By now it’s been well documented how superhuman the Detroit Tigers’ Justin Verlander was in his complete game shutout in Game 5 of the ALDS over the Oakland A’s. The Tigers needed an effort like that from their superstar and they got it. And now the mystery begins.
Thanks to a 13th-inning run-scoring double by JJ Hardy of the Baltimore Orioles, the other ALDS series is going to a Game 5 as well. At 5 p.m. eastern tonight the Yankees and O’s will duke it out with CC Sabathia and Jason Hammel on the mound. And just one day later one of these two teams will play the Tigers.
If the Yankees win Game 5 then Detroit has to hop on a plane and get to New York in time for what is likely a Saturday evening start time in the Bronx for Game 1 of the ALCS. That matchup would most likely be Doug Fister against Andy Pettitte.
If the O’s can find a way to take down the Yankees, which they have done 50% of the time this year, then they will board a plane to the Motor City for Game 1. They would likely throw Wei-Yin Chen against Fister.
So will the Tigers watch this Game 5 tonight from the team plane? This has been an epic beginning to the 2012 MLB playoffs. All four divisional series’ have gone to the final game. The Tigers were fortunate enough to start a day ahead of the Yankees and O’s, so they get a free day of rest.
Actually, a lot has worked in the Tigers’ favor so far. The temporary ALDS format played out well as the Tigers, the lower seeded team, got to start off at home and took both games from Oakland. All they had to do was win one game in the hostile confines of the Coliseum. It took 3 tries but they got it done, which is something the Texas Rangers couldn’t do in a similar spot in the final set of the regular season while playing for the AL West crown.
Another factor that the Tigers must be thrilled about is that in the last 2 days the Yanks and O’s have played 25 innings of ridiculously tense playoff baseball, abusing their main bullpen arms along the way. The Tigers will come into the Championship Series with all relievers on 3 full days of rest thanks to Verlander’s complete game heroics.
The Tigers still have their flaws, no question. The offense was by and large shut down by a strong Oakland staff. But the good news is that Oakland probably had the best top to bottom pitching in the American League among the playoff teams. New York and Baltimore have very good bullpens but their starters aren’t quite at the level of Oakland.
Detroit went 3-3 in the regular season against Baltimore and just 4-6 against the Yankees.
The biggest disappointment from the ALDS is that Jose Valverde’s Game 4 blown save made the Tigers unnecessarily use up a Justin Verlander start. He would have started Game 1 of the ALCS but now will likely pitch in Tuesday’s Game 3. That will either be at home against the Yankees or on the road in Baltimore.
This setup would also line JV up for a potential ALCS Game 7 next Sunday, which sounds great. The trouble is there isn’t always a Game 7. If the Tigers are on the ropes in the 5th or 6th game of the series they won’t have their ace to turn to this time. To be sure, Valverde’s miscue will send a ripple effect across this series.
Which brings us to another area of uncertainty – what is Jim Leyland to do at the end of games? Both Baltimore and New York have become well known for late-game heroics this season as well as in their head-to-head matchup.
Joaquin Benoit’s problems aside, Valverde absolutely cannot be trusted. Do the Tigers have to hitch their star to his wagon? Is it too late to cut bait? I ask you this: would you rather see Valverde trying to close a game or, say, Rick Porcello? Before you automatically dismiss the idea just think about it. Porcello has been very good the first time through a batting order this year. He is no stranger to the pressures of postseason baseball. He could dial up his fastball to 95-96 in a 1-inning stint. And maybe most importantly, he has a changeup. Valverde does not.
This could be the kind of move that gets Jim Leyland fired but also the type of outside-the-box thinking that once and for all sets his career path toward permanent legend. Detroit can reset their roster for this series. Valverde will be on it, but I’m not so sure he should be. Detroit is a Justin Verlander away from their season being over right now thanks to the erratic closer’s antics.
Jim Leyland’s starting rotation will probably go like this: Fister, Anibal Sanchez, Verlander, Max Scherzer, Fister, Sanchez, Verlander.
This group of starters pitched 34.1 innings of baseball in the Oakland series. Guess how many earned runs they gave up? 5. That’s it. 5 earned in 34.1 innings of playoff baseball. Since a 5th inning, 1-out homer by Seth Smith in Game 3 off of Sanchez, the Tigers’ starters haven’t allowed an earned run in 15.1 consecutive innings. To let a Valverde or Benoit throw away that type of brilliance even one more time is unacceptable.
Jim Leyland has a lot to ponder. But first, the Tigers need an opponent and a venue.