OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — It doesn’t matter all that much to Max Scherzer when or where he pitches, or exactly how he goes about piling up his victories.
Pitching the opener of the playoffs still meant plenty — and his spectacular Game 1 performance provided quite an October jolt for the Detroit Tigers as they chase a return trip to the World Series.
Given the ball from manager Jim Leyland ahead of Justin Verlander, Scherzer struck out 11 and dazzled with an array of effective pitches as the Tigers grabbed the lead in their AL division series against the Oakland Athletics with a 3-2 win Friday night.
“It was the same as always. I don’t get caught up in the hoopla, worry about where I’m pitching or if I’m pitching Game 1 or Game 5,” Scherzer said. “When you’re pitching against a postseason team like the A’s, you have to bring your game. And tonight I was able to pitch effectively and pitch well against their left-handed hitters, and that’s the reason why I had success tonight.”
A lot of it, in fact.
Yoenis Cespedes was the only A’s player to have success against Scherzer, who retired 16 of the first 18 batters he faced. Cespedes hit a two-run homer but also a triple that didn’t produce a run in the second.
Scherzer overpowered the A’s with his blazing fastball, then baffled them with his off-speed stuff. The A’s struck out 16 times in all, a franchise record in a postseason game.
“He was awful determined,” Leyland said. “He was thrilled to get Game 1. I think it meant a lot to him, even though he said it didn’t matter which game he pitched. And I think he responded like we expected him to respond.”
Verlander goes Saturday night against 23-year-old rookie Sonny Gray in just his 11th career start. Verlander beat the A’s in Games 1 and 5 of their postseason series last October.
Miguel Cabrera helped stake Detroit to an early lead before the banged-up slugger left in the eighth as a precaution. He insists he is just fine, saying: “For us, it’s not an issue. It’s no time to complain, no time to worry.”
Cabrera, hindered by a groin strain late in a season of injuries for last year’s Triple Crown winner, didn’t have to overextend himself on defense thanks to Scherzer’s 118-pitch gem. But he did look uncomfortable running out a grounder in the eighth.
“I wasn’t very comfortable taking him out of a one-run game, but there was a little bit more to it,” Leyland said.
Cabrera and Alex Avila each hit first-inning RBI singles against 40-year-old All-Star Bartolo Colon, whose winless stretch against the Tigers extended to 10½ years.
Scherzer retired 16 of his first 18 batters and was nearly untouchable before Cespedes hit a two-run drive in the seventh for his first career playoff home run. The strikeouts were his most in seven postseason starts.
Cespedes struck out in the ninth against Benoit, who retired the final four batters with three Ks for the save.
The A’s missed early chances in Game 1 of the rematch — and there was little the raucous, yellow towel-waving sellout home crowd of 48,401 could do until Cespedes finally energized the ballpark.
Scherzer received an American League-best 6.80 runs of support per nine innings over his 32 starts this season, but he didn’t need anything more than those three first-inning runs in shutting down the AL West champions.
The majors’ lone 20-game winner, Scherzer (21-3) allowed three hits and walked two.
“He’s always tough, he won 21 games,” A’s manager Bob Melvin said. “Scherzer’s a strikeout guy, he’s a swing-and-miss guy.”
Scherzer issued a two-out walk to Coco Crisp in the third, and then retired his next eight batters in order before Crisp drew a full-count free pass in the sixth. Scherzer struck out the side in the fourth and recorded two more Ks in the fifth.
Oakland had the tying run aboard in the eighth but Josh Donaldson popped out against Benoit.
Omar Infante added a pair of singles for a Tigers team determined to take this postseason run one step further after being swept by the San Francisco Giants in the 2012 World Series.
Detroit nearly added a run in the sixth but Gold Glove right fielder Josh Reddick threw out Victor Martinez at the plate.
Colon put himself in a hole from the start, surrendering Austin Jackson’s double to lead off the game and then hitting Torii Hunter with a pitch. Cabrera singled up the middle for the first run, and then Prince Fielder grounded into a double play to bring home another. Avila added an RBI single.
Cespedes hit a one-out triple over Andy Dirks’ head in the second but Oakland was unable to drive him in.
Leyland went with Dirks in left over Jhonny Peralta, who made the playoff roster a week after completing a 50-game suspension for ties to the Biogenesis lab accused of distributing performance-enhancing drugs. Peralta lined out as a pinch hitter in the ninth.
Colon had hoped for a triumphant return to the playoff stage eight years after his last appearance with the Angels. The right-hander’s 10 hits allowed were his most in 10 career postseason starts.
Colon, who wasn’t part of the A’s playoffs last season while serving a 50-game suspension for a positive testosterone test, won 18 games this season but couldn’t break out of his decade-long funk against the Tigers.
The burly right-hander is winless — going 0-8 — in 14 starts against the Tigers since a victory on April 13, 2003.
“Bartolo threw an outstanding game,” catcher Stephen Vogt said. “He made a couple of mistakes early and they took advantage.”