Will Tigers' pitching end ALCS early?

October, 15, 2012
10/15/12
10:30
AM ET
Jim Leyland, Justin VerlanderGregory Shamus/Getty ImagesDetroit manager Jim Leyland will hand the ball to Justin Verlander to start Game 3.
NEW YORK--After Game 2 of the ALCS, it was easy to say that you’d sensed something palpable about the confidence in the Tigers’ clubhouse. Call it confidence, or dismissal of vaunted Yankeedom earned via victory, or simply the solid satisfaction of coming back to Detroit up two games to none in the series with Justin Verlander conveniently queued up for Game 3. Call it what you will, it’s the stuff that short series are made of.

It’s also a bit of turning back to the clock to postseasons past, because for all the attention paid to their closer controversy, the Tigers are trying to get to the World Series the old-fashioned way: with starting pitching.

As Quintin Berry noted after the Tigers’ 3-0 win over the Yankees, “We know we have a pretty great pitching staff. A lot of people don’t talk about them as much as they should, they stop at [Verlander], but we have a bunch of guys behind him that throw the ball really well and that other teams don’t want to face.”

It isn’t bragging when it’s true, and after seeing their third straight starter shut out the competition (the last time a Tigers starter allowed a run was Game 4 of the ALDS, when the A’s pushed one across against Max Scherzer), you can forgive the Tigers for a bit of bragging.

This might also overlook the day-to-day detail of the Yankees’ repeated failures at the plate. Asked if one run would have been enough to win in Game 2, Berry, flush with the win, asserted, “Yeah, especially against the Yankees, you don’t expect to get one run and win a game. But we can tell from the way they’re swinging and the way we’re pitching, we’ve got all the expectations in the world to be able to win that game.”

It’s also worth keeping in mind that among all of this year's AL playoff teams, the Tigers had the strongest rotation during the regular season, at least in terms of total quality starts (90, tied for second in the league with the Athletics) and average Game Score (53, second behind the Rays). Game Score’s far from perfect, but it’s a handy snapshot stat of average quality per start.

But even that sort of broad-stroke observation risks losing sight of the fact that the Tigers’ postseason rotation is better than those cumulative numbers -- which include Rick Porcello’s poor season, for example -- and doesn’t account for the full impact of Anibal Sanchez's inclusion on the Tigers' postseason quartet. The Kitties’ fearsome foursome of Verlander, Scherzer, Doug Fister and Sanchez notched an outstanding 70 quality starts in 105 turns for the Tigers, with an average Game Score of 57, which in isolation would represent the best clip in the league.

That’s the thing about the postseason if you’re wondering when, if or how the Yankees are going to break out of their October funk at the plate: You don’t get to see the Porcellos this time of year, you don’t get to bust out of hitting slumps facing somebody else’s flawed starter, or if somebody’s hurting.

That's not the case with these Tigers. General manager Dave Dombrowski confidently notes that this rotation is far from gassed after six months’ worth of regular-season action: “These guys are strong come postseason time. It’s October, and they’re strong.”

As the old saying goes, momentum might be tomorrow’s starting pitcher, but it doesn’t hurt to be able to go into that game tomorrow with every confidence that you’ll get a game you can win from the man on the mound. And with Verlander, Scherzer and Fister on tap for the three games in Detroit, you can reasonably wonder if this series will get back to the Bronx.

After Game 2, Dombrowski was justifiably proud of what his team’s done so far, at the same time noting that his team is turning back the clock, saying, “I really like going out there with strong starting pitching, but if you notice last year, starting pitching didn’t win the postseason last year, it was really kind of an unusual year. But that’s really kind of unusual, not the norm. We’ll see what happens.”

Last year’s postseason featured the Cardinals’ victory with Tony La Russa using the shortest hook with his starting pitching perhaps ever seen in a postseason series, but Dombrowski’s skepticism over whether that might be a developing trend might seem appropriate. La Russa’s final blaze of hyperactive staff micromanagement aside, a starting staff that keeps the other team off the scoreboard is a nice starting point in any series, for any stakes.

Should the Tigers be worried about getting caught in that sort of chess match? Dombrowski isn't, even in light of Papa Grande-gate. After all, he has one of La Russa’s old coaches skippering his team this postseason. As a result, the GM confidently asserted, “I’ve been with Jim Leyland when he managed, and I’ve been against Jim Leyland when he’s managed. And Jim Leyland was always known as the best manager in baseball mixing and matching and handling the bullpen. He’s the best. ... He trusts his instincts, he’s got a good pulse, he’ll bring the right guy in when he needs to.”

That was certainly a hallmark of Leyland’s winning teams in Pittsburgh back in the early ‘90s. There, Leyland won division titles without a vaunted “established closer,” instead playing mix-and-match games all season with bullpens fronted by such forgettable luminaries as Bill Landrum, Stan Belinda and Ted Power. He’s also won a pennant and endured the anxiety brought on by inconsistent designated save generators. After all, have we forgotten Todd Jones so soon?

Put those factors together with a star-powered offense, and you can see why Yankees fans may have just had to say goodbye to their Bombers on Sunday. Between a Tigers rotation motoring through October at top gear and a tactician skilled enough to play matchup games to make good on enough leads to survive even the next Jose Valverde-induced panic attack, there’s a good chance this series won’t get back to New York.


Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.

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