One reason the Detroit Tigers are in position to win the AL Central is Max Scherzer's dominance. Now it's uncertain if he'll be able to help them finish the job.
Forced to scratch one of the AL's hottest hurlers from his scheduled start Friday night, the visiting Tigers turn to rookie Drew Smyly as their quest for a second straight division title continues against the Minnesota Twins.
A lingering shoulder problem prompted Detroit (84-72) to announce Thursday that Scherzer won't start the opener of this three-game set. The injury diminished his velocity Sunday, when Minnesota dealt the right-hander his first loss since July 30.
"I want to be able to, but at the same time, when you have a recurring injury like this, you can't get back onto the mound again before you're 100 percent," the 16-game winner said.
His 68 strikeouts and 1.77 ERA since Aug. 10 are tops in the AL, and he has six of Detroit's 24 wins in that span.
Scherzer is unsure if he's done for the regular season but surely hopes to get a shot in the playoffs, having keyed the Tigers' push past Chicago for the Central lead. They're coming off a four-game sweep of Kansas City, capped by a 5-4 walkoff win Thursday in a game which saw Doug Fister set an AL record with nine consecutive strikeouts.
"We have to be able to win tight games like this," said Alex Avila, whose bases-loaded groundout drove in the winning run. "It's the only way we're going to be able to get in the playoffs and go far in the playoffs."
Now Detroit goes with a pitcher who is winless since July 6 and has made two starts since the All-Star break. Smyly (4-3, 4.24 ERA) spent the first half of the season in the rotation before missing six weeks with a strained side muscle, then lost his spot following the acquisition of Anibal Sanchez.
Smyly was pitching poorly out of the bullpen before getting a spot start Sunday, holding the Twins scoreless for four innings before loading the bases in the fifth and getting pulled. Minnesota would win 2-1 in 10 innings to sweep a doubleheader after Scott Diamond beat Scherzer in the opener.
Diamond (12-8, 3.64) gave up two runs in seven innings of that 10-4 victory, and he'll face Detroit again Friday. He had gone 1-3 with a 7.36 ERA over his previous five outings.
"After my last couple starts, I've worked really hard on keeping the ball down in the zone," said Diamond, 1-2 in four starts versus the Tigers despite a 3.08 ERA.
His outing Sunday is the only time in the Twins' past 15 games that a pitcher lasted seven innings. The starting staff is 2-7 with a 6.04 ERA in that span.
Minnesota (65-91) shares the Central basement and the AL's worst record with Cleveland but is 7-8 in this season series.
Detroit, though, has won 13 of 16 at Target Field, including 5-1 this year while batting .326, and the Twins have lost seven of their last eight series at home.
Prince Fielder is 12 for 23 in Minnesota this season and enters on an 11-for-24 tear.
Miguel Cabrera is a .411 career hitter at Target Field and has batted .400 in the season series with five homers and 23 RBIs. He's homerless in six games after hitting seven in a 10-game stretch.
While Cabrera's 42 homers are one behind Josh Hamilton for the major league lead, his 133 RBIs are well ahead of the Texas slugger for that position. Another threat to his Triple Crown bid is Minnesota's Joe Mauer, the three-time AL batting champion who is hitting .323 while Cabrera leads at .326.
Mauer has hit .408 over his last 12 games and .413 in his last 11 versus Detroit.