DETROIT (AP) — There were times this year when Justin Verlander took the mound while his team was reeling a bit — and the right-hander’s presence was Detroit’s best shot at snapping out of a momentary funk.
Now, the hard-throwing ace is in a different situation. Led by Verlander, the Tigers’ rotation has been absolutely terrific this postseason, and his job is simply to keep this remarkable run going against the slumping New York Yankees.
“I think pitching, much like hitting, is contagious,” Verlander said. “Guys go out there night in and night out and see guys have a good game, and the next day he wants to have a good game, so on and so forth. And I think that’s what we are feeding on right now.”
The Tigers won the first two games of the AL championship series in New York, holding the Yankees scoreless except for one brief uprising against closer-in-limbo Jose Valverde. With the exception of Valverde, no Detroit pitcher has allowed an earned run since Game 3 of the division series against Oakland.
Verlander takes the mound Tuesday night in Game 3 of the ALCS. The reigning AL MVP won both his starts against the A’s, throwing a shutout in the decisive fifth game.
“As a rotation, right now things are going well,” Verlander said during Monday’s off-day. “It is nice to see us get rolling as a group, and hopefully we can continue it through the World Series.”
Detroit’s starters have posted an 0.94 ERA in the playoffs this year. The postseason record for a starting staff pitching at least seven games is 1.05, set by the 1920 Cleveland Indians, according to STATS LLC.
Verlander, Max Scherzer, Doug Fister and Anibal Sanchez are off to that type of start this year.
Detroit’s pitching display has gone hand in hand with New York’s horrendous slump. Derek Jeter is out for the year after breaking an ankle in Game 1 of this series, and the Yankees desperately need their other stars to start hitting. Robinson Cano, Alex Rodriguez, Curtis Granderson and Nick Swisher are a combined 12 for 107 — for a .112 batting average — in the playoffs.
Add catcher Russell Martin, and five regulars are below .200, hitting a combined 17 for 133 with 42 strikeouts — 25 more strikeouts than hits. They have a combined seven RBIs, four of those by Cano.
“We can’t score seven runs, eight runs in one at-bat,” first baseman Mark Teixeira said. “It’s momentum. When things are going bad, they can be really bad, but when things are going good, we’re capable of putting up a whole bunch of runs.”
The Yankees have actually had a decent amount of success against Verlander. He faced New York three times this season, and the Yankees won twice. Phil Hughes, who will start Game 3 for New York, pitched a complete game against Verlander in a win over the Tigers on June 3.
“Obviously Verlander is a great pitcher, but he is human and we know we can score off him,” Hughes said. “I just have to do a better job than he does. It’s going to be a challenge, but, like I said, I’m looking forward to it.”
In his most recent start against the Yankees, on Aug. 6, Verlander struck out 14 in eight innings.
“You want to face familiar pitchers, even if he happens to be the best pitcher on the planet,” Teixeira said.
With the starters pitching brilliantly, Detroit’s big concern right now is the bullpen. Valverde allowed the Yankees to tie Game 1 with four runs in the ninth, and although the Tigers won 6-4 in the 12th, Detroit manager Jim Leyland needed to change plans a bit. He used Phil Coke to close out a 3-0 win in Game 2, and the left-hander pitched the final two innings.
Coke may be a viable option against a New York lineup with plenty of left-handed power, but it’s clear the situation is still in flux.
“I am just going to play it out and see what happens, see what kind of matchup there is,” Leyland said. “Find out who they have coming up, who the matchup will be, probably go from there. I am hoping that Valverde in the very near future is ready to take back over. As I said, that is pretty important that we have him.”
Of course, if Detroit’s rotation keeps up its record pace, the pressure on the bullpen could be minimal. Can the Yankees possibly hit this poorly for another few days? Leyland is skeptical.
“We’re just hoping we can keep the Yankees from swinging the bats too good,” Leyland said. “You are certainly concerned about it because they are just too good. They are too good of hitters and you know they will break out at some point. You just try to shut them down to the best of your ability and scratch out a few runs. The runs are pretty much at a premium so far.”