LAKELAND, Fla. -- Max Scherzer took the mound at Joker Marchant Stadium under a cloudless sky Friday afternoon, about as different as conditions could get compared to Michigan these days, and felt like the offseason had flown by.
Forget that he had gotten married, gotten a new manager, seen the team behind him transformed, and seen his own contract situation become a headline across baseball. On the mound, it was awfully familiar, like he was simply making his next turn in the rotation after Boston last October.
The way he pitched against the Yankees on Friday in a 7-4 defeat looked like he had picked up where he left off last year, even if it felt different to him.
"It doesn't feel like that long ago that we were actually playing in the playoffs," Scherzer said. "It feels like it was just yesterday. But when you get going again, anything can happen. I've had some real stinkers in the spring. I know you don't put any stock into results.
"You look at the process, and the process is trying to get all your pitches how you want to execute them, try to attack the zone, throw first-pitch strikes and locate your fastball. When you're able to do that, that's when you have success."
And with that, the process began anew. Scherzer, as much as any pitcher on the Tigers' staff, is submersed in the process. Compared to last year, though, he's much further ahead.
At this point last spring, he was being held back as a precaution after dealing with shoulder soreness last fall. He was the last Tigers starter to appear in a game last spring, and he was one of the last to make a start in the regular season. Seven months later, he had an American League Cy Young Award coming off the best season record-wise by a Major League pitcher since Roger Clemens in 2001.
This offseason, his health intact, he kept throwing all winter, playing catch a handful of times in November and then twice a week in December to keep his arm muscles warm. The only time he took off throwing was during his two-week honeymoon in New Zealand.
One start in, the follow-up season looks good.
"My arm feels great. It feels strong," Scherzer said. "To be able to walk out of my first outing and say I felt like I got a good changeup, slider and a curveball, and a halfway decent fastball location, that's really good for a first outing."
He threw all four pitches in his first inning of work, hitting 92-94 mph on his fastball according to one scout in attendance. After a Steve Lombardozzi error put a runner on base with one out, he dropped a curveball on Carlos Beltran in a 3-1 count and escaped with a double play.
"Right down the middle," Scherzer said. "It was 2-0, so I said let's see how hard you can hit it. And he hit it out."
That bravado is easier when the results don't count. It's also easier when Scherzer knows the numbers aren't as important as the process. He regrouped from there with a groundout to first and back-to-back strikeouts.
Compared to some of his more notable spring outings over the years, this was outstanding, even with the home run. He gave up a Jason Heyward tape-measure shot that cleared the right-field batting cage his first spring as a Tiger in 2010. A year later, he gave up 11 runs and three homers over 2 1/3 innings to the Orioles in his final spring tuneup.
"First outing, no red flags," manager Brad Ausmus said. "He threw the ball well."
As Scherzer walked down the right-field line toward the Tigers' clubhouse, the fans just feet away cheered him off. Within that group, most likely, were a few fans begging Scherzer to forgo the temptation of free agency next winter and stay long term.
That, by contrast, is a thoroughly unfamiliar feeling for Scherzer, a reminder that his contract year is a different season altogether. When asked about it, he wasn't taking the bait.
"I'm going to hear it," he said with a smile. "That's off the field, and that takes care of itself."