On June 21, Detroit Tigers pitcher Max Scherzer was having an unremarkable season.
Scherzer, a former Missouri star, had a 6-4 record with a 5.17 ERA in 14 starts. He was on pace to have the worst ERA of his career since coming into the league in 2008.
After June 21, Scherzer was a star, compiling a 10-3 record with a 2.72 ERA in 18 starts. During that span, opponents hit just .221 against him, and he struck out 131 batters in 109⅓ innings.
Scherzer and reigning Cy Young and MVP Justin Verlander give the Tigers a pair of aces as they opened the American League Championship Series on Saturday against the New York Yankees.
Although he may not say it, Scherzer, who is set to pitch Game 4 in the ALCS, seems to be on a mission. And his turnaround this season can be traced to that date in June.
That’s when his younger brother, Alex, died unexpectedly at the age of 24.
Despite the family tragedy, Scherzer didn’t miss a start. He took the ball two days after his brother’s death in Pittsburgh. With his mother and father in the stands, Scherzer allowed three runs and three hits with seven strikeouts in six innings.
Scherzer told Tigers broadcaster Dan Dickerson: “Usually, when you get on the field, [other thoughts] seem to go away. That didn’t happen for me. It was constantly on my mind every pitch. It was tough, at times, to keep focused. But in the back of my mind, I was thinking, ‘I love life, I love competing. This is what I do.’
“This is what allowed me to get through it. I know it put a lot of smiles on faces of my family and friends, in such a somber time. … It was worth it.”
Scherzer, 27, got stronger as the season progressed. In a stretch of 10 games from July 19 to Sept. 1, he struck out eight or more batters in each game.
His 13 games with at least nine strikeouts led all major-league pitchers in 2012 and were the most by a Tigers pitcher since Mickey Lolich posted 15 such games in 1971.
After the All-Star break, Scherzer had an 8-2 record, 2.69 ERA and 110 strikeouts in 90⅓ innings.
Scherzer, who is 6 feet 3 and 220 pounds, tasted the same success he had at Missouri, where he was the 2005 Big 12 player of the year after leading the conference in ERA (1.86) and strikeouts (131).
That led the Arizona Diamondbacks to grab Scherzer with the 11th overall pick of the 2006 draft, and he zoomed through the minors. Before the 2010 season, Scherzer was dealt to the Tigers as part of a three-team trade with the Yankees.
In three seasons in the Motor City, Scherzer’s victory totals have increased every year, from 12 in 2010 to 15 last year to 16-7 this year with a 3.74 ERA and 231 strikeouts, which was second in the American League to Verlander. That was despite a deltoid strain in his arm that limited him the latter half of September.
Opponents say Scherzer is a handful.
“He has two well-above average pitches, maybe three with the change-up,” White Sox first baseman Paul Konerko told reporters last month. “His fastball and slider are basically like facing a top-notch closer or top-notch setup guy the whole night. When he gets locked in, he’s a handful.”
Scherzer had to deal with another injury late in the year: He twisted his ankle while celebrating the Tigers’ AL Central title at Kauffman Stadium.
But that didn’t affect him in Game 4 of the American League Division Series at Oakland. Although the Tigers coughed up a late lead, he allowed three hits and one unearned run in 5⅓ innings while striking out eight after throwing 91 pitches.
“I was able to finish the fifth [inning] fine,” Scherzer told reporters afterward. “But I could tell I was starting to get tired. I used some bullets there in the fifth to be able to get out of that jam. When you are in a playoff atmosphere, you put so much into every pitch. The reality is I haven’t pitched as much as I’ve liked.”
Will that be a concern in the ALCS? Doubtful, considering Scherzer’s ability to tough it out regardless of the situation, whether it’s an injury or a personal tragedy.
“I think everyone handles grief a little different,” manager Jim Leyland told the Detroit News last month. “Sometimes, you can use grief as a motivational tool. However it has been with Max, it [his pitching] has been pretty amazing.”