BOSTON -- Whom would you choose to take the mound in an elimination game, with a long winter of what-ifs just one loss away? And no, Sandy Koufax is not available. Besides, Sandy is 77 years old, so he probably couldn't go much more than five innings (six tops) even if he would be working on 17,237 days' rest.
The choice should be fairly simple. You would want the season's best pitcher, or at least the season's best pitcher in your league, the likely Cy Young winner. And just as the Dodgers placed their faith and hopes in Clayton Kershaw on Friday night (though it didn't go as well as planned), the Tigers will do the same with Max Scherzer today.
Some might argue that Scherzer wasn't the best pitcher in his league because his 21 wins were fueled by 5.59 runs of support per game, third most in the AL. Or they might point out that he had a teammate (Anibal Sanchez) with a lower ERA. These people are wrong. Scherzer was the American League's best pitcher this season. He was among the leaders in the most important categories, including ERA (fifth), innings (fifth), strikeouts (second) and WHIP (first). And, according to Fangraphs, he led all AL pitchers in wins above replacement.
Scherzer also is pitching at a top level the past month. He did not allow a run in his final start of the season and has allowed just three runs and five hits while striking out 24 batters in 14 innings in two postseason starts (and also worked two important innings of relief).
And now he will start his team's most important game. Unless, of course, Scherzer wins, in which case the next game would become the most important.
"The games are different but the mentality is the same," Scherzer said of the magnitude of postseason starts. "Every game is a must-win. I haven't played a game where it hasn't been a must-win situation for us. For me, it's the same mentality every single time we take the field."
Scherzer will need to pitch one of his best games unless Detroit's offense improves markedly.
Likely MVP Miguel Cabrera is so slowed by assorted injuries that he has become a liability on the basepaths and anemic at the plate (just four extra-base hits since Aug. 26). Prince Fielder hasn't driven in a run this postseason and doesn't have a postseason RBI since Game 1 of the 2012 ALCS, a span of 17 games and 64 at-bats. That isn't all Fielder's fault -- he's had just four at-bats with runners in scoring position this month -- but he's essentially become the planet's heaviest singles hitter.
Further, the Tigers aren't sure if catcher Alex Avila, who left Game 5 with a strained left patellar tendon -- will be able to play. If not, Jim Leyland said one option would be to have Victor Martinez catch and Cabrera move to DH, though the Detroit manager stressed that is unlikely. "I don't think that's going to happen," he said. "But it would be an option if Alex were not able to play."
In other words ... the pressure is on Scherzer to deliver a similar performance to his last Sunday -- and given the Detroit bullpen, perhaps a longer one as well.
Scherzer took a no-hitter into the sixth inning in Game 2 against Boston and left with a 5-1 lead after seven innings before the Detroit bullpen melted down. Scherzer had thrown 108 pitches at that point but Leyland said the pitcher was spent and took him out. In retrospect, Detroit might be in a much different situation had Scherzer been able to pitch just a little longer. He said he will Saturday.
"You know how your arm feels with the pitch count, when you reach 80 pitches, 90 pitches, 100, 110 pitches," he said. "But when you're in a win-or-go-home game, you're going to pitch as long as you can."
He also will be making some adjustments to combat whatever adjustments the Red Sox will make.
"The situation changes because they're familiar with what I did," Scherzer said. "They're going to be looking through the film and watching what I did, the sequences, patterns, when I threw off-speed pitches, when I didn't. Obviously, I've got to be ahead of the curve. I don't know what I'm going to do but there will be things I do differently."
Detroit's starting pitchers have been on an impressive roll this October. They have a 2.20 ERA while allowing just 47 hits and striking out 86 batters in 65 1/3 innings. They have held opponents hitless four times through the first four innings.
And fittingly, in what could be their final game of the year, they will start the man who was the league's best pitcher this season.
Now, if only his teammates can replicate that high run support from the season.