OAKLAND — Max Scherzer overpowered Oakland with his dominant fastball, then baffled the Athletics with his off-speed stuff.
Scherzer struck out 11 over seven dominant innings, Miguel Cabrera helped stake Detroit to an early lead before leaving in the eighth, and the Tigers held on to beat the A’s 3-2 on Friday night in the opener of their AL division series rematch.
The only guy who could get anything going against Scherzer was Yoenis Cespedes — and that wasn’t enough the way the likely Cy Young Award winner was pitching.
“Today we noticed that my fastball seemed pretty good and my changeup seemed pretty good. That’s why I thought I was able to get into a groove and pitch deep into the game because of those two pitches,” Scherzer said. “I thought I did a good job of attacking the zone and throwing first-pitch strikes, which I pride myself in.”
Cabrera, hindered by a groin strain late in a season of injuries for last year’s Triple Crown winner, didn’t have to overextend himself on defense thanks to Scherzer’s 118-pitch gem. But he did look uncomfortable running out a grounder in the eighth.
“I think he tried to kick it in a little bit and it looked like it bothered him,” manager Jim Leyland said. “I wasn’t very comfortable taking him out of a one-run game, but there was a little bit more to it.”
Cabrera and Alex Avila each hit first-inning RBI singles against 40-year-old All-Star Bartolo Colon, whose winless stretch against the Tigers extended to 10 1/2 years.
Scherzer retired 16 of his first 18 batters and was nearly untouchable before Cespedes hit a two-run drive in the seventh for his first career playoff home run. The strikeouts were his most in seven postseason starts.
Cespedes struck out in the ninth against closer Joaquin Benoit, who retired the final four batters for the save.
Leyland chose Scherzer over Justin Verlander, who goes in Game 2 on Saturday night against 23-year-old rookie Sonny Gray in just his 11th career start. Verlander beat the A’s in Games 1 and 5 of their postseason series last October.
“I don’t get caught up in the hoopla, where I’m pitching,” Scherzer said.
The A’s missed early chances in a rematch of last year’s playoff matchup that Detroit survived on its way to the World Series — and there was little the raucous, yellow towel-waving sellout home crowd of 48,401 could do until Cespedes finally energized the ballpark.
Scherzer received an American League-best 6.80 runs of support per nine innings over his 32 starts this season, but he didn’t need anything more than those three first-inning runs in shutting down the AL West champions.
The majors’ lone 20-game winner, Scherzer (21-3) allowed three hits and walked two.
“He’s always tough, he won 21 games,” A’s manager Bob Melvin said. “Scherzer’s a strikeout guy, he’s a swing-and-miss guy.”
Scherzer issued a two-out walk to Coco Crisp in the third, and then retired his next eight batters in order before Crisp drew a full-count free pass in the sixth. Scherzer struck out the side in the fourth and recorded two more Ks in the fifth.
Oakland had the tying run aboard in the eighth but Josh Donaldson popped out against Benoit.
“Scherzer was terrific and the bullpen came in and did a fine job,” Leyland said. “He was awfully determined. I think he was thrilled to get Game 1.”
Omar Infante added a pair of singles for a Tigers team determined to take this postseason run one step further after being swept by the San Francisco Giants in the 2012 World Series.
Detroit nearly added a run in the sixth but Gold Glove right fielder Josh Reddick threw out Victor Martinez at the plate.
Colon put himself in a hole from the start, surrendering Austin Jackson’s double to lead off the game and then hitting Torii Hunter with a pitch. Cabrera singled up the middle for the first run, and then Prince Fielder grounded into a double play to bring home another. Avila added an RBI single.
Cespedes hit a one-out triple over Andy Dirks’ head in the second but Oakland was unable to drive him in.
Leyland went with Dirks in left over Jhonny Peralta, who made the playoff roster a week after completing a 50-game suspension for ties to the Biogenesis lab accused of distributing performance-enhancing drugs. Peralta lined out as a pinch hitter in the ninth.
Colon had hoped for a triumphant return to the playoff stage eight years after his last appearance with the Angels.
The right-hander’s 10 hits allowed were his most in 10 career postseason starts.
Colon, who wasn’t part of the A’s playoffs last season while serving a 50-game suspension for a positive testosterone test, won 18 games this season but couldn’t break out of his decade-long funk against the Tigers.
The burly right-hander is winless — going 0 and 8 — in 14 starts against the Tigers since a victory on April 13, 2003.
Cespedes was back in left field after missing the final two regular-season games at Seattle with a right shoulder injury.
NOTES: The A’s struck out 16 times. ... Both catchers took hard foul tips off the mask. ... The crowd was the largest at the Coliseum since 53,974 on June 27, 2004, against the San Francisco Giants. ... Hunter was Colon’s first hit batsman all year. ... Fielder snapped an 0-for-13 stretch in the postseason with a third-inning single. ... The A’s moved into a third-place tie with the Dodgers for most postseason games played in a ballpark with 55, trailing old Yankee Stadium (161) and Boston’s Fenway Park (69). ... First-pitch temperature was 77 degrees.