September 19, 2013 at 12:12 pm

Tony Paul

Jim Leyland sending message by stretching Tigers starters' workload

Tigers pitcher Rick Porcello was allowed to go back out for the ninth inning in Chicago and earn his first complete game. He finished with 105 pitches, his second-most this season. (Robin Buckson / Detroit News)

Detroit — Rick Porcello got to go for the complete game two starts ago. Anibal Sanchez stayed in to face the left-handed hitters late in a tight game Tuesday. Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander both went back out for the seventh inning in their last starts, despite pitch counts that already had exceeded 100.

A funny thing has been happening lately. Manager Jim Leyland has put the leash down — or at least is giving it a little slack.

Tigers starting pitchers are, noticeably, being pushed, here, down the stretch.

And there might just be a very good reason for that.

From my vantage point, I strongly believe this is Leyland sending a clear message to his starting pitchers: They’re the horses, and they best get used to getting big outs late in ballgames.

Bullpen blues

Everybody knows the Tigers have one serious flaw, and that’s the bullpen. Outside of Joaquin Benoit, there’s no sure thing down there. Heck, even Drew Smyly’s been hit around lately, with opponents batting .327 against him since the start of August.

And he’s the Tigers’ second-best reliever, and it’s not even close.

The Tigers, meanwhile, will run out the most dominant starting four in the postseason, with Cy Young candidates Scherzer and Sanchez, Verlander and Doug Fister. The A’s and Red Sox have very good rotations, too, but they’re not on par.

The Tigers have a fine offense, too, but we’ve often seen it struggle against good pitching, especially the playoffs. Last year, they were shut out three times in 13 postseason games, after being blanked just twice in 162 regular-season games.

On Wednesday night, against playoff-grade Mariners pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma, the Tigers were shut out for the 11th time this season.

So, let’s be clear: The Tigers of 2013 are going as far as their starters take them.

Through six innings Wednesday night, Verlander, Leyland’s struggling ace, had thrown 109 pitches, right about average for him. It would’ve surprised nobody if, upon entering the home dugout at Comerica Park in the middle of the sixth, Verlander, who’d been erratic and already was down 3-0, was extended the so-called “Handshake of Doom.”

It didn’t happen, he went back out for the seventh — and had his best inning, striking out two Mariners, sandwiched around a pop-up. He finished with 124 pitches, his second-highest total of the season.

The night before, Sanchez’s work was seemingly done after the first two Mariners reached in the seventh inning of a game the Tigers were winning, 2-1. He was, after all, at 114 pitches, on the high end for him this year. But, interestingly, Leyland didn’t budge. And Sanchez stayed in to face switch-hitter Nick Franklin, who’s a much bigger power threat from the left side, mind you. But Sanchez whiffed him.

Good way to end things, right? Wrong again. Leyland had Sanchez stay in to face big slugger Kendrys Morales, another switch-hitter who’s more dangerous from the left side — and that at-bat didn’t go so well. After not getting the borderline strike three call, Sanchez allowed a tying double. Only then did Leyland take him out — after he had thrown 125 pitches, which he has eclipsed just once this year, on May 24, when he was two outs from no-hitting the Twins.

Two days before that, Scherzer stayed in with runners at second and third with one out in the seventh, and his pitch count at 111 — and he responded by getting out of the jam without a run scoring.

And five days before that, Porcello — a guy Leyland long has handled like fine china — was allowed to go back out for the ninth inning in Chicago and earn his first complete game. He finished with 105 pitches, his second-most this season.

Leyland had his reasons each time. In Porcello’s case, the Tigers had a huge lead and there was no sense burning a reliever. In Sanchez’s case, the Tigers had a severely short-handed bullpen. Scherzer staying in gave him a shot at his 20th victory. And Verlander, well, frankly, he could use the confidence boost.

But in each case, Leyland also showed some faith, and in each case, to some extent, his faith paid off. And the biggest return might come in the postseason, where it’s very likely Tigers starters will be asked to stay in to get a tough left-hander out, or stretch it an inning longer than they’re used to.

If you’re worried Leyland should be throttling back on the starters’ workload so they’re not exhausted entering the playoffs, there will be time for that. The Tigers should clinch the AL Central in the next five days — they’re hoping it takes four or fewer, so they can celebrate a division clincher at home for the first time since 1987 — at which point the brakes can be tapped. It’s also worth noting, the two division series don’t start until Friday, Oct. 4, giving AL division champions four days off before the playoffs.