Tigers' rotation a pat hand
DETROIT -- If pitching rotations were poker hands, the Detroit Tigers would be holding three aces and two kings.
Anibal Sanchez, Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander each are bona fide No. 1 starters. And Doug Fister and Rick Porcello are hurlers on the rise who combined for 27 wins this season.
It could be argued that Detroit’s starting rotation is or could soon become the game’s best since the Atlanta Braves had Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and Steve Avery together from 1992-96.
The 2013 Tigers have the American League’s last two All-Star Game starters, Verlander in 2012 and Scherzer in 2013. Verlander was the AL’s MVP and Cy Young Award winner in 2011, and Scherzer could very well win the Cy Young in 2013.
Scherzer is expected to face Athletics ace Bartolo Colon (18-6, 2.65) in Friday’s ALDS opener at Oakland.
Then there’s Sanchez. He led the AL in earned run average at 2.57; set Detroit’s franchise record with a 17-strikeout game against Atlanta on April 26; and with a one-hitter against Minnesota on May 24, joined Bob Feller as the second to post five complete games with one or fewer hits allowed in fewer than 156 starts.
The quick-working Doug Fister (14-9, 3.67 ERA) and sinker-balling Porcello (13-8, 4.32) would be No. 2 and 3 in many rotations. Porcello’s 61 wins before turning 25 has been matched by only Clayton Kershaw and exceeded by only Felix Hernandez (72 wins) among active pitchers.
Scherzer (21-3, 2.90) led the majors in wins and had the stingiest WHIP in the league at 0.97. His 240 strikeouts ranked him second in the majors behind Texas' Yu Darvish (277).
Sanchez (14-8) and Verlander (13-12, 3.46 ERA) combine with Scherzer to give Tigers manager Jim Leyland three aces, although it was an off year for Verlander.
“They are huge for us,” said Tigers shortstop Jose Iglesias, who was acquired from the Boston Red Sox in July. “We’ve got great starting pitching, and I can tell you that they are not great guys to face.
"I’m glad I don’t have to face them anymore.”
Tigers right fielder Torii Hunter, 38, said the starting pitchers were a big reason he selected the Tigers as a free agent looking for his first World Series title.
“I looked at this rotation long and hard in choosing Detroit,” Hunter said. “I knew this team would never have a long losing streak.”
The Tigers didn’t lose more than four consecutive games in winning the Central Division.
Fifty seasons have come and gone since the Tigers last had five starters win at least 10 games apiece. Hall of Famer Jim Bunning (19-10), Hank Aguirre (16-8), Phil Regan (11-9), Don Mossi (11-13) and Paul Foytack (10-7) accomplished the feat in 1962.
Even those great Atlanta rotations of the 1990s produced only one staff that had five pitchers with 10-plus wins. The 1998 starters featured Glavine (20-6), Maddux (18-9), Smoltz (17-3), Kevin Millwood (17-8) and Denny Neagle (16-11).
With a 3.44 ERA and 76 wins, the Tigers led all AL rotations. Their starters led the majors in strikeouts (981) and innings pitched (1,023).
Leyland refused to get into a debate over whether this is his best rotation in 22 seasons of big league managing, but he clearly loves this group.
“I send a pretty good pitcher out every night,” Leyland said. “They are awful good, and I have confidence in everyone I send out there.”
Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski acquired Fister from the Seattle Mariners (2011) and Sanchez from the Florida Marlins (2012) at the trade deadlines. Scherzer came in the blockbuster, three-team deal that sent Curtis Granderson to the New York Yankees.
Verlander and Porcello were first-round picks who quickly developed in the farm system, then refined their skills in the majors. Verlander had just 20 minor-league starts and Porcello, who will work out of the bullpen in the playoffs, had 24.
Fister, Sanchez and Scherzer have become significantly better since joining the Tigers. Verlander and Porcello also have improved under the tutelage of pitching coach Jeff Jones.
“Jones does a tremendous job with them,” Tigers catcher Brayan Pena said. “He makes each one of them better, so we can get to our goal of the World Series and winning it all.”
Much is made of how these five starters “feed off each other,” but what they really do is learn from one another. Just watch them and Jones in the dugout during games.
They are constantly talking, and it’s not always about their dinner plans or something on the scoreboard -- although Verlander has fun with Scherzer when the video of fans trying to spell Scherzer’s last name comes up and a young female fan adds that he’s “a hot one.”
They're having a blast in every way.
“It’s such an honor to be part of this rotation,” Fister said. “It’s been a humbling experience for me, and we learn from each other.
"In the first couple innings (of a recent start), I was going over to Rick and asking him what he was seeing. He helped me with a bunch of little things.”
Sanchez has a ritual of entering the clubhouse on days after Scherzer has a strong outing and approaching him with strange, animal-like noises while putting his thumbs in his ears to do a moose impersonation.
“That’s just my happy sign for Max,” Sanchez said with a chuckle.
The joy they share is unabashed, and together they're a five-armed mound beast -- an unrivaled rotation in today’s game.
“I have to pitch so well just to be on the same level as these guys,” Sanchez said. “But now we not only need to continue to do our jobs, but get even better with an even higher intensity.
"That is what it will take to win the World Series.”