Verlander homegrown, but Scherzer, Sanchez, Fister in Detroit via trade
DETROIT -- Justin Verlander is comfortable being in the spotlight. He likes being the pitcher opponents have to prepare themselves to battle when a postseason rotation is released, just as he relishes the confidence teammates show after a tough loss when they know his spot is up.
"It feels great to hear that," Verlander said, "but I think that the great thing about this team is no matter what happens, we can say that about the starting pitcher the next day. Whatever happens tomorrow, we can say it's all right. We've got Doug Fister going the next day, and then we have Anibal [Sanchez], and then we have Max [Scherzer]."
The Tigers have three starters who have taken a no-hit bid into the sixth inning over their last three postseason games. Verlander, Sanchez and Scherzer combined for 21 innings of four-hit, one-run ball with 35 strikeouts, a stretch Verlander has a chance to expand upon on Tuesday in Game 3 of the American League Championship Series against the Red Sox on FOX at 4 p.m. ET.
The three have five double-digit-strikeout games already this postseason.
Add Game 4 starter Fister, 2-2 with a 3.19 ERA in his postseason career, and Detroit boasts a starting quartet that can command games. It may not be the next coming of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz from the mid-1990s Braves, but it might be the closest thing since.
"I would have to say this is the best I've had," manager Jim Leyland said. "I had maybe a better bullpen in a couple of places, but starting rotation, this is probably the best."
It's also the foundation on which the Tigers' World Series hopes rest. For all the big names in the lineup, they win on starting pitching, and they were a miserable eighth inning from taking both games in Boston and heading back to Comerica Park halfway to a World Series return.
They're counting on their starting pitching to get them back on track on Tuesday.
"We've got good starting pitchers, and when it's their day to pitch, they go out and do the best they can," Leyland said. "I don't think they're in competition with one another, I think they're in competition with the opposing team. Everybody wants to perform well."
It's the way the Tigers have been structured since team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski began rebuilding the franchise a decade ago.
The strikeouts have come quickly, both in the regular season and so far in these playoffs. The arms that have provided them were slower to arrive.
"I think what's amazing is that I really believe you have to tip your hat to our general manager," Leyland said. "If you look at our pitching staff right now, 60 percent of it came from trades. Sixty percent of our staff is trades. Sanchez, Fister and Scherzer -- that's pretty good for a general manager."
Only Verlander was homegrown, and his advanced level of pitching coming out of college left little work to do to get him ready for the big leagues. He was the silver lining after Detroit's AL-record 119 losses in 2003. He's also one of the few connections left to the World Series team of 2006, when he was a hotshot rookie learning from veteran Kenny Rogers.
That gave them something to build around. Scherzer was the first complementary arm to come in and emerge.
"Dave has done a great job, finding guys at the right point in their careers to make them even better," Scherzer said. "When we've come to Detroit, we've all collectively pitched even better than we have in the past. I know Dave has done a good job, but [the onus is] on us to further our careers."
Dombrowski was willing to make an unpopular trade for Scherzer in 2009, sending All-Star outfielder Curtis Granderson to the Yankees and Edwin Jackson to the D-backs, in part because he knew the talent Scherzer had. He threw hard, all right, but he also had some projection to throw smart. One of the questions was a violent delivery that seemingly posed an injury risk, something Scherzer has corrected.
"I'd say in the past couple of years, it's simplifying everything and making sure it's consistent," Scherzer said.
It wasn't always smooth, evidenced by the stint Scherzer spent at Triple-A Toledo early in 2010, his first season in Detroit, after high walk totals and high-flying home runs. Yet from mechanical tweaks to the polishing of his third pitch to the addition of a curveball as his fourth pitch, Scherzer has progressed every year.
"One of my goals is always to get better every single year," he said. "You never stay the same. You either get better or you get worse."
By 2011, Verlander and Scherzer had become the foundation. The next two summers saw Dombrowski add arms that helped in the short-term but completed the project in the long-term.
Two years ago, when Ubaldo Jimenez was the marquee name on the trade market and commanding a high price, Fister was a middle-of-the-rotation starter in Seattle thriving on quick outs and grounders. He wasn't flashy, but he pitched better than his 3-12 record would suggest.
With the bidding on Jimenez heating up, Dombrowski kept checking with Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik to see if Fister was on the market. For the longest time, the answer was no. Then, with a few days left before the non-waiver Trade Deadline, the answer changed.
The first time pitching coach Jeff Jones saw Fister pitch, he asked him why he didn't throw his curveball more often. The ground-ball pitcher did, and started to pick up a few more strikeouts. By season's end he had an 8-1 record and a 1.79 ERA in Detroit, and helped lead the late-season charge to the AL Central crown.
Big second half or not, the Tigers knew they had Fister under contract for several more years. In Sanchez they took a chance on a pending free agent. It wasn't difficult to see how well he could pitch; it was tougher to see how he'd react to pitching for a contender after coming over from the Marlins.
The regular season went OK, but the playoffs were his time to blossom, including seven shutout innings at Yankee Stadium in Game 2 of the ALCS. And what began as a rental turned into a long-term contract in the offseason, luring him to stay as a free agent.
"When I made the decision to come back to this team," Sanchez said, "it's because they gave me a good opportunity. I know everybody, the players, the front office and everybody. So I feel comfortable here. And I know we've got a pretty good team and a chance to get to the World Series."
It took a major financial commitment on the part of the club for a five-year, $88 million contract. It also took a leap of faith from Dombrowski that Sanchez was the answer, and Sanchez repaid it by leading the AL in ERA his first full year in the league.
The result was the most complete rotation the Tigers have ever had, and a monstrous challenge for opponents over the course of a series.
"Say you've got a No. 1 starter, he only pitches once every five days," Leyland said. "If you win one and lose the other four, you don't do too good in this business."
And the Tigers have four, not counting former top pick Rick Porcello, who is coming off a career year as the fifth starter.
It might not last much longer. Scherzer is a free agent after next season, and Fister and Porcello could hit the open market the winter after that. For now, however, it's a combination that gives opponents no easy games in October.