September 26, 2013 at 2:13 pm

Tony Paul

Talking Tigers: Starters' workload hasn't just been critical -- it's been historic

Detroit – Trivia time.

What do Felipe Lira, Omar Olivares, Greg Gohr, Justin Thompson, Brian Williams, Jose Lima, Great Keagle, A.J. Seager, C.J. Nitkowski, Scott Aldred, Todd Van Poppel, Clint Sodowsky, Tom Urbani, Trever Miller, Brian Moehler and John Farrell have in common?

All 16 – count ’em, 16 – made starts for the 1996 Detroit Tigers.

And that’s not even the franchise record!

In 1912, there were 17 – from Ed Willett, with 31 starts, to Bill Donvan, Allan Travers, Bun (Bun!?!) Troy and Pat McGehee, who each made a single start.

Most teams these days can expect to use between eight and 12 starters in a single season. In 2004 and 1901, the Tigers’ inaugural season, they got away with just seven.

That’s what makes 2013 so incredible. Assuming nobody else makes his first start of the season – and that’ll probably be the case, as there’s no reason for Jim Leyland to rest anyone, with a four-day break between the regular-season finale and the start of the American League Division Series – the Tigers will have used just six, all season.

That, folks, just doesn’t happen.

Even the 1971 Orioles, with their four 20-game winners, needed seven.

The Tigers’ potential first-round foe, the Athletics, also have used seven, and that’s a feat in itself. The six other teams that already have clinched a playoff spot -- the Pirates, Red Sox, Dodgers, Braves and Cardinals -- have used 12, 11, 11, 10 and 10, respectively.

That, there, is much more in line with the norm.

No doubt, it’s been a treat for Tigers manager Jim Leyland, who’s had his fair share of issues to worry about this season – injuries to Miguel Cabrera, Omar Infante, Austin Jackson, Alex Avila, Jose Iglesias, Bruce Rondon and a season-ender to Octavio Dotel; a 50-game suspension of his starting shortstop, Jhonny Peralta; plus nearly a half-season without a set closer – but he has lost precisely zero sleep about his rotation.

By the time this regular season is over, Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Doug Fister and Rick Porcello all will have made at least 30 starts, and Anibal Sanchez will have made 29 – missing out on the 30 club only because of a shoulder/back issue that called for a bit of precautionary rest back in June.

One pitcher, Jose Alvarez, made four starts in Sanchez’s absence, and pitched one of the games of the Tigers’ lone doubleheader.

Only three times before in franchise history have the Tigers seen four different pitchers make at least 30 starts apiece – in 1959, ’67 and ’68, and that was back when rotations were built around four men, not like the five today.

It calls for a bit of luck, really. You need to avoid injuries, obviously. And that’s tough for pitchers to do, given stress that unnatural motion puts on the arm. You also have to avoid inclement weather, and thus doubleheaders that typically call for a one-game promotion for a fill-in starter. The Tigers succeeded on both counts.

And keeping that starting five, for the most part, on the mound might be the biggest reason they’ve won the American League Central for a third straight year.

They have the best rotation in baseball – including one guy who’ll probably win the Cy Young (Scherzer), another who might’ve won had he not missed nearly a month of starts (Sanchez), another who won a Cy Young and finished second in the voting the last two years (Verlander), and another who’s one of the most underrated starters in baseball (Fister). Plus, Porcello – figured to be traded in the spring to open up a spot for Drew Smyly – has had his most impressive season in the major leagues.

The Tigers needed each one of them to do what they did to win an AL Central that saw surprising surges from the Indians and Royals.

Had one slipped up and suffered a more serious injury, the Tigers would’ve had to dip into a minor league system where top-tier starting pitching is oh so thin – particularly throughout the advanced levels of the system.

Plus, Porcello stepping up his game allowed the Tigers to keep Smyly in the bullpen all season. And Smyly has become the second-best reliever, behind Joaquin Benoit, for a relief corps that, aside from those two, has been littered with inconsistency.

Tigers starters lead baseball in innings and strikeouts, and the AL in ERA as well as opponents’ slugging percentage and OPS. They have 20 games of 10 strikeouts or more, with Sanchez setting the franchise record with 17. Three of them (Scherzer, Verlander and Fister) have topped 200 innings, and Sanchez would’ve if not for the injury. Two of them (Scherzer and Verlander) have topped 200 strikeouts, and another Sanchez will become the third member of that club if he gets six in his next start.

Collectively, they might not be quite on par with those 1971 Orioles, or those “Mount Rushmore” Braves teams of the 1990s, or maybe even the 2013 Dodgers.

But they’re the reason the Tigers are in the playoffs again. And they’re the reason the Tigers, all their warts be damned, remain as good a bet as anyone to win it all.

They don’t just take all their turns, Tigers starters. They usually make the most of them.

Few teams have done it, and fewer still have done it as well.

Anibal Sanchez is 14-8 and leads the Tigers with a 2.64 ERA. / Robin Buckson / Detroit News