October 2, 2013 at 1:00 am

Bob Wojnowski

Tigers have pitching to beat A's, if they can hit even a little

Tigers talk with Lynn Henning and Tony Paul
Tigers talk with Lynn Henning and Tony Paul: Detroit News sports writers discuss the ALDS.

Detroit Its fashionable to say it, and perhaps reasonable to think it. The Tigers have one big nagging injury, and a few bullpen blips and lineup lapses. Theyre not exactly churning into the postseason, so naturally, theyve turned from World Series favorites into a wounded bunch just hoping to hang with the As, right?

Nice try. Sorry, but Im not taking a smidgen of truth, sprinkling it with hyperbole and baking up nonsense. No, the Tigers arent huge favorites now, but one thing hasnt changed, and their fate will be decided exactly where it began on the mound. For the Tigers, thats still a great place to start.

It begins with Max Scherzer in Game 1 on Friday night, a surprise to absolutely no one. Jim Leyland made the announcement Tuesday, and he must have felt like a cook selecting prime cuts of beef. After Scherzer, the presumptive Cy Young winner, it will be Justin Verlander, the MVP and Cy Young winner two years ago. And then oh, by the way, the leagues ERA champ, Anibal Sanchez, will start Game 3 in Detroit on Monday.

Listen, the Tigers have reasons to be concerned, starting with Miguel Cabreras limp. They eased messily down the stretch, capped by that no-hitter by some anonymous Marlins pitcher, although its silly to alter perceptions based on the final week (or final month).

Dont forget what rules the game. Heres a helpful suggestion: Every time your knees buckle when you see Cabreras legs buckle, take a long look at the rotation. Its the best in baseball, arguably. Its the most menacing in baseball, inarguably, as the Tigers struck out more batters than any rotation in history.

Leylands playoff order makes sense, with Doug Fister at No. 4 and Rick Porcello going to the bullpen. At 21-3, Scherzer was an obvious choice. Sanchez was alternately spectacular and solid, but Verlander at least is getting closer to being Verlander again. He pitched 12 scoreless innings his last two outings and his ERA is down to 3.46. And Im sure it mattered he was superb in shutting out the As in Game 5 in Oakland a year ago.

The order doesnt even necessarily make a difference because either Scherzer or Verlander could start a Game 5 on normal rest.

If it was me, Id probably make the same decision, because Max has had a magical season, Verlander said. When a guys had a season like that, why not ride it? Were all a team here for one single goal, and thats to win a World Series.

Money on Oakland

Its impossible to heap more pressure than the Tigers already bear, but Ill do it anyway. Their starters have to be excellent to beat the As, who won 96 games and clobbered them in a four-game late-August series, winning three while scoring 34 runs. This is a tough matchup for the Tigers, just like last year, but dont listen to me. Listen to the ESPN experts 22 of 33 picked the As.

Starting pitching can cover up many deficiencies but not all, which is why a return to the World Series wont be easy. The As finished with a better record again, have their noisy home-field advantage again and are a feisty bundle of scruff and guff again. But they have their own issues with slugger Yoenis Cespedes sore shoulder, and if the Tigers have to win 2-1, 1-0, 1-2, 0-1, 2-1, so be it. If their starters have to throw 125-pitch complete games, as Rays ace David Price did the other night, October is the month to do it.

On this staff, you really dont have one guy we have a bunch of guys that can pitch extremely well, Scherzer said. You gotta be aggressive with (the As). Theyre patient, they grind out at-bats, they can run your pitch count up. That puts the onus on you even more to attack them with strike one.

Grind time

Detroits starters were first in the AL in ERA at 3.44, and Oakland was second at 3.72. The As will send out a far more eclectic (and less stable) mix, from 40-year-old ace Bartolo Colon to hotshot rookie Sonny Gray to 24-year-old Jarrod Parker, although they do have a better bullpen.

The Tigers hitting has been so spotty, they welcomed back Jhonny Peralta and likely will toss him into an unfamiliar role in left field. For comparison, the Tigers led the AL in average (.283) and second in runs behind the Red Sox. The As, who draw walks and steal bases, scored 29 fewer runs despite posting an average (.254) nearly 30 points lower.

The Tigers will have to do some grinding here. The way Cabrera winced his way though September with one home run freaks people out, which is understandable. Battling a groin strain, Cabrera said he was feeling better Tuesday, but theres no doubt hell be slowed.

The Tigers have been an all-or-nothing team, loaded with thick-legged boppers and thunder-throwing pitchers. Their offense: Home runs and really long singles. Their identity: Pitchers who take the ball and hurl it hard. At the end of a long season, at the start of a tense postseason, not a lot has changed. Its imperative the Tigers do what they do, and throw like they throw.

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com
twitter.com/bobwojnowski

Right-hander Max Scherzer, an American League Cy Young Award favorite, heads a rotation that serves as a strength for the Tigers' World Series hopes. / Elizabeth Conley / Detroit News
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