DETROIT — How good has the starting rotation of the Detroit Tigers been this postseason?
Well, you have to go back 38 years to find a group that was as good at hanging zeroes on the scoreboard, one after another.
Justin Verlander pitched eight shutout innings Tuesday night against the New York Yankees to stretch the starters’ consecutive scoreless innings streak to 30 1/3. Then New York’s No. 9 hitter Eduardo Nunez laced a leadoff homer in the ninth to end the magic in the 2-1 Tigers victory that put them up 3-0 in the ALCS.
Verlander started it with a complete game shutout in Game 5 of the ALDS in Oakland against the A’s. Then Doug Fister went 6 1/3 scoreless innings in winning Game 1 against the Yankees before Anibal Sanchez blanked them for seven innings in his Game 2 victory.
There had not been a streak like it since Hall of Famer Jim “Catfish” Hunter hooked up with Vida Blue, an MVP and Cy Young Award winner, and two-time All-Star Ken Holtzman in 1974 to shut out the Baltimore Orioles in the ALCS and the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series for a stretch of 29 consecutive innings.
That trio won 607 games in the majors, and provided the heart of a pitching staff that won its third consecutive World Series in 1974.
Dominant starting pitching is the bottom line to postseason success, and Detroit certainly has the best four going this year with Wednesday night starter Max Scherzer being a 16-game winner who struck out 231 this season.
“We have a staff that can take us pretty far,” Tigers catcher Alex Avila said.
There is no weak link in Detroit’s chain of pitching.
“I think pitching is contagious, just like hitting is,” Verlander said. “And, you know, we are all competitive guys. You see somebody go out there and have a good game, and you want to one-up that guy. He is your friend, I know, but it still gives you the urge to go out there and do better.
“That’s a great thing when you can get your entire rotation doing that. I think we’re starting to click at the right time.”
They, along with fifth starter Rick Porcello, who is in the bullpen for the playoffs, are a close-knit group. They enjoy golfing together and trying to out-do one another in everything from Kentucky Derby pools to fantasy football. During games, they hang together in the dugout, making observations that are passed along to that day’s starter.
Detroit pitching coach Jeff Jones was asked how important their bond is to their success.
“It’s huge, absolutely huge,” Jones said. “We have a very, very good staff. It’s not just one guy — it’s a number of guys. … And they do it together. They have been fun to watch.”
Verlander, the defending league MVP and Cy Young Award winner, sets the tone.
“He always wants to be the best,” said Jones, who pitched for the Oakland A’s in their “Billy Ball” era for Billy Martin. “He was as focused as ever going into this season, and he wanted to do better than the year before … which was virtually impossible.”
Verlander ended up 17-8 with a 2.64 ERA and a league-high 239 strikeouts. His excellence has been a constant, and Scherzer also has been strong throughout the season.
“Max has been tremendous,” Jones said, “and has gotten a lot better slider going for him. That’s been huge for him this year. His fastball and changeup have always been good, but now his slider is refined.”
Fister (10-10, 3.45 ERA) found the groove he was in last season, when the Tigers acquired him from the Seattle Mariners and he helped carry them down the stretch along with Verlander. He set an AL record by fanning nine consecutive Kansas City Royals last month.
“Doug works quick and is changing speeds much better right now,” Jones said. “He’s got it all going with the breaking ball, sinkers and cutters. He’s very confident and not afraid to throw any pitch in any count.”
Sanchez was this year’s trade deadline addition, coming from the Florida Marlins along with second baseman Omar Infante. Sanchez struggled to learn his new league before finding his rhythm in September and finishing with a 4-6 record and 3.74 ERA for Detroit. Sanchez has a 1.35 ERA in the postseason.
“After a slow start,” Jones said, “Sanchez has really come on. What he’s been doing best is being unpredictable for hitters. There is no pattern to read with him.”
Jack Morris, the ace of the last Tigers World Series winners in 1984, threw out the first pitch before Verlander took the mound against the Yankees.
“I’ll tell you what,” Morris said, “Justin gets the majority of attention as he probably should because he’s at a different level. But, you know, you saw Sanchez’s game in New York — pretty darned good. I have a lot of faith in him.
“And Fister, I have been a big fan. And he pitched a big game the other night. And Scherzer, to me, he could strike out more than Justin. He has movement; he is funky; he has it all, too.
“The Tigers’ staff has been lights out. They have been great.”