ST. LOUIS — When Max Scherzer is announced as the AL Cy Young Award winner around 5:15 p.m. Wednesday — yes, you can count on it — Detroit and the Tigers won’t be the only ones to rejoice.
Congratulations for the 29-year-old hard-throwing right-hander will also come streaming in from Chesterfield and Columbia and points in between. Scherzer relocated to Phoenix a few years ago but his roots remain decidedly Missouri. If you saw him wearing a sweatshirt with the score of Missouri’s football victory over Georgia to an ALCS press conference last month, you know what I’m talking about.
More than 10 years have passed since Scherzer threw his last no-hitter for Parkway Central High and it’s been more than seven years since the Diamondbacks selected him out of Missouri with the 11th pick of the 2006 draft. Still, those who coached him and played alongside him during his amateur days have no trouble recalling his athletic exploits. It’s safe to say that Scherzer was not a late bloomer.
Before Mike Sigler coached Scherzer as a high school freshman, he had worked with him at his summer camp during middle school.
“He was already a pretty big kid and he already was throwing hard,” Sigler says. “After he was finished, I went up and said, ‘Son, you’re going to be a freshman next year?’ He said, ‘No Sir, I just finished seventh grade.’ I said, ‘Darn, let’s skip a grade.'”
When baseball season rolled around in Scherzer’s first year of high school, Sigler was waiting. Scherzer already had served as starting quarterback for the varsity football team so there was no chance he was playing JV baseball, even though Sigler says he had never had a freshman on varsity in his 20-plus years at Parkway Central. But in Scherzer’s freshman year, Sigler had three.
Austin Kirby, now a basketball coach at Eureka High, was one of the others. Kirby already was familiar with Scherzer from middle-school basketball, where they played on the same team, and youth-league baseball, where they didn’t. Kirby hasn’t forgotten their matchups.
“As a 13-year-old, he was pretty intimidating from 54 feet,” Kirby says. “He was already over 6 feet so he basically was standing on top of you from the mound. At one point, I bragged to my teammates after I grounded out to shortstop off him. He threw that hard.”
But what Kirby really likes to remember about Scherzer is his hitting. After Scherzer produced a run-scoring double against the Mets this season, Kirby texted him: “I always tell people you’re a good hitter. I wish you could come back to the National League so we could see you hit.”
Scherzer responded by texting back a video clip of the hit, with the message, “How goofy do I look?”
Kirby’s memories of Scherzer’s hitting go back at least to their freshman season. Playing in an early-season game, the three ninth-graders — Tommy Bawden was the other — were due to bat with Parkway Central down by two in the last inning.
“Tommy came up and doubled, somehow got to third and I squeezed him in,” Kirby says. “Then Max, who hit in the three-hole as a freshman, came up and hit a walk-off homer. The three of us felt pretty proud about that, holding our own as freshmen.”
By Scherzer’s junior year, Sigler had retired from Parkway Central and been replaced by Keith Sanders, now an assistant principal at Timberland High in Wentzville. The team’s first game in 2003 came on a spring-break trip against nationally ranked Lakewood Ranch out of Bradenton, Fla. Lakewood Ranch featured Lastings Milledge, one of the country’s top high school prospects who soon would be a first-round pick.
“There were about 20 professional scouts there to watch Milledge,” Sanders says. “It was a warm and humid Florida day and Max comes out and starts pitching. He was pretty pumped and he must have felt pretty loose because he’s throwing probably in the low 90s. The scouts see this and they immediately went to their cars and got their radar guns and cell phones. This wasn’t something they were expecting to see. Max ended up pitching a great game and we ended up beating Lakewood.”
In Scherzer’s final game on the mound in high school, he threw a five-inning no-hitter as Parkway Central beat Pattonville, 10-0. “Of the 15 outs, 13 were by strikeouts,” Sanders says. “It was pretty amazing. At that point in his career, because he got better and better as his senior year went on, he was as unhittable as I’ve ever seen a high school pitcher.” His arm played just as impressively from center field. “It got to the point where it was hard for the third baseman or second baseman to even handle his throws because they were coming so hard,” Sanders says. “He had that good of an arm. It almost looked better in the outfield than it did pitching, if that’s possible.”
Drafted by the Cardinals in the 43rd round out of high school, Scherzer opted to go to Missouri, where his delivery was smoothed out and his velocity shot from the low-90 mph range to the upper 90s by his sophomore year. Tigers coach Tim Jamieson remembers a game in 2005 that Scherzer finished stronger than he started.
The Tigers were playing at Nebraska, the fifth-ranked team in the country led by Alex Gordon. For the Friday night matchup, Scherzer went against Joba Chamberlain in front of a sold-out crowd. After seven innings, the 17th-ranked Tigers led 2-1 and Scherzer came off the mound thinking his night was over.
“I said Max we need one more inning out of you, the middle of the lineup is coming up,” Jamieson says. “So he jammed Gordon and got him to pop up and struck out the other two guys. He came off the mound and into the dugout basically telling me he was going to finish this game.”
In the ninth, Scherzer quickly took care of the first two Cornhuskers before Jamieson walked out to the mound. While the coach wanted only to offer a scouting report on the upcoming pinch-hitter, Scherzer thought he was being lifted.
“He met me on the grass to let me know there was no way he was coming out,” Jamieson says. “The infielders are laughing because this was Max being Max and I’m just trying to tell him to go after this guy with hard stuff, that he wasn’t going to catch up to his fastball. Three 97 mile-an-hour fastballs later, the game was over.
“Sellout crowd, facing Joba Chamberlain and Alex Gordon in their backyard and his last three pitches were all 97 miles an hour. That was a pretty good example of how special he could be.”
All these years later, he’s set to take home a Cy Young Award. Let the celebrating begin, in Missouri and as well as Detroit.
You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @stanmcneal or email him at email@example.com.