Opening Day 2013: The Tigers are steeled for a 162-game season and for their place (in the view of many national pundits) as favorites to win the World Series.
They have it all.
And enough relievers to compensate for the unsettling fact they don’t have a clear-cut closer.
By midseason, they even have their ninth-inning fireman, Joaquin Benoit, who finishes with 24 saves.
But during a six-month trek that tonight has taken Detroit to Oakland for the beginning of an American League Division Series, the Tigers have had their sour stretches in almost every phase of the game apart from starting pitching.
Frontline starters, a playoff team’s cornerstone, are the specialty of the Tigers and the reason why an imperfect roster still is regarded as a dangerous matchup for any October opponent.
Justin Verlander had his mortal moments this season, but with his more traditional skills on display down the stretch, the Tigers tonight invade baseball’s postseason with a core rotation that could compensate for the more worrisome soft spots: Miguel Cabrera’s lingering groin injury, and a thin bullpen that doesn’t always behave.
“I don’t see how anybody can find anything wrong with this rotation,” Tigers manager Jim Leyland said as the Tigers packed for their charter flight to California. “If they can, God bless ’em.”
Max Scherzer, who tonight will start Game 1 against the A’s, isn’t about to be so blessed by the deity. He agrees with his manager. And he will tell you what he most remembers from a season in which starting pitchers were so good they made history.
“Just how good we were,” Scherzer said Tuesday as he stood sentry-like in front of his locker inside the Tigers clubhouse. “Top to bottom, how we were able to execute so many pitches, and execute them so effectively.
“There were so many different ways we would pitch, and we all came away with results.”
The Tigers struck out more batters than any team in history (1,428, surpassing the 2003 Cubs). They had a pair of 200-strikeout pitchers in Scherzer and Verlander, and a starting quintet so sturdy that one of their accomplished five, Rick Porcello, has no choice but to shift to an all-important bullpen role.
The starters will come in handy as Detroit prepares for a playoff grind that might last no longer than this five-game Division Series.
Trepidation has to do, primarily, with Cabrera’s sore groin. His power has been all but vanquished by an ongoing hip-abdomen-groin sequence that has held him to a lone home run and a single double since Aug. 26.
Tigers starters cannot be expected to pitch shutouts against a two-fisted A’s lineup that has speed and power. Cabrera is flanked by good hitters, but minus their drive-train batter beating up pitchers in the fashion of Cabrera, the Tigers are asking starters to keep manager Bob Melvin’s team in handcuffs while they figure out ways to score that don’t involve extra-base hits from Cabrera.
That, of course, is the specter if Cabrera is no more mobile tonight than he has been since late August, when his chain-reaction or lower-body ailments robbed him of his power.
“We either hit, or we don’t,” Leyland said, speaking specifically of a lineup that, for all its stars, can so often have trouble driving home runs when Cabrera isn’t mashing fences and seats.
Tigers starters must also excel early and stay late. And that typically is their habit, as Scherzer, Verlander, Anibal Sanchez and Doug Fister have shown the past six months.
It’s a quartet known on many a day and night for pitching into the seventh inning, or even later, which will be helpful if the Tigers are to avoid letdowns from their second problem child: the bullpen.
Leyland’s relievers have been a largely successful but frequently uneasy bunch since those days in spring camp when Bruce Rondon showed he was not quite ready to become the Tigers closer.
Other problems ensued: Brayan Villarreal, a strikeout pitcher, could no longer throw strikes and was traded at midseason to the Red Sox. Phil Coke, who had a marvelous postseason in 2012, never got rolling as the primary back-end left-hander. Now, he and Rondon are hurting and are no-shows in the Division Series.
Jose Ortega didn’t develop as the Tigers had hoped a young right-hander might. Al Alburquerque was erratic and only recently began to pitch as expected. Darin Downs, another left-hander, was hurt and missed two months.
Drew Smyly was a prize-winner for Leyland, as was Benoit. But factor in Jose Veras, who came aboard by way of a July trade and who has pitched inconsistently, and it’s all the more urgent that Porcello bring his talents and consistency to a bullpen that will need him — and probably frequently.
Team's strong suit
Through it all the starters minimized Leyland’s greater problems: tepid early-season play; the closer drama; an early-season hitting slump by Alex Avila that later became complicated by concussion issues; Jhonny Peralta’s 50-game suspension; and most ominously, Cabrera’s damaged abdomen and the pain he has endured.
He has not been the same hitter. And he might not resemble his old ways even after a nearly weeklong layoff ends tonight at O.co Coliseum.
That leaves it on the shoulders of pitchers who have never, for any sustained time, let down the Tigers during this unusual, 93-victory season.
They need to do even more in October. The competition is elite. The stakes are absolute. And the starters are being asked to engineer nothing less than a world championship for Detroit.