It was a fall evening late in 2003, and Missouri baseball coach Tim Jamieson and his assistants were holding a routine meeting about the Tigers’ pitching staff.
One of the items on the agenda that night was Max Scherzer, the freshman with a blazing fastball, a nasty slider and a tricky change-up.
Scherzer had passed up a chance to play in the St. Louis Cardinals organization so he could play college ball, and the coaching staff didn’t want to waste his talent.
“We all agreed that if Scherzer wasn’t our Friday night starter (by 2005), then we’re doing him and the program a disservice,” assistant coach Tony Vitello said. “So we kind of dedicated ourselves to making sure he’s taken the right steps to be the best he can be.”
So far, so good. Scherzer, a sophomore, has become the Tigers’ starter on Friday nights, the spot reserved for a team’s top pitcher. He carries a 5-1 record and a 1.21 ERA into his next start, which is at 7 tonight at Taylor Stadium against Texas Tech (18-8 overall, 2-3 Big 12).
Scherzer helped the Tigers (21-4, 3-0) sweep Kansas State last week to start their Big 12 schedule.
But reaching this point hasn’t been easy for the 6-foot-2 right-hander from Chesterfield. Scherzer toiled in the bullpen during his freshman season, pitching 20 innings with a 5.85 ERA.
The big league can be tough
It was a tough pill to swallow for Scherzer, who was a three-time all-conference pitcher in high school.
“I think it was frustrating for him,” Jamieson said, “but I think he learned what he needed to do to be a starter in the Big 12. I think he learned by watching the guys that were ahead of him and why they were pitching and he wasn’t.”
Said Scherzer: “It woke me up. If you don’t work hard, you can’t do what you want to do.”
Vitello said that when Scherzer came to Missouri, he needed confidence and consistency.
“Tons of potential and a great athlete, all that good stuff, but he needed to mature and develop,” Vitello said.
But Scherzer, who was drafted in the 43rd round of the 2003 MLB draft, said he never regretted passing up the minor leagues.
“I knew I wanted to go to college,” he said. “I’ve had a great time here. Even though I wasn’t playing, I never once doubted not going to pro ball.”
Strong body, strong mind
Even 2005, the season in which the lanky right-hander was to ascend to the No. 1 starting position, didn’t start out the way he would have liked.
In his first start of the year against nationally
ranked Winthrop, Scherzer couldn’t get out of the fifth inning. He gave up five runs and seven hits in a 7-4 loss.
“There’s things I did wrong, but I got a loss and learned from it,” Scherzer said. “And that’s what really helped.”
Since then, Scherzer’s talent has blossomed. His fastball can reach 97 mph and he can back it up with both a hard-breaking slider and a change-up.
“(His pitches are) dynamic,” Vitello said. “He really has three pitches that have the capability of being Major League-type pitches.” A lot of other guys that will leave here as draft picks or for other schools have one, maybe two or maybe the prospect of developing another pitch. He’s already got three.”
In addition to those, Scherzer also has an effective throw to first that has picked off three runners this year.
He’s taken it upon himself … to work on little things that make you a complete pitcher,” Vitello said.
Scherzer used the loss to Winthrop as a springboard. Since then, he has won five straight decisions, pitching 33 innings, striking out 46 while giving up 13 hits and a lone run.
Scherzer gave up a triple in the first inning against Winthrop, but no batter has an extra-base hit against him since.
“The loss to Winthrop was his first start and also his first time in spikes (this year),” Jamieson said. “So we’ve seen a progression of confidence and being a bit more in rhythm as to how he’s going to be used. The main thing is he’s just gotten better each time.”
The hot streak has elevated Scherzer to exactly where Vitello and Jamieson thought he would be during their meeting a year and a half ago: the Friday starter in conference play. In his first Big 12 start last weekend, Scherzer pitched seven innings, giving up three hits and a run in a 3-1 win against Kansas State.
“I really don’t feel any more pressure,” he said. “I’ve gotten enough starts now where it’s just routine to go out there on Friday night.”