Scherzer learns to enjoy each day in dream season
After losing his brother last year, Tigers All-Star ace taking nothing for granted
DETROIT -- Justin Verlander still has a lot of career high points he can point to against his fellow Tigers starters, including 20-game winner Max Scherzer. A Major League base hit is not one of them.
So when Verlander stepped to the plate for his first at-bat Sunday in Miami for an Interleague game against the Marlins, his groundout to second drew a polite, sarcastic golf clap from a group of pitchers stationed at the dugout railing. Scherzer, not surprisingly, was right there.
"I guess it's gotten to the point where they're just happy when I put one in play," Verlander said.
Or they know it's something that still bothers him.
"It's constant," Scherzer said. "And now that I've got a hit in the American League [an RBI double Aug. 24 against the Mets], he just had to hear it. We're all over him about it, just because he's so bad."
Truthfully, after four seasons as teammates, Scherzer knows plenty of ways to push the ultra-competitive Verlander's buttons, and he takes joy in doing it. He can do it with the team fantasy football league that he runs, or he can go with their quirks on the mound, or training, or any number of other things. He finds a way.
"It's just easy to get underneath his skin sometimes," Scherzer said.
For two of the Tigers' front-line trio, there's a tweaking that goes on. There's also a mutual respect. When Tigers officials and coaches started pondering their rotation for the American League Division Series, the big question was whether Verlander or Scherzer would start Game 1 on Friday (9:30 p.m. ET, TBS). Verlander has opened every postseason series when available the past couple of years.
There's enough of a respect that Verlander put his ego aside.
"I talked to Jeff [Jones], our pitching coach, and I knew they would be talking about it coming up soon," Verlander said. "I told him, 'Hey, do I want to start Game 1? Absolutely, but I understand what's going on here.' Like I said, our goal is to win a World Series. I said, 'If you guys think Max is the best call to go Game 1, I have no problem with that whatsoever.'"
"This is our family. I went up to Max and told him, 'Congratulations,' and he's earned it. He absolutely has. He's had an unbelievable season, and it's been a lot of fun for me to watch."
This is the year that everything came together for Scherzer, not just on the field. He has put together the kind of season kids dream about, nearly unbeatable for the better part of the year, and a favorite for the AL Cy Young Award that Verlander won two years ago and nearly won again last season.
"You always hope in this game that good things happen to good people," Scherzer's agent, Scott Boras, said. "And 2013 has been a good year for Max Scherzer."
Scherzer not only made his first All-Star Game, but started it. With the chance to become a free agent at the end of next season, he has put himself in position to set his family for life, whether he stays in Detroit or goes elsewhere.
He's engaged to be married this winter to his longtime girlfriend, Erica May, near his offseason home in Arizona, in the shadow of Camelback Mountain, which he climbs every week as part of his offseason workout routine. He has become the spokesperson for the movement to save wild tigers, a cause close to his fiancee's heart, through the Fish and Wildlife Commission and the Save Vanishing Species Tiger Stamp sold at Comerica Park. His blue-eyed, brown-eyed face is recognizable across Michigan through the Tigers' marketing campaign.
Yes, this is the year everything came together. This is also the year he learned to let himself enjoy it.
"I'm just enjoying life," he said. "I'm just having more fun this year. Everything I do, I'm just making sure I enjoy it to the fullest and just trying to have fun. And whatever happens, happens. I always look to have a positive outlook on life."
Asked if that was something he learned to do more after last summer, Scherzer paused.
"Maybe," he said.
He's reluctant to talk about the death of his young brother, Alex, who took his own life in May of last year. To watch him go about this dream season, however, shows a guy who has learned to appreciate each day and everything that comes with it.
A year ago at this point, as he was preparing to go into the postseason, he talked about his outlook on baseball as producing joy for others.
"The way I look at baseball now," he said at the time, "is it puts a smile on all my friends' and family's faces. Everybody, Tigers fans, everybody enjoys the game. Everybody enjoys watching us play and how much a smile it puts on a kid's face, us just going out there playing baseball and how much it means to everybody. When you're able to do that, that's what matters most."
He's still doing that. In the process, though, he's also taking joy from it himself.
"You have to give him a lot of credit," Jones said. "Even when that happened [his brother's suicide], for him to be able to come and pitch [two days later] was just … I mean, that's amazing. I know I couldn't do that. I don't know how many people actually could do what he did. It's a tribute to him. It's a tribute to his brother and their closeness."
Scherzer talks about the loud, raucous, crowd that awaits him in Oakland like it's an experience to appreciate rather than a challenge to overcome, almost like it was an All-Star Game atmosphere. He talked about clinching their third consecutive division title last week not as a challenge to hold off the Indians and their September surge, but as an opportunity to set off a party. He turned his 13-0 start into a celebration of his teammates more than an individual accomplishment.
"Max is a very intelligent guy," Jones said. "I think he's handled what's gone on this year very well. Obviously getting off to the start that he had, approaching some records and all the things that he's gone through, I think he's handled it extremely well."
He doesn't deflect pressure so much as he seems to flip it around. In that sense, he and Verlander aren't that much different.
"I'm really proud of him," Verlander said. "He's that guy that every year people said, 'He could excel this year, he's got the talent to do it if he puts it together.' And this year, he put it together. It's been a lot of fun for all of us to watch, obviously really happy he's on our team the way he's been pitching this year. It's been fun to watch.
"He just handled himself really well. It's easy to get caught up in all the stuff. He did a great job just worrying about pitching and not letting the extra stuff get to him."
Scherzer will never let extra stuff take away from his focus on pitching. He talks about staying humble, but he also talks about his constant drive to improve, because he knows things could change in an instant.
No player on the Tigers arguably knows more about numbers than Scherzer, a business economics major at Missouri. He learned about advanced metrics from Alex when he was in college, and he learned through his career how numbers can change.
"You never stay the same," Scherzer said. "You either get better or you get worse. For me, I'm always locked in on getting better."
The same might be said about life.