Before Scherzer's 19-1 start, there was Face
Highest single-season winning percentage owned by '59 Pirates closer
NEW YORK -- When Eric Young Jr. struck out to end the Mets' fifth inning Saturday, Tigers starter Max Scherzer moved within striking distance of another victory. The Tigers were leading, and Scherzer had met the other minimum requirement for a starting pitcher to emerge as a winning pitcher. Given the Mets' run production -- one run -- through the first 14 innings of their series against the American League's best team, the Tigers' starter was likely to win and add more polish to his already remarkable record.
Hundreds of miles to the West, ElRoy Face -- 85 and particular about the upper case R in his name -- was more concerned with his putting than with a record he had established as a member of the 1959 Pirates. In an otherwise inglorious Pirates season, Face produced an 18-1 record. By winning nearly 95 percent of his decisions -- all in relief, by the way -- he produced the highest single-season winning percentage in the history of the game, .947. His record still stands, albeit on legs made shaky by the 2013 achievements of Scherzer.
The Tigers' 3-0 victory at Citi Field on Saturday moved Scherzer's record to 19-1, his percentage to .950 and Face's record percentage moved in the general direction of the Has Bin.
Not that Face is even borderline distraught by the prospect of being eliminated from the record book. Aware of the possibility -- or was it a likelihood? -- of Scherzer's gaining his 19th victory against the Mets, the former Pirates closer opted for an afternoon on the links near his home outside Pittsburgh rather than a few hours of personally monitoring the Tigers-Mets goings-on.
Face's first reaction to news of the Tigers' lead after five innings Saturday was the standard, "Records are made to be broken," with this addendum: "Even mine."
His second: "All my wins came in relief, so I'll still have the record for relievers." Then came the caveat that will stick out its foot each time Scherzer starts in the final weeks of the season.
"He better not lose," Face said. "If he loses, he'll have to win 36 [to equal Face's .947]. He's not doing that."
And not only because merely 33 games remain on the Tigers' schedule.
Face is fully aware of Scherzer's season and impressed by it, but he's not fretting about possibly disappearing from the game's statistical history.
"Starter or reliever," he said Saturday, "that's a [heck] of a record.
"I've had it a long time. And like I said, all mine came in relief. And he's a starter ... so."
Face won his first 17 decisions in 1959, extending his streak of victories without a loss to 22 over two seasons. If not for a final pitch, broken-bat base hit by Charlie Neal of the Dodgers in the ninth inning of a game on Sept. 11, the streak might have continued.
"How you get to 18 wins in relief ... I don't know," Rich Gossage said in 2010, 33 years after he served as the Pirates' closer. "And if you do pitch enough to win 18, how in the [heck] do you lose only once? That's the amazing part of it."
Face's record was challenged by Roger Clemens in 2001. Then with the Yankees, Clemens went where not even Scherzer has gone. He won 20 of his first 21 decisions, but he lost his final two and ended his sixth Cy Young Award-winning season with an .870 percentage.
Rube Marquard of the 1912 New York Giants also won 19 of his first 20 decisions, but he finished his season with 11 losses.
Face hardly was a ninth-inning guy as the majority of closer are today. He made 57 appearances in 1959, 24 of two innings or more. He had one appearance of five innings, one of four and seven of three. He had 13 at-bats that year. Mariano Rivera has three in his career.
"I don't think I helped myself with any of my hits that year," said Face, who never drove in or scored a run, and none of his three hits played a part in a Pirates rally. "My teammates did all the work.
"That's how good I was," Face said, laughing. "I'd come in with a lead, give it up and then pitch well enough after my team scored more so we could to win. It happened so often, it was amazing. "
Not so remarkable for Scherzer. The Tigers are the second most productive team in the American League, and the support they afford Scherzer is mind-boggling -- 7.39 runs per game, the highest figure in the league. That Matt Harvey and his successors allowed merely three runs Saturday constitutes an accomplishment.
"We didn't score like that in my year," Face said.
Scherzer smiles when he speaks of the Tigers' support system.
"They make great plays behind me every time out," he said. "They get big hits for me."
Scherzer did his own hitting Saturday, driving in the Tigers' first run, in the second inning, with his first hit since 2009, when he pitched for the D-backs.
He considers his record a "team achievement" and "great fun," and said, "I can't get caught up in [the record], because I know it's the result of a lot players contributing."
Indeed, Scherzer is only vaguely aware of Face's winning percentage. And he acknowledged Saturday he has no recall of the distinctive name ElRoy Face.
But he did appreciate Face's good-natured dig about 36 wins when it was relayed to him after the game.
"I know," Scherzer said. "If I lose, he's pretty safe."
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.