ST. LOUIS -- The Tigers began this season with the easiest path to the postseason of any team in baseball: they were the best team with the biggest payroll in the weakest division. Instead, the Tigers slogged their way through 140 games in which they were three games worse than the White Sox. But in the middle of September, ace Justin Verlander made a prescient observation about this underachieving team: "This team responds to pressure."
Since it fell three games behind Chicago with 22 to play, and including the ALDS and ALCS, Detroit is on a 21-9 run. The Tigers went 5-2 against the White Sox in September, they won seven of eight games up to and including their clinching game, they beat back the Oakland mojo to win the winner-take-all ALDS Game 5 on the road, they swept two ALCS games at Yankee Stadium, and with a 2-1 win last night are one win away from becoming the first team in 32 years to sweep a postseason series from the Yankees. New York has played 36 consecutive postseason series without getting swept since the 1980 Royals did it to them in the ALCS.
The Yankees entered the postseason with the greatest home run hitting team in franchise history, the best record in the league and three off days to line up a postseason run. But suddenly they are on the verge of leaving October as a franchise frozen with anxiety, what with the famously expensive left side of their infield succumbing to age -- shortstop Derek Jeter with a broken ankle and third baseman Alex Rodriguez so useless as a hitter as to be benched -- and a curious drain of team confidence. Suddenly the futures of players such as Nick Swisher, Curtis Granderson, Russell Martin and, of course, Rodriguez are open debates -- not to mention that planned $189 million payroll in 2014 to re-set their luxury tax rate. How are those plans looking right about now?
(By the way, why all the fuss about manager Joe Girardi benching Rodriguez and Swisher last night? Please stop trying to second-guess the moves by dredging up career statistics. Game 3 was virtually an elimination game. Girardi had to put his best team right now on the field, and this Testing Era version of Rodriguez wasn't a part of it -- not with a righthander on the mound. Rodriguez is 0-for-18 against righthanders this postseason. The way he is swinging the bat right now -- and it is ugly -- is all that counts, not some juiced up numbers from an era ago in baseball.)
The Orioles gave it the old college try, but they have a thin roster and just don't have the horses to get through the Yankees and make a run. It took Detroit to truly expose the Yankees. This is the Tigers team as advertised from Lakeland, Fla. They have the best pitcher in baseball, the best hitter in baseball, the best 3-4 combination in baseball and one of the best managers in baseball.
The surprise is not that Detroit has gone 21-9 with the pressure on, but how it played in the 140 games preceding this run.
Yes, the Tigers do have some issues getting the last three outs of a game. If Detroit is in position to get three outs to go to the World Series, look for manager Jim Leyland to give the ball to Jose Valverde no matter what the score. He needs to restore Valverde's confidence, and handing him the ball in celebration mode is one way to begin.
It bears repeating: there is nobody like Justin Verlander. We are looking at the best pitcher in baseball dead smack in the middle of his prime. Over the past two years Verlander has made 74 starts and thrown 534 innings, including the postseason. Those are throwback numbers in terms of workload. He is 46-14 (a .766 winning percentage) with a 2.54 ERA in those starts.
What also sets him apart is he makes moot the modern convenience of the specialized bullpen and the typical matchup games managers play from the sixth inning on. The specialized bullpen brought about an entire new offensive philosophy as a means of counterattack: run up the pitch count on the starting pitcher to get into a bullpen as early as possible.
Such strategy is worthless when Verlander gets the baseball. He brings the sport back to 1968, when the mound was higher, the bullpen was less populated and the starters never looked over their shoulders.
There have been 65 postseason games played the past two seasons. That's 130 starts. If you line them up 1 through 130 based on the number of pitchers thrown, Verlander takes five of the top eight spots. It's just one more reason why there is nobody like him:
Every team likes to talk about its pitching prospects. It's easy to sell potential. But the fact is when it comes to starting pitchers, teams cannot build a homegrown staff. It's just too hard to pop four or five drafted and developed pitchers at the same time. So the way to construct a rotation is to also use free agency and trades. Free agency is a very inefficient market because you pay for past performance and typically overpay for the down side of a career.
Trading can be difficult because teams value their starters so much that what gets on the market often comes with age, contract issues or other blemishes.
So that brings us to the job Detroit general manager Dave Dombrowski has done constructing his rotation. Verlander, of course, is the rock -- the kind of definitive first-round draft pick who can change the direction of a franchise. (The Padres left Verlander for Detroit with the number two overall pick in 2004 by taking the infamous Matt Bush at No. 1. Both franchises have been defined by that decision.)
But Dombrowski supplemented Verlander by somehow trading for three 20-something starters within 2 ½ years: Max Scherzer after the 2009 season, Doug Fister in July of last season and Anibal Sanchez in July of this season. Scherzer, Fister and Sanchez are all 28 years old -- they were born five months apart. Dombrowski traded for three championship-quality starters and did it -- if you count Austin Jackson as the replacement for Curtis Granderson in that three-way deal with New York and Arizona -- without taking away from his core major league roster.
Verlander and the three trade acquisitions threw 30 1/3 consecutive scoreless innings in the postseason until Verlander allowed a ninth-inning home run to Eduardo Nuñez in ALCS Game 3.
It's easy to see how Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder, Verlander and manager Jim Leyland define the Tigers with their star status. But don't forget the job Dombrowski did in building this staff.
Here's something to keep an eye on with Matt Cain when he starts for the Giants in NLDS Game 3 today: see how many times he gets the Cardinals to swing and miss. Cain improved his swing and miss rate to a career best this year, but he hasn't been the same pitcher recently in terms of swing and miss stuff.
In his past four starts (his final two of the regular season and two in the NLDS) Cain's swing and misses totaled just 7, 5, 5 and 6. For comparative purposes, he obtained 18 swings and misses in his perfect game against Houston.
Cain's season-low is five swings and misses. It happened only twice in his first 31 starts. It has happened twice in his four starts since then. Cain has been good and his competitiveness always is off the charts, but lately he hasn't taken his A-plus stuff to the mound. Perhaps the extra day of rest he takes into this game comes at the right time for him.
The Giants have won 12 straight games in which Barry Zito has started, which may say more about karma than Zito's game right now. But Giants manager Bruce Bochy trusts Zito to at least keep his team in the game and win a bullpen game, which looks like his plans for Game 5.
The Cardinals, though, are a tough matchup for Zito -- as well as for any lefthander. In the regular season, opposing starters went 12-24 against St. Louis, including 7-16 in the past three months. With Cain and Tim Lincecum lined up for Games 3 and 4, San Francisco needs to come away with one win in these next games.