Familiar scene, but different Tigers team ready for A's
Detroit brings improved lineup to matchup with recurring foe Oakland
OAKLAND -- Fifty-one weeks have passed since Justin Verlander shut out the A's here to carry the Tigers through the American League Division Series.
Nearly six months have passed since the Tigers took two out of three in Oakland in an early-season matchup that cooled off the A's from their hot start. Plenty of baseball has unfolded since both of those series. Still, as the Tigers settled into the visiting clubhouse, some of them felt they were just here.
"It's a little familiar, for sure," catcher Alex Avila said. "This time of the year, flying to California, we had to do that twice last year. But playing them, that's always a good series. Last year, the ALDS was a very, very good series, so I think everybody going into this matchup just expects another good one."
Each of their last two seasons included celebrations here. They clinched their first division title in 24 years here two seasons ago, then saw Verlander's masterpiece last October send them on their way to the AL Championship Series. If this Division Series goes the full five games, they'll have a chance to do the same behind Max Scherzer, who starts Game 1 on Friday (9:30 p.m. ET on TBS).
In many ways, this feels awfully familiar. However, it is a different team the Tigers take into this year's matchup.
One of the biggest differences for the Tigers was on the club, but not with the team when they came out here last October. In fact, Victor Martinez wasn't even watching most of the playoffs, rehabbing his surgically repaired knee.
"Just a little bit," he said. "I couldn't. It was tough for me. I watched a little here, a little there, but I didn't really watch.
"You know, it's tough, the thing that you love to do, and you're watching your teammates bust their butts on the field and you're sitting on the table rehabbing and doing this, doing that. It really killed me. It did."
While Delmon Young held his own as the designated hitter in last year's Division Series, going 4-for-17 with no homers and two RBIs, Martinez enters this year's rematch coming off baseball's hottest second half. He went 11-for-16 with a homer and two RBIs over four games against the A's in August in Detroit.
Martinez is a .343 career hitter against Oakland, and he deepens the middle of the order. With Miguel Cabrera hobbled, a different hitter than he was last year, extending the lineup could be more important.
Add in Torii Hunter batting ahead of Cabrera, and it's a lineup that has different avenues toward producing offense.
"No question, it's a better lineup this year," A's manager Bob Melvin said. "And they're probably a little more versatile in what they do. They maybe hit for a few more guys that last year they didn't hit for, and they just have a deeper lineup. When you have Hunter sitting in the two-hole above those guys, it presents its challenges, no doubt."
Except for the order, the pitching rotation is exactly the same. The biggest difference there is a fully healthy Scherzer starting Game 1, not the shoulder-hampered Scherzer who started Game 4 last year on a pitch count. It's a minute difference for many, but it's a bigger difference for Scherzer, who calls his starts before that September shoulder soreness some of the best pitching of his career.
"I was on a 90-100 pitch count," Scherzer said earlier this week. "Even when I was on that pitch count, those last 10 pitches, you're trying to build up. Like I've said, those last 15 pitches usually mean the most. And so, for me, I'm in a better position to be more effective in those last 15 pitches.
"So this year, I feel so much stronger. I feel my arm's more resilient going into this postseason. I'm on a full workload. If you need me to go 125 pitches, I'm more than capable of doing that. I think that's a huge benefit for me going into the postseason this year."
The deeper Tigers starters can go, the better, because their bullpen has a vastly different look. Jose Valverde, whose blown save in Game 4 set up his demise as Tigers closer, is gone. Joaquin Benoit, who set up last year's win in Game 1 before giving up a game-changing two-run homer the next day, is in after going 24-for-26 in save chances during the regular season.
Beyond him, the bullpen is not as deep. Octavio Dotel and Phil Coke are both out with injuries. Bruce Rondon, who could've been a major factor setting up, is also out. These Tigers will rely on their starters to provide deep outings, then lean on Drew Smyly, Al Alburquerque and Jose Veras to set up ninth innings for Benoit.
The lean on the starting pitching isn't new. The Tigers are hoping the results will be familiar as well.
"I think the matchup, Tigers-A's, I think everybody looks at some of the matchups we've had and know it's going to be good," Avila said.