Max Scherzer's potential to be one of baseball's most dominant pitchers was on full display in his latest start, but a lack of consistency has made him more of an enigma to the Tigers than anything.
The Pittsburgh Pirates were the only ones confounded when they saw the hard-throwing right-hander last month.
Scherzer struck out 15 Pirates during a May outing in Detroit, a performance he'd love to replicate as he tries to build on his lengthiest outing of the season Saturday at PNC Park.
Scherzer (6-4, 5.17 ERA) looked like a potential front-line starter in 2010, posting a 3.50 ERA in his first season with the Tigers (34-36), but that mark rose to 4.43 in 2011 and is up again in 2012.
Yet he leads the AL in strikeouts per nine innings (11.49) and has put together a few outings worthy of an ace. He went eight innings for the first time in 11 months Sunday against Colorado, striking out 12 without a walk in a 5-0 victory.
"He really overmatched them, to be honest,'' Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. "He attacked the strike zone with outstanding stuff. He was throwing 97-98 (mph) with a good slider, changeup and command of the strike zone.''
Scherzer certainly was attacking the zone May 20 when the Pirates (37-32) visited Comerica Park. All 15 of his strikeout victims went down swinging as Scherzer lasted seven innings, yielding a pair of solo homers in a 4-3 win.
"I've seen this guy pitch quite a bit," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle told the team's official website after that loss. "He's got a big arm. When he gets his breaking ball in play like ... he's tough."
Scherzer, who's 0-1 with a 6.55 ERA in two career starts in Pittsburgh, will find an offense that's producing much more than it was a month ago.
Pittsburgh was hitting .217, averaging a major league-low 2.88 runs and striking out more often (every 4.2 plate appearances) than anyone in baseball through May 20. Since June 1, however, the Pirates are hitting .264 and averaging 5.05 runs - both among the majors' top 10.
Andrew McCutchen has led the way, upping his average to .378 this month by going 3 for 3 in Friday's 4-1 victory. He's 14 for 25 (.560) as Pittsburgh has won five of six to pull within a game of first-place Cincinnati in the NL Central.
"This team is starting to find ways to score runs, taking advantage of defensive miscues," catcher Rod Barajas said. " ... We need to stay positive and keep doing the same thing."
The Pirates may need a few more runs if they hope to win Saturday for the 12th time in 14 home games. Brad Lincoln (3-2, 3.82) is 0-2 with a 10.03 ERA in three starts - all on the road - since entering the rotation for the injured Charlie Morton, and he's failed to make it through five innings in any.
Lincoln may not be in the rotation much longer with Jeff Karstens (shoulder) nearing a return, and he didn't help his case Sunday at Cleveland. The right-hander gave up four runs and eight hits and was lifted with one out in the fourth inning.
Lincoln faced the Tigers twice in relief last month, striking out four in 1 2-3 scoreless innings. He's made six appearances at home, all out of the bullpen, yielding three hits and an unearned run while striking out 10.
Detroit extended its club record streak of not being shut out to 138 games Friday, but has scored just four runs in three games while Miguel Cabrera has gone 0 for 12.