Dombrowski and Leyland: It's pitching, stupid

Dombrowski and Leyland: It's pitching, stupid

Published Aug. 23, 2012 10:06 a.m. ET

What will it come down to?

Of all the factors that will determine whether the Tigers win the Central Division, settle for a wild-card berth or miss the playoffs ... what will be the tipping point?

Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski and manager Jim Leyland both agree that it’s starting pitching, but the GM included something else.

“Starting pitching and health are the two key ingredients,” Dombrowski said. “And our top three pitchers are pitching remarkably well.

"(Justin) Verlander and (Max) Scherzer have been great, and (Doug) Fister has come on strong lately, though his last start wasn’t good. (Rick) Porcello has been up and down, and (Anibal) Sanchez is looking to get on track.”

Dombrowski spoke on the phone Wednesday, hours before Sanchez attacked the strike zone against the Blue Jays for an impressive win he desperately needed. He allowed one earned run in 6 2/3 innings to drop his Detroit earned run average to 6.33 since coming over from the Marlins.

“It all depends on your starting pitching,” Leyland said. “They not only put you in a position to win, but allow you to use your bullpen like you want to.”

That means not wearing out your relievers and being able to pitch deep enough into games that only Octavio Dotel, Joaquin Benoit and Jose Valverde are needed.

It all begins with Thursday's starter, Verlander, and it’s so important that the Tigers win the division in order to avoid the wild-card game and pitching him in that winner-take-all contest. If that’s the case, Verlander would get one start instead of two in the five-game, opening-round series.

If Leyland skips somebody in the rotation on off days to keep Verlander pitching every fifth day -- which he almost certainly will do -- Verlander would be scheduled to pitch the final regular-season game on Oct. 3 at Kansas City.

He would not pitch that game if Detroit’s playoff fate is already determined. Verlander would then pitch the wild-card game or rest as the division champs await the playoff opener.

Scherzer has been good all year but great of late. He has a 1.35 ERA with 26 strikeouts and six walks in 20 innings over his last three starts -- all wins. And he’s been 7-1 since starting the season with a 6-5 record.

“When Max throws his breaking ball on a consistent basis,” Dombrowski said, “and throws his three pitches for strikes, he’s a real blue-chip pitcher. And his breaking ball has been the difference for him.”

Thanks to Verlander (180 strikeouts) and Scherzer (186), Detroit has the league’s top two strikeout pitchers. This staff is on pace to obliterate the franchise’s strikeout record of 1,115 set in 1968, with Denny McLain and Mickey Lolich leading the way, and matched in 2011 with Verlander and Scherzer totaling 424.

“Justin is pitching just like he did last year,” said Leyland, when asked to compare Verlander’s 2012 showing to his MVP and Cy Young Award performance last season. “He’s been terrific.”

Terrific, yes, but not quite up to his 2011 numbers. Verlander is 12-7 with a 2.53 ERA (second to David Price) and 1.07 walks plus hits in innings pitched (second to Jered Weaver). He was 19-5 with a 2.28 ERA at this point in 2011.

Fister had seven consecutive quality starts and knocked 1.5 runs off his earned run average since July 7. However, he suffered a groin injury in his last outing and gave up seven runs. His Saturday start has been scrapped as he tries to recover from the injury.

Fister was 8-1 with a 1.79 ERA after Dombrowski obtained him from Seattle at the trade deadline last season.

“We thought we got a solid starter last year in Doug Fister,” Dombrowski said, “but we got much more than that. We got one of the best pitchers in the American League.

“... I felt the same way about Anibal Sanchez when we got him this year as I did with Fister last year. I thought he’d give us quality starts and a chance to win. It has not worked out great for us with Sanchez, though, I believe it will. He gets another start tonight.”

And Sanchez got his second quality start in five starts as a Tiger against Toronto.

Porcello is 9-8 with a 4.67 ERA after going 14-9 with a 4.75 ERA last year.

Leyland was asked what needs to take place for Porcello to turn the corner on his great promise.

“Time will take care of it,” Leyland said. “But I think he has improved this year. He’s a little bit of a (Dr.) Jekyll and (Mr.) Hyde at times, but people forget he’s only 23.”

Porcello has 47 big-league wins at an age when even the best prospects are just coming up to the majors. Chris Sale, a Cy Young candidate for the White Sox, is 23 and had his first full season in the majors last year.

Everyone in the rotation will be counted upon coming down the stretch, and how they perform very likely will determine whether this team is remembered with a frown or a smile.

It also should play a large role in whether Leyland, working on a one-year contract, is back in 2013.

When I asked him about returning last week, Leyland said he didn’t want to become a distraction but that he’d like to come back.

“I hope so,” he said. “But I’m not getting into that.”

Dombrowski was asked about the “Skipper” coming back.

“We always wait until near the end of the season on that,” he said. “But we’ve discussed it plenty.”

There are questions to be answered about the future of the manager and the pitching staff. Pull up a seat in the ballpark or your den and enjoy the drama.

Playing games that mean something in September is what baseball is all about.