DETROIT -- Max Scherzer spent all summer insisting that his league-leading win total was a team accomplishment, not his own. Fitting, then, that on the night of his milestone victory, becoming the second Tigers pitcher in 22 years to reach 20 wins, it was a team celebration.
They supported him for six innings, from another offensive onslaught toward his league-leading run support to a couple of key defensive plays in a 12-5 win over the White Sox. Then they toasted him.
"We had a nice little champagne toast to kind of celebrate 20 wins," Scherzer (20-3) said. "It's definitely nice to celebrate with your teammates because they're the ones that got me here."
The Tigers are on the verge of another celebration. Despite Cleveland's rain-shortened 2-1 win over Houston on Friday night at Progressive Field to take over one of the American League Wild Card spots, the Tigers' victory took them one step closer to deciding the AL Central, reducing the magic number for Detroit's third consecutive division crown to three.
That celebration could happen as soon as Sunday's home finale, though it would require at least one Astros win over the second-place Indians. That will be more about the team than this one.
Friday's toast, in part, was the Tigers' way of getting Scherzer to enjoy this.
"He appreciates it. I know he does," said catcher Alex Avila. "And he understands that sometimes you can pitch really well and not get a win. Obviously, luck has to be involved, but for a pitcher to win 20 games that means a lot of things are going right for you in a season. It's extremely difficult to do, an incredible milestone.
"So while he believes in what he says, that it's more of a team number, it's definitely something I know he appreciates and we appreciate. It's not an easy accomplishment."
The last four weeks with Scherzer stuck on 19 wins showed that. He had taken two losses and two no-decisions since his 19-1 start, including two well-pitched seven-inning performances that went unrewarded against Boston and Kansas City.
Friday was not one of those performances. In terms of effectiveness, this one trended toward the other end, in part because the long break he had sitting through Detroit's four-run, six-hit third inning. It was an issue that haunted him early in the season, but he has learned to handle it relatively well.
All those runs -- seven in 2 2/3 innings off spot starter Dylan Axelrod -- will make this win look like a relative cruise, giving critics another reason to overlook his other numbers. The two pitches he made with the game on the line, with Paul Konerko up as the potential tying run in the fifth inning, will be tougher to remember. He'll recall them, though.
It happened quickly enough that it snuck up on many in the announced crowd of 39,643 at Comerica Park who saw Detroit take a 7-1 lead in the third inning. Former Tigers teammate Avisail Garcia chipped away at that with a two-run homer in the fourth. A leadoff double from Gordon Beckham and one-out single from Alejandro De Aza ignited the rally in the fifth as the middle of the White Sox lineup -- and its two veteran power hitters -- loomed.
Once Scherzer lost Conor Gillaspie to a five-pitch walk, there stood Konerko with the bases loaded. He entered the night just 5-for-29 -- all singles -- with 15 strikeouts against Scherzer since 2010, but on a rainy night with a wet mound, Scherzer was a mistake away from a new game.
Scherzer went to the approach that has gotten him to this point.
"I had shown him a lot of fastballs," he said, "and I thought I needed to show him a good slider. I led him off with a good slider, was able to generate a swing and miss. And seeing how he swung at that, I thought if I threw another good one, that would be a good pitch in that count. Fortunately, I threw another good one down and away and was able to get a tapper to [second baseman] Omar [Infante]."
Said Garcia: "He's a great pitcher, because he has so many ways to get you out. Most of the time, no matter what you do, he gets you out."
Five Detroit runs in the bottom half of the inning, two of them on Victor Martinez's 13th homer, put this one away. And after four weeks waiting for Scherzer's 20th win, the countdown was on.
Scherzer left with three runs allowed on six hits. His three strikeouts marked his lowest total of the season, but Detroit's offensive onslaught didn't leave him needing many on his way to becoming the Tigers' second 20-game winner in three years. Justin Verlander won 24 games on his way to taking AL Cy Young and MVP honors in 2011.
Unless Scherzer loses in his final regular-season start Wednesday at Minnesota, he'll be the Majors' first 20-game winner with as few as three losses since Cliff Lee went 22-3 for Cleveland in 2008.
"It's special," Scherzer allowed, "but at the same time, I also have to give credit to some of my teammates. This is also their moment, too. It would be naive for me to take all the credit for this. They're the ones out there playing great defense. They're the ones scoring the extra hits. They've had such great years at the plate, every time I take the mound.
"As much as I have pitched well this year, I also have to give credit to the rest of the guys in the clubhouse, because they're the ones that helped me get there."