The way Justin Verlander is going, it’s almost as if the Tigers already lead the American League Championship Series, two games to none.
That’s not true, obviously. In fact, the Tigers hardly are assured of winning both of Verlander’s starts against the Rangers in Games 1 and 5 (if necessary).
The Rangers beat Verlander in his third start of the season, 2-0, even though he pitched a six-hit complete game. The Tigers, meanwhile, are 27-10 in Verlander’s starts this season, including the playoffs, not 36-0.
The myth of the hot pitcher is a powerful narrative — and a frightening prospect for any opponent. I’m succumbing to the myth, and my growing sense that the Tigers could be this year’s Giants. But I’ve got significant reservations about picking against the Rangers, who might be the best team in the American League.
The Yankees had the most wins, 97, and the highest run differential, plus-210, in the AL. The Rangers finished with 96 wins and a run differential of plus-178.
They were next with 95 victories, but their plus-76 run differential was more like that of an 89-win team.
The postseason, of course, is different; teams effectively shrink their pitching staffs, especially in the first round. But the best-of-7s generally require managers to make fuller use of their rosters, and I’m not sure that’s a positive development for the Tigers.
Manager Jim Leyland hinted Friday that he would rely more on his left-handed relievers and specifically mentioned that two of his right-handed platoon players, second baseman/left fielder Ryan Raburn and third baseman Brandon Inge, would play more against the Rangers’ three left-handed starters than they did against the Yankees.
Much depends upon the status of left fielder Delmon Young, who suffered a mild left oblique strain in Game 5 of the Division Series. The Tigers made no announcement on Young’s status Friday, but as one rival GM asked, “How many out-of-shape players pull an oblique and play two days later?”
Without Young, the Tigers likely would go with Raburn in left and Santiago at second against the Rangers’ left-handers, getting weaker offensively and stronger defensively. But they likely would lose one of their hottest hitters, the left-handed hitting Don Kelly.
Here’s the thing, though: While the Tigers’ lineup, even with Young, isn’t all that deep, the Rangers’ starters averaged less than six innings per start against the Rays — a far weaker hitting club — in the Division Series.
And then there is this: The Rangers went 3-6 against the Tigers in the season series. Right-hander Alexi Ogando, who earned all three wins as a starter, will pitch out of the bullpen in this series.
Granted, the Rangers finished fifth in the AL in ERA, the Tigers seventh. The Rangers’ revamped bullpen — Ogando, plus in-season additions Mike Adams, Koji Uehara and Mike Gonzalez — looks more potent. And whatever perceived rotation advantage the Tigers possess might be overstated. The Rangers generally hit good pitching.
Still, the Tigers/Giants comparison might not be far-fetched.
Start with the Verlander/Max Scherzer power combination in Games 1 and 2, which indeed bears a resemblance to Tim Lincecum/Matt Cain. The Tigers’ bullpen probably is not as strong as the Giants’ was; let’s see how their lefties, Phil Coke and Daniel Schlereth, fare against the Rangers’ left-handed slugger, Josh Hamilton. But Leyland showed the same kind of knack with his lineup decisions in the Division Series that the Giants’ Bruce Bochy did last October.
The Tigers aren’t necessarily better than the Rangers, but I’ll put my faith in Verlander and to a lesser extent in Scherzer.