sox know what Verlander can do, because they saw it last year. Saturday night was a good look at what Scherzer's doing now.

"That's as good of a performance we've had thrown against us, just stuff-wise," White Sox manager Robin Ventura said, "and I'm watching from the side. But watching what he's doing, it looks like the ball is moving. To me, he looked like he was inside, outside, spotting them and up and down.

"It wasn't just one pitch he was throwing. He was on with everything."

Alex Avila has had one of the best views of all over the past month. He caught Scherzer when he dominated hitters for the better part of four months in 2010. Catching him now, he's seeing the best stuff Scherzer has thrown.

"This is the best I've seen him, the way he's pitched lately," Avila said. "You can tell he's kind of taking it to the next level, being a guy who always had great stuff and would throw together some really good games and some bad games, to know it's an expected quality start or he's going to give you an outing like this every time. That's a credit to his stuff."

Paul Konerko, one of the toughest sluggers to strike out in the league, has struck out three times in a game against a starting pitcher just three times in the last four years. Scherzer has now done it to him twice in as many years.

"We've seen him a lot," Konerko said, "but tonight he didn't make any mistakes, over the plate either. Hit his spot or missed off the plate. There wasn't too much over the middle of the plate."

Konerko didn't put a ball in play against him Saturday. The only two pitches he made contact on were 97-mph fastballs fouled back, one for strike three on a first-inning foul tip, the other to stay alive in the sixth inning with a runner on second.

In that case, it merely set up the slider Scherzer threw for a swing and miss to keep the White Sox scoreless and drop them to 0-for-17 with runners in scoring position for the series.

"I didn't feel great off him," Konerko said, "but if I did, it might have just prolonged it a pitch or two. When he's locked in, he's a handful."

Said Scherzer: "You have to constantly make adjustments to a hitter of his caliber. You're aware of everything you've done to him, what you did to him the previous two at-bats and what you need to do to him now. ... Alex and I, we game plan those situations, what pitch you want in that situation. We had a good feel for what we wanted to sequence in that third at-bat to get an out in that situation."

After Detroit pitching held the White Sox 0-for-13 with runners in scoring position Friday night to survive a short outing from Doug Fister, Scherzer didn't allow them nearly as many chances Saturday night, and none with more than one runner on.

Scherzer's career-best fifth consecutive win was his fourth straight with at least seven innings and a run or less allowed. He has allowed two runs on 17 hits over 29 innings in that stretch with seven walks and 36 strikeouts.

As a result, Scherzer has back-to-back 15-win seasons, making him the first Tigers pitcher other than Verlander to do it since Jack Morris did it from 1982-88.

In some ways, Francisco Liriano was an example of what Scherzer has battled at times, including early this year -- dominant stuff, but inconsistent pitching. Part of Liriano's downfall Saturday was self-inflicted, with seven walks -- six unintentional -- over his first four innings. By the time Liriano retired Prince Fielder to end the fourth, he had thrown 99 pitches in what was then a 2-0 game.

Liriano's 100th pitch was his last, sent off the left-field fence by Delmon Young for a leadoff triple before Avisail Garcia singled him in three batters later for a 3-0 lead on his first big league hit and RBI. Young attacked the first pitch he saw in the seventh off Jesse Crain and sent it out for his 16th home run.

Young is batting 12-for-27 over his last seven games. Miguel Cabrera finished 3-for-4 and drove in two runs, including Austin Jackson following his triple in the eighth.

Jose Valverde allowed Chicago's lone run in the ninth inning on Konerko's double and Orlando Hudson's triple.

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.