Max Scherzer Says 'Failure' With Tigers Has Become His Fuel

"That’s what motivates me to push myself every single day."

Will Burchfield
June 28, 2019 - 6:32 pm

© Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

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When they get to talking about those years and those teams and those missed opportunities, they all wind up at a loss. The answers elude them. In truth, there might not be any answers to be found.

The conversation came up between J.D. Martinez and Justin Verlander at last year's All-Star Game. "Dude," Martinez said to Verlander, "I don't know how we didn't win then." You can see them both shaking their heads, perhaps toeing the dirt beneath their cleats, staring into space as they gaze into the past. 

And it came up this season between Max Scherzer and Anibal Sanchez, reunited on the Nationals. On Friday Scherzer sat in the visitor's dugout for the first time at Comerica Park and tried once more to make sense of something that can't be, that couldn't be, that surely wouldn't be if they could do it all again. But here they are, left to grapple with that impossible truth. 

Somehow, despite all those stars and all those chances, the Tigers of yesteryear never won it all. 

"I know," said Scherzer. "It’s honestly one of my biggest -- or feels like a big regret that we weren’t able to deliver a World Series championship here. Talking with Anibal about it, we all kick ourselves, like, 'Man, how did we not win a World Series while we were here?' The teams that we had here, especially in that three-year run from '12, '13, '14, you play the games of what-if still to this day."

The names don't need rehashing. It only deepens the mystery. Remember 2014? The Tigers had three Cy Young winners in their starting rotation and were swept in the first round of the playoffs -- when all three of those pitchers took the mound. 

Scherzer was one of them, of course, and he's since gone on to win the award a couple more times. His heightened dominance since leaving Detroit -- he has the most strikeouts in baseball (1,248 and counting) in that span -- is partly attributable to what he couldn't achieve while he was here.

His regret has become fuel. 

"That’s what keeps me motivated. We failed, some ways in our eyes. Even though we had great teams that did a lot of great things, we didn’t win the whole thing. You do have to kind of see that as a failure, because it’s what keeps you motivated," Scherzer said. "That’s what motivates me to push myself every single day to try to win a World Series. That’s what we play the game for, so that’s what keeps me going." 

It's the biggest blank on Scherzer's otherwise Hall of Fame-worthy resume. He's only been to the playoffs twice since joining the Nationals in 2015, with both trips ending in the first round. He pitched twice in 2016 and twice in 2017. Washington lost all four games. It's another postseason anomaly that just doesn't add up.

At 34, Scherzer is doing his best to get himself and his team back to October. His 2.52 ERA ranks fourth in the majors and his 156 strikeouts -- surprise, surprise -- rank first. The Nationals have shaken off a slow start to claw back into the NL wild card race. It's what consumes Scherzer at the moment, not thoughts of the past. 

Still, in his return to Comerica Park, he indulged a few memories. 

"Just our clubhouse vibe. What we had as a team," said Scherzer. "We came out, we knew we were a good team, we could play with anybody. We had superstars. We came out and we were going to put a licking on you. Every guy played the game the right way, played hard. That’s the stuff you remember." 

Scherzer was 25 and relatively nameless in his first season with Detroit, but his star quickly began to rise. The Tigers, by no coincidence, won four straight division titles from 2011-2014, and then Scherzer left in free agency. They haven't won one since. 

In his five years with the team, Scherzer said he learned how to go about his business in the big leagues. 

"The easiest guy to always point to is Torii Hunter and how he was a clubhouse leader. How he did Torii Hunter things every single time. Valuable lessons of leadership I learned from him specifically. How he just found a way to keep everybody on the same page, motivated and having a good time. I think that’s one thing we all forget it, is how much fun we have to have every single day. And he always made sure we had fun." 

On Sunday Scherzer will take the mound at Comerica Park for the first time since 2014. There's one former teammate he's eager to face: Miguel Cabrera. 

"That’s what you dream about. You dream to face the best," Scherzer said. "He’s been the best hitter in our generation. What he can do with a baseball bat is just unbelievable. When you face somebody like that you have to bring absolutely everything you got because of his talent. He’s pulverized baseballs everywhere across this world. He’s a fun one to compete against." 

For as fondly as he remembers his time with the Tigers, Scherzer's departure was less than glamorous. The team made him a relatively small offer in the spring before he hit free agency -- six years, $144 million -- wouldn't meet his demands for more, then let him walk in the winter. Scherzer secured a seven-year, $210 million deal with the Nationals and has since earned every penny. 

Despite this dismissal, Scherzer said he didn't leave Detroit with bitter feelings. 

"It’s just the business side. No, I didn’t feel slighted," he said. "That stuff all takes care of itself. I don’t hold any grudges or anything like that. I look back on my time here in Detroit and have great memories here and great friends. That’s how I remember it." 

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