Soak in every start, every inning, every pitch in 2013. The Detroit Tigers starting rotation is a mix of the Best Pitcher in the Universe and three others engulfed in their prime. If they stay healthy, a third straight AL Central Division title and second consecutive trip to the World Series is imminent.
It’s arguably the franchise’s best staff since the magical 1968 postseason. That’s when Joe Sparma’s 3.70 ERA was the highest among a quartet of Tigers starters featuring Denny McLain (1.96), Earl Wilson (2.85) and Mickey Lolich (3.19).
1968 was premium viewership. A once-in-a-lifetime sight.
Well, maybe not. Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Doug Fister, and Anibal Sanchez have the capability to mirror those great days of the ’60s. We already saw a glimpse of it in the 2012 postseason, when they turned the Bronx Bombers into a bumbling mess, a group of studs-turned-whiffers who recorded more strikeouts (36) than hits (22) in a four-game sweep.
There were electric performances atop the bump, from Sanchez’s gem at Yankee Stadium, to Scherzer’s 10-strikeout mowing in the ALCS clincher. It was part of a post-season record of 30 1/3 straight scoreless innings – the longest in MLB history.
Oh, yeah. Seventeen innings of that streak belonged to Verlander, who started it with a tear-jerking performance in Game 5 of the ALDS, a masterpiece for the ages that silenced a raucous Oakland crowd and tattooed an imprint onto the hearts of Tigers fans forever.
CAN IT RIVAL THE 1990s BRAVES?
If they stay healthy, they will be the best staff in the American League. Consider last year’s post-All-Star break ERAs: Fister (2.67), Scherzer (2.69), Verlander (2.73) and Sanchez (3.55).
The biggest challengers could be the Tampa Bay Rays (Cy Young winner David Price, Jeremy Hellickson, Matt Moore). But even the Rays do not have two mega-power arms like Verlander and Scherzer, who were first and second, respectively, in strikeouts last season in all of baseball.
Then there’s Fister, who had a 1.40 ERA in three post-season starts last October and delivered a fantastic performance at Yankee Stadium in Game Five of the 2011 ALDS. Not many rotations have a third starter with his pinpoint control and playoff resume. And when your fourth starter (Sanchez) is coming off a post-season that featured a microscopic ERA (1.77) and opponents’ batting average (1.92), the odds say a special season is in the making.
Imagine if Rick Porcello or Drew Smyly emerges as a solid fifth starter. That means this rotation could very well be mentioned in the same breath as the Atlanta Braves of the late-1990s (Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, John Smoltz, Denny Neagle, Kevin Millwood). That group owned the best team ERA in the majors twice (1997, 1998).
But, the Braves also provide evidence that championships are not won on paper. Consider 1993-2002: Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz were in the midst of a magical run of 14 division championships in 15 seasons. Yet, during that time, they won one World Series (1995).
The 2011 Philadelphia Phillies can relate. Their four-horsemen approach of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt, and Cole Hamels looked like a virtual lock to win a title. They were odds-on favorites in every Las Vegas sports book. Yet they found themselves at the mercy of St. Louis ace Chris Carpenter and lost Game Five of the NLDS.
BETTER THAN THE 80S ROTATIONS?
The Tigers rotation of the 1984 World Series team had the best team ERA in the American League, sixth best in the majors. It was led by Jack Morris (19-11, 3.60 ERA), Dan Petry (18-8, 3.24), and Milt Wilcox (17-8, 4.00).
The 1987 Tigers were stellar, too. It included the above trio along with Frank Tanana, Doyle Alexander, and Jeff Robinson. They were awfully good, leading the team to the ALCS. But they weren’t like Lolich and McLain, who dominated from 1967-’69.
And those 1980s Tiger rotations didn’t have the bang-for-your-buck factor: Verlander, Scherzer, Fister, and Sanchez are all in their prime.
Cherish these next two seasons. Coming soon, Verlander will ask for the moon – and will get the moon, the stars and Neptune, since GM Dave Dombrowski already called him a lifetime Tiger. That means Mad Max could be gone at the end of 2014 when he’s a free agent. If not, then maybe Fister leaves via free agency in 2015.
Then again, maybe nobody will leave.
Check this out: This will be the sixth consecutive season the Tigers payroll has surpassed $100 million. Their 2012 attendance of 3,028,033 was a 14.6% increase from the previous year. It will likely be higher in 2013, considering the team is fresh off a World Series appearance and a second consecutive division title and post-season appearance – the latter being a feat that hasn’t been achieved since 1935. They have the son of a longtime fan favorite at first base, a Triple Crown winner on the other corner, and the Best Pitcher in the Universe packing the house every five days.
The Tigers are a star attraction and will be for the rest of the decade. The point is: owner Mike Ilitch might open the pocketbook for his rotation in 2014 and 2015, because he wants that elusive World Series ring to go alongside the Stanley Cup memories on his mansion mantle. We’ll see what happens.
What we do know is this: These next two years will be special. Soak in every start, every inning, every pitch. You might not see it again in your lifetime.