When has the starting pitcher clearly thrown his last pitches?
It seems like a simple question with a starting rotation that includes three American League Cy Young Award winners, the reigning AL ERA champ and two pitchers battling for the AL lead in wins. The answers, however, have been nowhere near that clear. The debates, rightly or wrongly, have produced one of the recurring themes of Ausmus' first year as a Major League manager.
For any new manager, it's going to be a debate. For a manager who has to simultaneously ride this rotation for any title hopes, yet protect its health, it's going to be a raging one.
Saturday, for him, was not a debate.
"Max had kind of emptied the tank on those last few hitters," Ausmus said about his decision to send Nathan out for the ninth inning. "He's at almost 110 pitches. If you send him back out there and he gets in trouble and you ask someone else to come in, it's not really the best way to do it. To send him back out, I don't think would've been the right decision."
Scherzer wasn't entertaining the discussion.
"I was done," Scherzer said when asked if Ausmus had checked on him. "I mean, there's nothing else to it. I was done. I'm not going to sit here and play second-guessing the manager. I was done."
Ausmus has heard all sides. His decision to stick with Justin Verlander following a mound visit amidst a sixth-inning jam two months ago in Chicago became headline scrutiny once the White Sox turned their rally into a seven-run inning.
Four days before that, his decision to stick with Scherzer against Red Sox slugger David Ortiz through a seventh-inning threat earned some praise for his faith in Scherzer, though Ortiz's RBI double chased Scherzer with a three-run lead.
A week before that, Ausmus faced both sides on the same decision to let Anibal Sanchez start the ninth inning with a 1-0 lead with Oakland. While the case could be made to stick with Sanchez after a one-out double brought the winning run to the plate, another twist suggested Nathan had better chances if he started the inning rather than enter with runners on.
Ausmus has watched and learned his starters' tendencies as the season has worn. And as he saw Scherzer turn up his fastball to 97 mph for back-to-back three-pitch strikeouts of pinch-hitters Danny Valencia and Reimold to end the eighth, he believed he was watching Scherzer's last, best pitches.
"We've seen him pitch," Ausmus said. "We have a couple guys on our staff you can tell when they really kind of empty the tank, and the way they pitch speaks more than what they actually say.
"[Pitching coach] Jeff [Jones] checked on him prior to the eighth, and he was fine. But in talking to Jeff and watching how he pitched, I was very confident that the eighth inning was the last inning."
Scherzer ended his outing with 106 pitches, having retired his final seven batters -- four of them by strikeout -- after giving up his lone run on Melky Cabrera's sixth-inning RBI double. He was immediately greeted with a handshake from Ausmus, rather than a discussion, as Ausmus sometimes will do if he wants to check on his pitcher's stamina.
Scherzer has thrown at least 110 pitches 13 times this season. One of them was five days ago, when he threw 115 pitches over seven innings of two-run ball in a hard-luck 2-1 loss to the Yankees.
Asked if he pitched the eighth like he was throwing his last 15 pitches, Scherzer said, "I saved everything there for the end. I knew that inning was going to be tough, especially when you're going down to the third time through [the lineup]. They've seen your stuff, they've gotten to see what your offspeed looks like. Those can be the toughest times. That's where I empty the tank and let everything fly."
The Blue Jays produced more offense in 28 pitches against Nathan than they did in Scherzer's eight innings. He had converted his last nine save opportunities since late June and had been charged with runs in only one of his last 12 outings since the end of June.