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CBSSports.com Senior Baseball Columnist

Fister puts finishing touch on killer rotation for torrid Tigers

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Verlander, Scherzer and Porcello have each won 14 or more games through 147 games. (CBSSports.com Original)  
Verlander, Scherzer and Porcello have each won 14 or more games through 147 games. (CBSSports.com Original)  

CHICAGO -- Sometimes, Austin Jackson stands in center field and laughs. And not only because the scalding hot Tigers now have won 10 in a row, their longest streak since September, 1968.

He watches Doug Fister throw that power sinker. He sees it crash down-and-in on the right-handed batters. And every now and again ... snap!

"I've been there," says Jackson, a lifetime .143 [2 for 14] hitter against Fister when the Tigers acquired the 27-year-old right-hander from Seattle at the July trade deadline. "He's broken many of my bats."

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That explains the extra-warm greeting for Fister upon his arrival in Detroit.

"Him and a couple of other guys, they came up and gave me great big hugs," Fister says, chuckling. "They were thoroughly excited."

Jackson, Miguel Cabrera and that's not all. Mark down everybody in a Tigers uniform as being absolutely thrilled to pieces. And the entire state of Michigan. And expatriate Detroit fans throughout the land.

Fister may not have had the marquee name of, say, Carlos Beltran or Hunter Pence at the trade deadline.

But come October, he may be the most important addition any contender will have made.

"He was kind of under the radar during trade-talk time," Tigers manager Jim Leyland says. "He was a guy we thought would be helpful.

"It's worked out pretty good."

Yeah, and that Henry Ford assembly-line thing wasn't bad, either. Diana Ross and the Supremes, too.

See, for the longest time this season, it was Justin Verlander and the Pips. Then came Fister, who has helped tie together the loose ends of what has become a knockout rotation.

"Totally agree," Verlander says. "Now we know this guy is pitching this day, this guy is pitching this day. ..."

And this guy will win, and this guy will win. ...

No longer are there jokes that the Tigers may have a chance in October if they can only figure out a way to start Verlander in every game.

Instead, they figured out something way better. Fister and Max Scherzer are pitching well enough that Leyland is going to face some tough strategic decisions for the playoffs.

Does he line up Fister (5-1, 2.28 ERA in eight starts for Detroit) behind Verlander? Max Scherzer (14-8, 4.27)?

Behind them, Rick Porcello (14-8, 4.83) has compiled a 3.08 ERA over his past four starts. He won't get a Game 2 start, but if he keeps pitching as he has, he'd be a solid Game 4 starter. Or, Leyland could go with experience over youth and bump Porcello, 22, to the bullpen in favor of veteran Brad Penny (10-10, 5.19).

(Warning to anyone who may bump into Leyland on the street: DO NOT ASK HIM ABOUT THIS! Like most managers, he doesn't want to hear one WORD about the playoffs until the Tigers CLINCH!).

Clinch day is coming soon -- Detroit's magic numbers are five (vs. Chicago) and six (vs. Cleveland) -- and Fister sure has helped move things along.

The Tigers are 6-2 in his eight starts.

The Tigers were 4-18 previously when that spot in the rotation came up: Phil Coke (4-10), Charles Furbush (0-2), Andy Oliver (0-2), Duane Below (0-2) and Jacob Turner (0-2).

Fister throws a fastball, power sinker, cutter and curve, and as much as Jackson shudders at those old Mariners days ("I know for sure, out of us hitters, we hated facing him"), the Detroit center fielder says general manager Dave Dombrowski didn't consult any of Detroit's hitters before pulling the trigger.

"I think he watched the games," Jackson quips.

As for Scherzer, 27, he's always shown flashes of dominance. Now, after a couple of years of modeling himself after one of his pitching heroes, former Arizona teammate Dan Haren, Scherzer is taking steps in that direction: He's reduced his walks-per-nine-innings rate this season to 2.61, from 3.22 last year.

"I like where I'm headed," says Scherzer. "Right now, my change-up and slider are right where they need to be. The past month, I've been able to throw them for strikes, or throw them out of the strike zone when I want to. That's all made me a better pitcher."

He talks of "slashing" into his walk rate, noting, "I'm very aware of the importance of minimizing your walks."

Scherzer is doing that, and he, Fister and the other Tiger starters not named Verlander are rolling.

And don't underestimate the domino effect. With Coke back in the bullpen and order restored there, Tigers relievers, since Aug. 4 -- the day after Fister's first start -- had compiled a 2.11 ERA, fanned 36 hitters and handcuffed opponents to a .201 batting average over 36 games heading into Monday.

"I think our combination is pretty good right now," Leyland says. "Offense, defense, timely hitting, pitching. We've won games different ways, which is a good thing. We've won some comeback games, some lopsided games, some close games ... that's always a good sign."

By the fifth inning, Monday qualified as another lopsided game. Porcello was on cruise control in hitting the 14-win mark, allowing another achievement: Verlander, Scherzer and Porcello became the first trio of Tigers pitchers to reach 14 or more wins through 147 games since Jack Morris, Dan Petry and Milt Wilcox did it in 1984.

"Right now, we're playing as good a baseball as we've played all year, and that's a good sign," Scherzer says. "But we realize, you want to peak in October."

As the Tigers roar, the numbers are adding up to impressive precedents from any angle -- 1968, 1984 or, even, center field.

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