NEW YORK -- The Tigers, lest you forget, entered July with a losing record. They were 3 1/2 games back at the All-Star break but were starting to right the ship, with wins in 13 of 15 games, at which point they traded their top pitching prospect to the Marlins for starter Anibal Sanchez and second baseman Omar Infante, a trade that not only addressed two needs but also sent a message.
Catcher Gerald Laird remembers reading the news online and then telling his wife, "We're going for it."
"Dave's always been known for getting big pieces," Laird said Sunday, referring to team president and general manager David Dombrowski, "and he's showing it again this year."
In dispatching the Yankees for a second straight night on the road to take a 2-0 lead with the ALCS shifting to Detroit for the next three games, the Tigers are in great shape thanks primarily to a starting rotation that hasn't allowed an earned run in 29 consecutive innings, a streak extended by seven shutout frames from Sanchez in Game 2.
"He was terrific," Detroit manager Jim Leyland said. "This is a tough place to pitch with a tough lineup and a short porch. And a whole bunch of left-handed hitters, it is not easy. That was quite a feat."
Few GMs are as aggressive as Dombrowski, who has been well supported by owner Mike Ilitch. Simply making big moves can energize a clubhouse, as the players said the deal for Doug Fister (in 2011) and Sanchez (in July)accomplished, but that isn't the same as making good trades -- but Dombrowski has scored on that front with his work in bolstering the rotation.
Given the mild disarray in the Tigers' bullpen -- they've allowed seven earned runs in their last 11 innings of work, including four by closer Jose Valverde in Game 1 --the rotation has had to carry the day, with a 0.94 ERA overall in seven postseason games.
Maybe, then, how you start can be as important as how you finish, especially with starters averaging just shy of seven innings per outing.
While Justin Verlander's list of accolades is self-evident -- a Cy Young and MVP last year and quite possibly a second Cy this year -- one dominant starter isn't enough to win a playoff series. Just ask CC Sabathia and the Yankees.
The rest of the rotation has been stocked with trademark deals from Dombrowski: Max Scherzer was a wintertime trade acquisition before the 2010 season, while Fister and Sanchez arrived via trade deadline deals in consecutive years. Even though neither came with ace billing, don't think their new teammates didn't immediately recognize their importance.
"When I got traded over here," Fister said, "I walked in the door and instantly guys were screaming and yelling or hugging me from every which direction. It was a very warm welcome, and I assure you Anibal got the same treatment."
Fister and Sanchez had the opportunity to shine on back-to-back nights, combining for 13 1/3 shutout innings in these two starts and for 26 2/3 innings with four runs allowed in four postseason starts. Fister arrived for the cost of only Charlie Furbush and Casper Wells, neither of whom have star potential; Sanchez required blue chip prospect Jacob Turner, but that trade occurred in a more difficult market and also netted Infante.
Fister's second half last year was a best-case scenario for any deadline deal, as he went 10-2 with a 2.37 ERA in 14 outings that included wins in each round of the playoff's first two rounds.
Sanchez struggled in three of his first four starts with Detroit, but there was also a good reason for having a lot on his mind -- he changed teams just as his wife was about to give birth to a baby girl. In his last 10 regular season and playoff starts, however, he has a 2.00 ERA in 67 2/3 innings.
"We look for good pitchers that our scouts recommend," Dombrowski said when asked his formula for success. "They go out, they scout and they do a very thorough job in preparation of doing so. And then they make their recommendations. We have some good scouts."
Indeed, the only thing harder than putting together nearly 30 straight shutout innings from the starters might be finding someone willing to take credit for it.
When asked about the trades for Fister and Sanchez, Dombrowski cited vice president of player personnel Scott Reid's work in helping coordinate their scouting, as well as the insights of several pro scouts. Reid, Jim Olander and Dick Egan all filed reports on Fister; Mike Russell handled coverage for Sanchez.
"Basically what [Russell] said was," Dombrowski recounted, "'Here's a guy who's a real solid big league pitcher who's going to fit into the rotation, and you're going to feel very comfortable when he comes to the mound. He's comparable to a guy like a Fister or a Scherzer.' When somebody gives that recommendation, that's pretty good."
Ask the team, and they'll praise Dombrowski's front office. Ask the pitchers, and Fister noted the defense's role, in particular noting the plays made by centerfielder Austin Jackson, who tracked down a certain extra-base hit in the right-center gap in Game 1, and shortstop Jhonny Peralta, who made three exceptional plays in the two games.
Scherzer offered a whole host of reasons beyond the obvious -- that this is a very talented quartet pitching to their lofty potential.
"We're hot at the right time," Scherzer said. "Our catchers, both Alex [Avila] and G, are coming up with great game plans. We're sequencing right.
"And most importantly we're all comfortable with our offspeed pitches -- every single one of us. Everybody's throwing quality pitches behind in the count and ahead in the count."
The Yankees are already a collective struggle offensively, so Sanchez's ability to "pitch backwards" by throwing sliders and changeups in normal fastball counts only kept them further off-balance. New York had only three hits off Sanchez and four in total.
Curtis Granderson is now 3-for-26 this postseason, while Nick Swisher is 4-for-26, Alex Rodriguez is 3-for-23 and Robinson Cano is 2-for-32, with an ongoing slump of 26 straight hitless at-bats, which is the worst single-postseason skid in baseball history.
The Yankees missed a big chance. They now trail 2-0 and will try to get their offense back on track against Verlander, which is an all-timer for the easier-said-than-done file. But they've got to start somewhere -- only the Tigers' starters wouldn't let them.