DETROIT -- Max Scherzer talked Monday night about not finishing off pitches. The stats said something about not finishing off hitters.
The first part, Scherzer said, is a mechanical tweak. The second part is either a statistical anomaly or a trend. Whether one has anything to do with the other, the latter stretches out past the Tigers' 9-5 loss to the Royals.
As the Royals sprayed key two-strike hits around Comerica Park, both issues were a big deal. Once Kansas City finished its onslaught and chased Scherzer with two homers, a single and nobody out in the fourth, he was looking for answers.
"I have an idea what I need to do," Scherzer said, "and I'm confident in my bullpen [session] I'll be able to fix it. ... I'm just not really finishing my pitches. It's just a small little tweak I have to do, and I'm sure in one day I can fix it."
The loss cost the Tigers a game in the standings against both of their pursuers in the American League Central, closing their gap to five games on the White Sox and 5 1/2 games over the Indians. The seven runs on 10 hits bumped Scherzer's ERA nearly a third of a run from 4.21 to 4.52.
Scherzer's two seasons in Detroit have shown that when he needs to make a fix, he usually finds it quickly. With a playoff race and a Sunday start against the White Sox looming, he'll be working on his tweak pretty aggressively.
For whatever reason, though, two-strike hits have been an issue for him on and off all season. With an aggressive Royals lineup Monday, it was definitely on.
"They charged some fastballs," manager Jim Leyland said, "and he just couldn't put it where he wanted it."
For a finesse pitcher who relies on making opponents mishit pitches for ground balls, two-strike contact wouldn't be an issue. But when Scherzer gets to two strikes, he tends to finish them off. He ranked sixth in the league in strikeouts per nine innings last year, averaging better than a strikeout an inning after returning from his midseason stint at Triple-A Toledo.
The strikeout rate is down this year, from 8.5 to 7.8, and the two-strike contact is up. When he put hitters in those counts last year, they batted just .176 and about 2.6 strikeouts for every two-strike hit. Six of Kansas City's 10 hits off Scherzer Monday came with two strikes, raising opponents' average in those situations on the year to .233. The ratio of strikeouts to two-strike hits, in turn, is down to 1.75.
When opponents put two-strike pitches in play off Scherzer, the batting average has risen from .286 last year to nearly .360 now. Alex Gordon's leadoff home run was one, a 1-2 fastball on the game's fourth pitch that he lined over the right-field corner for his 19th homer.
"We faced Detroit a little bit ago and Scherzer in my first at-bat came fastball, fastball, fastball when he led off the game," Gordon said, "so that's how he started -- four fastballs. And the last one, I was kind of expecting it."
Scherzer finished off Billy Butler and Jeff Francoeur in the first with 0-2 sliders, rendering Eric Hosmer's two-strike, two-out single harmless. A two-strike single from Johnny Giavotella the next inning, though, put a runner on base for Salvador Perez to double in on the second pitch he saw.
Giavotella homered and doubled off Scherzer on Aug. 7 in Kansas City. An inning after his single, Scherzer was an out away from escaping what was a bases-loaded, no-out jam. Instead, Giavotella's double into the left-field corner cleared the bases.
Giavotella's 2-for-5 night improved him to 7-for-16 against the Tigers this year. He's batting .211 against everyone else.
"I don't know what it is with Scherzer," he said. "I've been putting good swings on the ball the last couple weeks and just didn't have much to show for it. But tonight was a little different."
Scherzer could've overcome that or at least the Tigers could have. A three-run third inning, paced by RBI singles from Delmon Young and Victor Martinez, put the potential tying run on base before Royals starter Luke Hochevar (9-10) retired Alex Avila to escape. Come the fourth inning, however, two Scherzer pitches -- both two-strike fastballs on the inner half -- reinforced the lead.
The first was to Perez, whose first Major League home run one-hopped off the brick wall beyond left-center field.
"I crushed that ball," Perez said. "Unbelievable."
Leyland called that one of the mislocated fastballs.
"He had two strikes on the catcher," Leyland said, "and threw a fastball right in the middle of the plate."
The second was to Alcides Escobar, who fouled off one inside fastball before sending the next pitch down the left-field line.
"I thought he got some fastballs a little too much over the middle of the plate to some of the hitters," pitching coach Jeff Jones said. "It's a young, aggressive team and they're swinging."
Like Scherzer, Jones doesn't believe there's a common thread in the two-strike issues. It doesn't appear to be pitch selection. According to STATS, his mix of two-strike pitches isn't much different than last year. The results are.
Make the tweak, Scherzer believes, and the numbers will adjust.
"There were times where I was in 1-0 counts and they were able to hit the fastball," he said. "There were times when there were two strikes and I didn't execute the pitch fully and they were able to capitalize on that. And other times, I made a good pitch and they were able to hit it. Nothing really bounced my way, and you tip your cap to them."