The other day, I had a discussion with one of my editors: What defines an ace? He brought up Max Scherzer. I said, yes, I would describe Scherzer as an ace. He pointed out Scherzer has never had a complete game in the majors. Can that be an ace? Has he done it long enough, or is one Cy Young season enough to earn the label?
Look, in the end, the definition doesn't really matter all that much, although I suppose how a team views Scherzer will determine the size of the contract he receives this offseason. In the end, either you help your team win games or you don't.
Still, this is the kind of game in which an ace delivers a clutch performance: Scherzer versus the Chicago White Sox's Chris Sale, division game against one of the best and hottest pitchers in the game. Your team is slumping, your bullpen has been taking its lumps and you're trying to avoid a series sweep on the road.
And there was Scherzer in the bottom of the ninth, protecting a 4-0 lead and going for his first career complete game and shutout. You know Detroit Tigers manager Brad Ausmus didn't want to go to his bullpen, and it helped that Scherzer had thrown an efficient 99 pitches through eight innings, but this was going to be Scherzer's game even if it was 1-0. An ace finishes it off. He did, giving up a one-out single to Adam Dunn but striking out Jose Abreu on a nasty 1-2 curveball to lead off the inning and then getting Dayan Viciedo looking on a 96 mph fastball at the knees (well, maybe a little below the knees) for the final out. That was his 113th pitch of the game, showing he was still able to dial it up a notch.
The final score wasn't indicative of the great duel between Scherzer and Sale. If anything, Sale was even more dominant, striking out 10 in seven innings. But he made one mistake -- a flat slider that Victor Martinez lined just over the fence in the left-field corner in the fifth inning. Sale paid the price for all those strikeouts, however, and was out after 116 pitches. The Tigers added three runs against the Chicago bullpen. Scherzer, no stranger to high pitch counts himself, finished with eight strikeouts and three hits while inducing 13 fly outs. Maybe it wasn't the most powerful outing of Scherzer's career, but it might have been his best: His Game Score of 86 was a career high, topping the 84 he had in May against the Houston Astros (three hits, nine strikeouts in eight scoreless innings).
The Tigers needed this game, more than just because it was a battle of staff leaders. On May 18, they were 27-12, owners of the best record in the majors and a hefty seven-game lead in the AL Central. But since then they have gone 6-16 while getting outscored 136-83. The bullpen has received a lot of the criticism, but it's been a team effort and fairly raised the question: Who are the Tigers? The good team we saw early on or the mediocre team that entered Thursday's game having outscored its opponents by just two runs on the season?
The bullpen is certainly a problem, with Joe Nathan struggling and Joba Chamberlain serving up that game-losing home run to David Ortiz on Sunday night while filling in as closer. Its 4.68 ERA is second worst in the majors, and it has allowed 46 runs in the ninth inning -- most in the majors. But the starters haven't been as good, either, allowing 4.10 runs per nine innings compared to 3.68 in 2013. Much of that is the result of Justin Verlander's struggles. The offense, despite the big season from Martinez and usual excellence from Miguel Cabrera, has dipped from 4.91 runs per game to 4.45. Once you get past those two, Torii Hunter (.289 OBP) and Ian Kinsler (.309 OBP) haven't provided an effective pair, especially of late.
There might finally be a ray of light at shortstop, however, in 22-year-old rookie Eugenio Suarez, the team's fourth attempt to replace the injured Jose Iglesias. In the few at-bats I've seen from Suarez, he looks like he's going to hit. He takes an aggressive swing and has popped two home runs in his six games, and, while he struck out three times on Thursday, a lot of guys strike out against Sale. But he's also drawn three walks, and he had eight home runs and 18 doubles in the minors, so he has some pop. We'll see how he handles the position defensively; he's considered to have good hands and feel for the game, but scouts question his range.
As for the AL Central, the Tigers' lead is now a slimmer 2.5 games. They have 34 wins, just one ahead in the win column over the Kansas City Royals, White Sox and Cleveland Indians and three over the Minnesota Twins, who just added Kendrys Morales. Those are flawed teams, but so are the Tigers.
It might come down to aces, and that's where the Tigers might still have the edge with Scherzer and Anibal Sanchez. Maybe it's time for Ausmus to ride his horse a little deeper into games.