DETROIT -- This is the Max Scherzer the Tigers have been waiting to see. It took a lot of work to get him there.
"I've worked really hard over the past two or three weeks on identifying this," he said.
Or as manager Jim Leyland said, "He responded to the challenge."
The result Sunday was the kind of strikeout total nobody had seen from a Tiger in 40 years. Once Alex Avila's go-ahead, two-run single rolled past the mound and shortstop Clint Barmes in the seventh inning, the result was also a Tigers' 4-3 victory.
He just missed the franchise record for a high-strikeout game. He'll take the victory instead.
"I want to be somebody on this team that can step up and help this team win," Scherzer said. "I know I'm capable of it on a consistent basis."
He did that Sunday about as well as anybody has for the Tigers this year, this side of Justin Verlander. He never pitched with a lead, but he pitched with the determination to give them every opportunity to win.
More importantly, he pitched with a fastball that seemingly exploded on hitters.
"This is hard to believe," manager Jim Leyland said in an attempt to explain, "but sometimes 95 [mph] and 95 are different. There's a 95 that's [whoosh] and there's a 95 that's [zip]. Today he had that at the right moment -- right in the hitting zone, just before it got to the plate."
Scherzer's performance brought back memories of his Memorial Day weekend performance two years ago, when he returned from Triple-A Toledo to strike out 14 Athletics. That started him on a dominant run of pitching for the rest of the season.
Leyland referenced that roll earlier this week. Sunday was even better than his 2010 version. For high-strikeout, high-velocity pitching, it was arguably his best outing ever.
Scherzer already led the league in strikeouts per nine innings, including two nine-strikeout performances over his previous three starts and an 11-strikeout gem in April. But he also had a seven-walk debacle over 4 2/3 innings in April at Yankee Stadium, and a 99-pitch, four-inning no-decision to the White Sox earlier this week.
Scherzer was trying to tweak his mechanics, but couldn't get it consistent. As pitching coach Jeff Jones put it, he was trying to "get everything on line, basically, keep everything going to the target."
Today, Scherzer had that, and he had a Pirates lineup ready to challenge him. Once Neil Walker and Andrew McCutchen, arguably Pittsburgh's best two hitters, went down swinging on 0-2 pitches to end the opening inning, the roll was on.
"He was aggressive. They were swinging," Leyland said. "He was aggressive in the strike zone."
The Pirates swung and missed on all 15 strikeouts.
"For the most part, I was just working in the zone to try and get quick outs," Scherzer said, "but I wasn't able to do it because they were fouling off or swinging and missing. So I think that's why the strikeouts ended up happening."
Scherzer (3-3) struck out 12 of the 18 batters he faced over the first five innings. Six came against the Pirates' run-production trio of Walker, McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez. Some chased high fastballs. Others, he set up for devastating changeups. Some got one of each.
McCutchen, who homered twice to lead Pittsburgh to victory a day earlier, struck out three times, each time at an offspeed offering.
"My changeup was really working well today," Scherzer said. "I was able to throw it to both lefties and righties, and I was able to generate swings and misses out of it."
Scherzer's 15 strikeouts fell one short of the team record held by Mickey Lolich, who did it twice in a three-week span in 1969. Lolich was also the last Tiger to fan 15, doing so against the Red Sox on Oct. 2, 1972. Scherzer tied Paul Foytack for the team record for a right-handed pitcher.
"I've seen this guy pitch quite a bit," said Pirates manager Clint Hurdle, the former manager of the Rockies when Scherzer was with the D-backs, "and he's got a big arm. When he gets his breaking ball in play like today, he's tough. Matching someone like Lolich ... that's good stuff."
Just seven balls were put in play against Scherzer over the first six innings. The fact that two cleared the fences nearly set up his downfall. Rod Barajas came up after Scherzer had struck out Pittsburgh's previous five batters and jumped a first-pitch fastball for his fourth homer of the year in the top of the fifth.
After Jhonny Peralta's second homer of the year tied it again in the bottom of the inning, Walker fouled off four two-strike fastballs before he got an offspeed pitch he could send out to right for his second homer of the season.
"Walker's at-bat was like a Ted Williams at-bat," Avila said. "We threw the kitchen sink at him."
Pirates starter Kevin Correia wasn't nearly so deceptive, but he was effective until Prince Fielder doubled and scored on a Delmon Young single to tie the game in the bottom of the seventh. A one-out walk to Peralta and a Barajas passed ball set up Avila, whose ground ball through a drawn-in infield eluded both reliever Tony Watson and shortstop Clint Barmes.
Once Joaquin Benoit worked the ninth in place of injured Jose Valverde, Scherzer and the Tigers had their win. That, Scherzer said, was the reward.
"We're in this business to win," Scherzer said. "That's the No. 1 thing why we're here. And whenever you can do something to really help the team win, it's a gratifying feeling for anybody in this clubhouse. For me to go out here today and get the series win, it puts a smile on my face."