Ace can simply save the Tigers' season

DETROIT -- All right. This is where Justin Verlander can show he's the league's most valuable player in addition to its Cy Young winner.

Verlander was baseball's best pitcher this season, leading the American League in every meaningful category. He was 24-5 with a 2.40 ERA and 250 strikeouts, winning the pitching triple crown. He threw a no-hitter. And even though the votes are all cast and the award is the last thing on his mind, this is his chance to show why a starting pitcher can be an MVP even though he plays only one fifth of his team's games.

Verlander's Detroit Tigers are trailing the Texas Rangers 3-1 in the American League Championship Series, coming off their second 11-inning loss in three days. His teammates are so beat up that manager Jim Leyland didn't even know whether Victor Martinez and Delmon Young would be able to play when they got to the ballpark Wednesday. They did, but the entire state of Michigan is now so well-versed in the oblique and intercostal muscles that they could teach Anatomy 101 at Ann Arbor. Catcher Alex Avila is aching so much the Tigers need to spray WD-40 on his joints between innings. Leyland says he thinks Verlander is a little tired, as well.

But so what? This is Verlander's time. This is his chance to lift his aching team on his shoulders and carry them to victory against Texas ace C.J. Wilson and the Rangers. This is his chance to inspire Detroit and make its citizens pound their chests with so much pride that Chrysler should use his game footage instead of Eminem in its next commercial.

Win Game 5, and the series continues. Lose, and the season is over.

"I think we're more confident now because we know the situation, and he knows it, too," outfielder Austin Jackson said. "So he's going to come out and he's going to be fired up."

Verlander said he wanted to pitch Game 4, but Leyland said as much as he admired that attitude, the prudent thing was to give him an extra day of rest. That was the right call. The record is bad for postseason starts on short rest and besides, you have to win four games in a series, not just Game 4. But now it's up to Verlander to back up his manager's decision with a winning start on full rest.

"I feel good," Verlander said. "My last start, my body didn't feel great. But that happened plenty of times throughout the season. It's going to happen. I've worked real hard to be strong this time of year. And I feel like I am. I don't think there's anything else I can do."

Thanks to the weather, Verlander has been able to pitch only 13 innings for Detroit this postseason, leaving two starts early due to rain. And, of course, the forecast calls for rain again Thursday. "It doesn't surprise me," Verlander said, adding later that all the rain-shortened games don't mean he has any extra bullets in his arm. "I would like to have thrown as many bullets as I normally do. Like I said, try to keep myself in rhythm."

Whether it's the rain, the rhythm or fatigue, something has been a bit off this postseason. Verlander has struck out 17 batters in 13 innings, but he also has walked seven and allowed eight runs for a 5.54 ERA. He gave up three runs in four innings and lost 3-2 in Game 1. He said he thinks two recent bullpen sessions will help.

"I felt like I was flying off the ball pretty bad with my front side," he said. "I felt like I fixed it. It was a little inconsistent the first time and I felt I got better the next time. Once you go out there on the mound in the game you don't worry about that stuff. That's why I threw two bullpen sessions to try to create that muscle memory and get my body back where it needs to be."

Verlander was 16-3 in games he started after a Detroit loss. The Tigers need him to make it 17-3.

"You want your No. 1 out there when your back is to the wall, and our backs are to the wall," third baseman Brandon Inge said. "He makes you pretty confident. Obviously, he's one of the best pitchers in the game, so you know you're going to have a good chance when he's out there."

As a starting pitcher, Verlander has spent the past three games on the bench unable to help his teammates. But what makes a starting pitcher so valuable is what he can do on that one day he pitches. And with a great start, Verlander can make up for Rick Porcello's costly throwing error, Jackson's caught-stealing attempt and Jose Valverde's four-run blowup in Game 4. He can make up for the grand slam that reliever Ryan Perry gave up in Game 2. He can make up for the injuries and the squandered scoring chances throughout this series.

He can save Detroit's season.

"I've done everything I can possibly do to get myself prepared," Verlander said. "Now it's a matter of going out there and doing it."

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

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