DETROIT – The Pittsburgh Pirates whiffed their way through another nine innings, but the biggest pitch of the day might have been the one their catcher missed.
With runners on first and second in a tie game in the seventh, reliever Tony Watson's fastball handcuffed Rod Barajas. The runners moved up a base, Pittsburgh had to bring the infield in, and Detroit's Alex Avila hit a two-run single up the middle, sending the Tigers to a 4-3 victory Sunday.
"They had a runner on second, so I went out to the mound and changed the signs, and then I called that pitch with the old signs," Barajas said. "Watty threw exactly what I called, but I thought I had called for a slider and I had actually called for a fastball. That's entirely on me."
Max Scherzer (3-3) struck out 15 — the most by a Detroit pitcher in 40 years. He threw 115 pitches in seven innings and was done for the day when the Tigers came back from a 2-1 deficit while he was still the pitcher of record. Detroit scored three in the seventh, and Avila's single made it 4-2.
Pittsburgh struck out 17 times in the game and 41 times in the three-game series.
Detroit was without center fielder Austin Jackson (abdominal strain) and closer Jose Valverde (lower back strain), but the Tigers ended up taking two of three from Pittsburgh. Scherzer and Justin Verlander bookended the series with brilliant pitching performances. Verlander threw a one-hit shutout Friday night, striking out 12 and giving up only a ninth-inning single to Josh Harrison.
"We're walking out of this series thinking we could have won two, but we also ran into two very good pitchers that were as good as I've ever seen them, and I've seen quite a bit of them," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said.
Pittsburgh scored a run in the ninth off Joaquin Benoit, but he held on for his first save this season.
Kevin Correia (1-5) allowed three runs and four hits in six-plus innings.
Scherzer's 15 strikeouts were the most by a major league pitcher this year. Miami's Anibal Sanchez had 14 against Arizona on April 28.
Scherzer was locked in from the start, throwing his first 10 pitches for strikes before finally missing the zone against Pedro Alvarez, the first hitter of the second. Scherzer got Alvarez anyway for his third strikeout of the day.
"Even when I've struggled, I've always believed the next time I go out there that I'm going to have a great start, no matter what," Scherzer said. "That's always been my belief ever since I've been in the big leagues, and today was no different."
All 15 of Scherzer's strikeouts were swinging. The only other pitcher since 1988 to strike out at least 15 — all swinging — in a game was Houston's Mike Scott, who fanned 15 Cincinnati Reds on June 8, 1990, according to STATS LLC.
Scherzer had struck out five straight — and 10 for the game — when Barajas homered with one out in the fifth to give the Pirates a 1-0 lead. Jhonny Peralta answered with a solo shot in the bottom half.
Neil Walker hit a 407-foot homer in the sixth, and Scherzer's pitch count began creeping up, precluding a run at the big league record of 20 strikeouts for a nine-inning game. Scherzer was actually on the hook for a loss when Detroit manager Jim Leyland offered a handshake after the top of the seventh, the signal that a reliever would be entering in the eighth.
But Prince Fielder led off the bottom half with a blooper to left that dropped between shortstop Clint Barmes and left fielder Nate McLouth. Barmes had a long way to run because the infield was shifted around to the right, and when the ball hit the ground, it bounced weirdly up off him into foul territory, enabling Fielder to reach second with a double.
Delmon Young followed with a tying single, and Watson relieved Correia. Peralta drew a walk one out later, and the passed ball allowed the runners to move up before Avila's hit.
"That whole inning was tough," Barajas said. "Prince hits a bloop double, which is something you have to risk with the shift, and then I let one get away, and then they get a bleeder up the middle."
NOTES: Pittsburgh dropped to 19-9 when scoring at least two runs. The Pirates lost for the first time in 14 games this year when leading after six innings. ... The Pirates return home Monday and will send LHP Erik Bedard (2-5) to the mound against Johan Santana (1-2) of the New York Mets.