John Smoltz: 'I think Justin Verlander's got a little in reserve that's gonna surprise some people (in the playoffs).' (Robin Buckson / Detroit News)
Detroit -- When you start talking about some of the greatest starting pitching staffs of all-time, two immediately come to mind.
There were the 1971 Orioles, who had Jim Palmer, Mike Cuellar, Pat Dobson and Dave McNally. Between them, they won 81 games, and each won at least 20.
Then there was the Braves. No specific year here, because they were so impressive for so many years.
John Smoltz, Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux soon will be together again in the Hall of Fame. In Atlanta, they were the horses that carried the Braves to the bulk of their 14 consecutive division championships. The three of them won 624 games in Atlanta from 1989-2003, and during a three-year window from 1991-93 there was a fourth member of "Mount Rushmore" -- Taylor native Steve Avery.
So, the obvious question: How does this Tigers staff compare to that Braves run?
Smoltz's answer might surprise you.
"I don't think it compares in this regard: They've got so much more firepower than we had in our rotation," Smoltz, now an MLB analyst on TBS, told The Detroit News last week. "Obviously two different leagues, two different strategies. The numbers we put up for a long period of time will be unmatched.
"But on a year-to-year basis, I think there's always gonna be staffs that do better than we did."
There are two others in this year's playoffs alone: the Dodgers, led by certain Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke and Hyun-jin Ryu; and the Red Sox, with Jon Lester, a now-healthy Clay Buchholz and Jake Peavy.
But the Tigers go deeper than that, with likely AL Cy Young winner Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, Anibal Sanchez and Doug Fister. They actually go five-deep in the regular season, with Rick Porcello. Those five guys were the backbone behind the Tigers' pitching staff setting the all-time record for strikeouts in a single season. Scherzer, Verlander and Sanchez all topped 200.
"Five guys you can do whatever you want with," Smoltz said. " The deeper you go in the rotation, it doesn't get any easier."
Porcello now heads to the bullpen for the playoffs.
Scherzer and Verlander will start Games 1 and 2 in Oakland on Friday and Saturday, with Sanchez and Fister getting Games 3 and 4 back in Detroit on Monday and Tuesday.
"When you have the careers with the guys that I played with, it was incredible," said Smoltz, a Lansing native who only ended up in Atlanta because Detroit traded the then-minor leaguer for veteran pitcher Doyle Alexander for the 1987 stretch run. "But power-wise and ability to have swing-and-miss stuff, Detroit's up there.
"Power arms are hard to come by. Complete power arms are even harder to come by."
Smoltz said he expcects big things this series from Verlander ("I think Justin Verlander's got a little in reserve that's gonna surprise some people") and he insists Detroit's bullpen isn't as bad as it often is made out to be ("It's got a closer that's got confidence"). He does worry a little bit about Jhonny Peralta's ability to transition to left field.
Still, he gives Detroit the slight edge over Oakland -- and, actually, to get to the World Series.
"I don't think anything has changed in my mind there," said Smoltz, who was hesitant to make a more definitive prediction, having talked to The News before first-round playoff matchups were officially set.