Senior Baseball Columnist

Forget Tigers' recent batting slump; pitching is what they're counting on


If Justin Verlander and his rotation-mates keep this up, they can carry Detroit into October. (US Presswire)  
If Justin Verlander and his rotation-mates keep this up, they can carry Detroit into October. (US Presswire)  

CHICAGO -- Everyone knew the Tigers were built on power.

Clearly, though, a whole lot of folks misunderstood.

For every dozen Tigers fans cursing Detroit's inconsistent lineup ... I give you Max Scherzer.

For every hundred people muttering about the spottiness of Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera ... I give you Justin Verlander.

For every thousand loyalists screaming for the job of hitting coach Lloyd McClendon ... I give you Doug Fister.

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Yeah, yeah, yeah, the Tigers were built on power. But as they crawled back to within one game of the White Sox in the AL Central with an 8-6 Scherzer power-wash Wednesday night, maybe it's time to re-assess a few things.

As general manager Dave Dombrowski himself was admitting in the clubhouse earlier in the afternoon, Detroit's offensive inconsistencies this season have been "bewildering."

But there is one brawny reason why these guys will be a nightmare for opponents in October, if they can just get there. And it ain't necessarily Fielder and Cabrera.

"That's why other teams want the Tigers out," Cabrera was telling me. "In a short series, they don't want to face Verlander, Scherzer, Fister ... and we've got Anibal Sanchez now.

"The playoffs are about power pitching. That's what the playoffs are about."

Detroit still awaits a sustained run from its Lumber Company, though this sudden 13-run outburst over the past two evenings is the latest indicator that maybe things are beginning to loosen up there.

What the Tigers have gotten -- and it has not been appreciated nearly enough amid the griping over the spotty bats -- is a sustained run from its rotation.

In 21 games since Aug. 21, Tigers starters have produced 15 quality starts and a 2.80 ERA.

Scherzer and Verlander rank one-two in the majors in strikeouts. Scherzer ran his total to 220 in another dominating performance Wednesday at the Cell, seven whiffs and one run over six innings. Verlander has rung up 212.

Fister's post-All-Star-break 2.49 ERA is the best on the staff. Rick Porcello and Sanchez have been less consistent but have their moments.

"That's a great rotation," said White Sox second baseman Orlando Hudson, who accounted for two of Scherzer's punchouts (and one of closer Jose Valverde's). "One of the best in the game."

With a series-opening victory Monday, the White Sox pushed Detroit to three games back, and the feeling was it took some pressure off, allowing Robin Ventura's club to breathe a little easier.

Fister and Scherzer squarely re-applied the pressure Tuesday and Wednesday.

Now, here comes Verlander.

"We win the game Thursday, we're back where we were when the series started [leading Detroit by two games]," Sox catcher A.J. Pierzynski said. "And with four less games on the schedule."

No question, you would still rather be in Chicago's cleats.

But if the Sox don't figure out a way around Verlander, that could change by the weekend.

"This is what we wanted," Scherzer said. "I knew coming in, we've gotta win these games, that this was going to be the biggest start of the season for me."

Scherzer, whom Leyland right now says is as good as he has been since coming to Detroit in a trade with Arizona in 2009, has been better than even Verlander lately.

Since Aug. 10, he's 6-0 in seven starts with a 1.29 ERA and 60 strikeouts. The 28-year-old right-hander now is 16-6 overall with a 3.77 ERA. The 16 wins are a career high.

"I love being in these situations," Scherzer said. "This is where I want to be. I want to be out there with all the marbles on the line, in a pennant race, where these games mean everything."

It's the best time of year, with the schedule reduced to a few games, every strength magnified, every weakness dissected, an army of clubs still thinking they've got a chance.

"It's healthy for the game," Dombrowski was saying. "Everybody's competing.

"If you get in, anything can happen because we're all so tightly bunched. What happens if the Phillies get in? They're only going to be a little over .500. But all of a sudden, you're facing Cole Hamels, Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee.

"I don't think you're going to be sitting back and saying, 'This is going to be an easy series.' "

Same thing with the Tigers. If they can squeeze into October, it's not going to be on style points. Compared to what's going on in the AL East and even in the AL West, the AL Central is the ugly mutt of the bunch. But that changes quickly when it's a short series with Verlander, Scherzer and Fister lined up.

Including their bullpen, the Tigers came into this game Wednesday notching 8.30 strikeouts per nine innings, the highest strikeout rate in club history. That plays in the playoffs.

This latest victory was more difficult than it should have been for the Tigers, given an 8-1 lead heading into the bottom of the eighth, but it was a win. Again: No style points now, only results.

"It's September baseball," Leyland said. "You know they're not going to quit. This is a home run park. No lead is safe here."

The way this season is playing out from Philadelphia to Oakland, few leads are safe, anywhere.

Chicago's is looking a little tenuous, too, heading into the finale of these two clubs' final head-to-head series of the season.

"We know how good this team can be," Scherzer said. "We know we can beat anybody in the American League if we go out and play our best ball."

Meanwhile, over on the other side. ...

"There's a lot of baseball left," Hudson said. "Now we've got to come back and face the big boy tomorrow."


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