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 — It’s 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. They’re not exactly churning into the postseason, so naturally, they’ve turned from World Series favorites into a wounded bunch just hoping to hang with the A’s, right?

Nice try. Sorry, but I’m not taking a smidgen of truth, sprinkling it with hyperbole and baking up nonsense. No, the Tigers aren’t huge favorites now, but one thing hasn’t changed, and their fate will be decided exactly where it began — on the mound. For the Tigers, that’s 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 league’s ERA champ, Anibal Sanchez, will start Game 3 in Detroit on Monday.

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

Don’t forget what rules the game. Here’s a helpful suggestion: Every time your knees buckle when you see Cabrera’s legs buckle, take a long look at the rotation. It’s the best in baseball, arguably. It’s the most menacing in baseball, inarguably, as the Tigers struck out more batters than any rotation in history.

Leyland’s 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 I’m sure it mattered he was superb in shutting out the A’s in Game 5 in Oakland a year ago.

The order doesn’t even necessarily make a difference because either Scherzer or Verlander could start a Game 5 on normal rest.

“If it was me, I’d probably make the same decision, because Max has had a magical season,” Verlander said. “When a guy’s had a season like that, why not ride it? We’re all a team here for one single goal, and that’s to win a World Series.”

Money on Oakland

It’s impossible to heap more pressure than the Tigers already bear, but I’ll do it anyway. Their starters have to be excellent to beat the A’s, 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 don’t listen to me. Listen to the ESPN experts — 22 of 33 picked the A’s.

Starting pitching can cover up many deficiencies but not all, which is why a return to the World Series won’t be easy. The A’s 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 don’t have one guy — we have a bunch of guys that can pitch extremely well,” Scherzer said. “You gotta be aggressive with (the A’s). They’re 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

Detroit’s starters were first in the AL in ERA at 3.44, and Oakland was second at 3.72. The A’s 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 A’s, 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 there’s no doubt he’ll 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. It’s imperative the Tigers do what they do, and throw like they throw.


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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