ST. PETERSBURG -- For the second consecutive night, the Tigers put up more than a dozen hits and set a career high against their opposing starter. Unlike the previous night, however, the resulting 5-2 win over the Rays was far from a slugfest.
That's where Max Scherzer came in Thursday. That's where Scherzer wanted to be.
When he took the mound last weekend in Pittsburgh, he was there for his family, helping them -- and himself -- cope with the death of his younger brother. Thursday was a little closer to normalcy or at least as close as he can hope for these days. He wanted to be there for his team.
When he fell behind in counts early, he thought about the fastball he wanted at the knees to get back into the count. When the Rays threatened to put together a potential game-tying rally in the fifth inning, he thought about the out he needed against Carlos Pena.
He was his typical self-critic, calling himself "effectively wild" over his six-plus innings of two-run ball, but the effectiveness part was the difference for the Tigers. He was able to enjoy that a little bit.
"Today, I'm in a better emotional spot than I was five days ago," Scherzer said. "I've had a chance to grieve with my family. I'm emotionally stronger at this point in time, to the point where obviously I'm not over what happened, but I'm able to go out there and compete in the game and think about winning a ballgame."
It was Scherzer's fifth win in his past seven decisions, and his fourth straight quality start with at least seven strikeouts. It was yet another sign that the Tigers might have their clear-cut second starter emerging behind Justin Verlander.
In terms of strikeouts, Scherzer actually has emerged ahead of Verlander for the American League strikeout lead, albeit temporarily since Verlander will start on Friday night. When he fanned Pena on his full-count delivery in the in the fifth inning to strand Elliot Johnson on second, he not only preserved Detroit's 3-1 lead, he moved ahead of Verlander with his 114th strikeout.
Scherzer came back from a 3-1 count in that at-bat with back-to-back fastballs -- one at 96 mph that Pena fouled off, the other at 97 that Pena swung through. It was one of several hitters' counts where Scherzer put the effective in effectively wild.
"I really wasn't hitting my spots the way I typically want to," Scherzer said. "I thought I made some big 3-2 pitches throughout the game to keep from having a walk, and getting an outing in that situation. I know I can hit my spots better, but to have good results is a good thing."
Scherzer fell behind on 2-0 and 3-0 counts seven times out of the 24 batters he faced. He had three other 3-1 counts. He gave up two walks and an infield single out of the bunch, while coming back to rack up two strikeouts.
"I was able to keep my fastball down," Scherzer said. "I know I wasn't quite hitting the spot where I wanted to, but I think I got some contact in those counts when they were being aggressive and the ball went at some people."
Said catcher Alex Avila: "That just shows you how good his stuff is, that he can be behind in the count and still get outs. When he's ahead in the count, that's how difficult he is to hit."
That was arguably the difference between a well-pitched game and a frustrating no-decision. Moreover, that's the difference between Scherzer's pitching now and Scherzer's pitching earlier this season.
"One [factor], I think he's using his fastball a little more," Avila said. "The other is his slider has been more consistent. He's always had the great changeup, but being able to throw that slider to lefties has been important to him, and being able to throw it for strikes."
The last time the Tigers visited St. Pete, they won three out of four last August in what arguably loomed as their biggest series of the season, giving them the infusion of confidence needed to take over the American League Central from there. It's too early to put the same weight on this four-game set, with the season not even at its halfway point. However, it could be the catalyst Detroit needs for a surge into the All-Star break.
The first two games arguably stand as the toughest of the series, with Shields and David Price trying to hold down Detroit. Shields entered the night with a 5-0 career record in eight meetings with the Tigers, including eight innings of six-hit, two-run ball in April at Comerica Park.
The Tigers made the All-Star look hittable, thanks in large part to the top third of their order. Austin Jackson and Miguel Cabrera accounted for half of the 14 hits off Shields. Both ended up with four-hit nights, capped by Jackson's eighth-inning triple and Cabrera's ninth-inning solo homer, his 16th of the year.
The one at-bat in which Cabrera didn't hit Shields, ironically, was the inning in which they took command. Jeff Keppinger's lunging grab doubled off Austin Jackson for an unassisted third-inning double play, but Prince Fielder, Delmon Young and Avila chipped in with consecutive base hits to help the Tigers build a 2-0 lead.