DETROIT (AP) — Max Scherzer is feeling the pressure these days.
The Detroit right-hander is unbeaten this year, but with every turn through the rotation, it seems at least one of his teammates is reaching a new level.
“We feed off each other, but we’ve also pushed the bar so dang high,” Scherzer said. “Everybody wants to try to match that.”
Scherzer struck out nine in seven innings, and Victor Martinez homered and drove in three runs to lift the Tigers to a 5-2 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays on Thursday. Miguel Cabrera had three hits for Detroit, along with his major league-leading 66th RBI.
Scherzer (8-0) allowed a run and four hits, walking two. He is the first Detroit pitcher to start the season 8-0 since Jeremy Bonderman in 2007.
Joaquin Benoit allowed a run in the eighth, and Jose Valverde pitched a perfect ninth for his seventh save in nine chances.
Martinez has struggled a bit with the bat since returning from a knee injury that caused him to miss all of 2012, but there was no doubt about his drive to right in the fourth, a two-run shot that cleared the wall with plenty of room to spare.
It was his fourth homer of the season. He’s hitting only .231 and hasn’t always been rewarded when he’s hit the ball hard.
“It’s pretty tough not to get frustrated. Every time you go out there, you put good swings — right at somebody,” Martinez said. “I’m controlling the things that I can control.”
Martinez’s homer gave Detroit a 2-0 lead, and Cabrera drove in a run the following inning with a single.
Tampa Bay’s Roberto Hernandez (3-6) allowed four runs in 5 1-3 innings.
The first-place Tigers lead Cleveland by 2 1/2 games in the AL Central. The Indians visit Detroit for a three-game series starting Friday night.
Justin Verlander will start the opener of that series, and his 3.70 ERA actually ranks fourth in Detroit’s rotation. Anibal Sanchez (2.65), Scherzer (3.24) and Doug Fister (3.27) are all ahead of him.
“That might be the best rotation in the American League,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said. “Scherzer is a lot like Sanchez, where he can add and subtract with all of his pitches. He’s got a lot more confidence in the changeup, and his other pitches have gotten much better over the last couple years.”
Opponents are hitting .185 off Scherzer. He fanned Evan Longoria three times and kept the Rays off the scoreboard until an RBI single by James Loney in the sixth.
“I’m showing consistency with four pitches and I feel like that’s really what’s allowing me to be effective and pitch deep into games and do all the little things well,” Scherzer said. “I realize the league’s probably going to make adjustments to me and I’ve got to be ready to still pitch my best when maybe I don’t have my best stuff.”
Don Kelly led off the Detroit fifth with a single, advanced to second on a groundout and eventually scored on Cabrera’s bloop single to right-center. Cabrera finished with three hits, and Prince Fielder had two to extend his hitting streak to 11 games.
Hernandez pitched 8 2-3 innings without an earned run in a win at Miami in his previous start, but he ran into trouble in the middle innings against Detroit. After Tampa Bay scored in the sixth, Hernandez allowed a leadoff double by Jhonny Peralta in the bottom half and a one-out single by Omar Infante. Pinch-hitter Avisail Garcia hit a sacrifice fly off reliever Jake McGee to make it 4-1.
Cabrera singled and stole second in the seventh and scored on a single by Martinez. Tampa Bay got a run back in the eighth on an RBI infield single by Loney.
Hernandez allowed 10 hits and a walk. He struck out six.
The Rays lost two of three to the Tigers — Tampa Bay has only one series win at Comerica Park in the last nine seasons.
NOTES: Scherzer struck out Yunel Escobar with his 100th and final pitch — it was also the right-hander’s 100th strikeout of the year. ... Cabrera’s seventh-inning hit was an infield single — his hard grounder up the middle hit McGee, and the left-hander came out of the game with a left shin contusion. Maddon said he should be available to pitch Friday. ... Kelly came running in to make a nice diving catch in the fourth on Loney’s flyball to shallow center. ... Tampa Bay OF Kelly Johnson sat out a second straight game because of back trouble. Maddon doesn’t expect the injury to linger. “It’s just a little bit of back stiffness,” Maddon said. “Once we get by that, we’ll be fine.” Johnson was available to pinch-hit. ... Verlander (7-4) starts Friday night against Cleveland RHP Ubaldo Jimenez (4-3). The Rays return home and send RHP Chris Archer (0-1) to the mound against Baltimore RHP Jason Hammel (7-3).