Tigers face pressure to win title

In October, the Yankees are accustomed to looking across the field at a team with less urgency to win than themselves.

That’s not the case in this year’s American League Championship Series.

The Yankees’ Game 1 lineup had 14 World Series rings among the 10 players. Another title would do little to change the baseball legacies of Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte and Alex Rodriguez. But on the same night, the Detroit Tigers had only two world champions among their starters — Miguel Cabrera (’03 Marlins, as a rookie) and Gerald Laird (’11 Cardinals, as a backup catcher).

Mike Ilitch has owned the Tigers for more than 20 years, and this is the club’s third postseason appearance during his stewardship. Ilitch, 83, wants desperately to win a World Series to go along with his four Stanley Cups as owner of the Detroit Red Wings. That unrelenting desire is why he unexpectedly signed Prince Fielder to a nine-year, $214 million contract last offseason, raising the club payroll to $140 million when including deferred money.

In Fielder, Cabrera and ace pitcher Justin Verlander, the Tigers may have three of the top 10 players in baseball. All are under 30 years of age.

The Tigers might have the best four-man rotation left in the postseason: Verlander, who is 29, followed by Max Scherzer, Doug Fister, and Anibal Sanchez, all 28. Sanchez, who shut out the Yankees over seven innings in Sunday’s Game 2 victory, will be a free agent after this season.

Leadoff man Austin Jackson, arguably the top defensive center fielder in baseball, is an All-Star-caliber player at the beginning of his prime. Jim Leyland, the 67-year-old manager who may go to the Hall of Fame, doesn’t have a contract for next year.

The Rangers, who outplayed the Tigers in last year’s ALCS, were knocked out by the upstart Orioles in the wild-card round. The big-spending Red Sox and Angels whiffed on the postseason. The Rays might have been the one AL team with a clear pitching advantage over the Tigers, but they fell just shy of making the playoffs. The Yankees’ lineup was having an abysmal postseason even before Jeter sustained a fractured left ankle.

For those internal and external reasons, this might be the Tigers’ best chance to win it all with the core of Verlander, Cabrera and Fielder. They acknowledged as much with savvy midseason trades for Fister and Sanchez the last two Julys. As Al Avila, the team’s assistant general manager, said recently of the team’s roster composition: “When else are we going to go for it?”

Of the team’s superstars, Verlander is the closest to free agency. (After this season, he has two years and $40 million left on his contract with the Tigers.) Perhaps that is why he has shown such resolve this month, delivering two command performances against Oakland during the AL Division Series in what has been the finest postseason of his career. Tuesday in Game 3, he has the chance to pitch the Tigers to within one victory of the World Series.

Verlander’s most recent outing — a masterful shutout, on the road, in the winner-take-all Game 5 — was reminiscent of former postseason aces like Jack Morris and Curt Schilling. Morris himself saw it coming.

“They asked me to predict what would happen in the game,” said Morris, a postseason analyst for MLB.com. “My prediction was nine innings. He pitched nine innings. My prediction was 13 strikeouts. Well, he dinked around and only got 11. My prediction was five hits. What did he give up? Four? So I screwed up there. And I thought he’d give up one run, because I thought one of the Oakland A’s would run into a bomb. They didn’t.

“I was pretty right on with what I thought, and it’s only because he’s got the best stuff in the game and he’s become a better pitcher.

Morris added: “I really think we haven’t seen the best of Justin Verlander yet. He’s getting better and better because he’s getting smarter.”

Six years after his postseason debut, Verlander is showing the benefits of that knowledge. After the Tigers won his first two playoff games in 2006, Verlander had a 5.63 ERA over his next five postseason outings — including two rain-shortened starts last October. But then he turned in a dominant performance to win an elimination game against Texas in last year’s ALCS, followed by the emphatic wins over Oakland this month

“There’s still the angst and nervousness and pregame jitters, but I feel like I’ve pitched in some big games now and understand what my body’s going to be going through and what my mind’s going to be going through,” Verlander said Monday. “I’m able to rein it in a little more and use it more to my advantage than have it be detrimental to me.”

That calm is masking the inherent pressure of this postseason for the Tigers.

During a recent interview, Verlander said candidly that “this year and next year, when you look at the contracts coming up” constitute the Tigers’ best window in which to win it all. For a man who speaks openly about a desire to win 300 games and be enshrined at Cooperstown, a World Series ring is about the only omission on a résumé that already includes Most Valuable Player and Cy Young awards — not to mention a pair of no-hitters. And Verlander wants badly to win that championship with the only professional organization he’s known.

He knows how close he is to free agency. He knows what the market value would be for the best pitcher in baseball — a distinction he has earned over the past two seasons. He knows that the Tigers’ ability to afford him (and a championship-caliber supporting cast) hinges on the largesse of the franchise’s octogenarian owner.

“I love Detroit,” Verlander said the other day, “and I want to play on a winning team.”

Right now, the Tigers offer that opportunity. That is why he, Cabrera and Fielder have contracts through 2014, 2015 and 2020, respectively. Ilitch has turned the Tigers into a destination franchise for superstars, in a city that was forgotten to the baseball world for the better part of two decades. But no one knows how much longer the party will last, or if a future ownership change will bring the Tigers’ spending more in line with their AL Central neighbors.

The other teams in baseball’s Final Four have accounted for the final champagne sips in each of the last three seasons — the Yankees in 2009, the Giants in 2010, the Cardinals in 2011. The Tigers’ most recent title came in 1984. This needs to be their year, because they can’t be sure they’ll get another opportunity quite like this.