It takes a total team effort to make a deep run in the playoffs, but it was well known that the Tigers would be relying heavily on their starting pitching to carry a sizeable portion of the load. So far, so good in that respect as Justin Verlander and Doug Fister delivered masterful performances in each of the first two games.
They’ve issued too many free passes (Verlander walked four, and Fister walked two batters and hit two batters), but that’s the only negative I could come up with. The big number is clearly the strikeouts. One out of every three A’s batters that have stepped into the box against a Detroit starter have gone down on strikes – 45% of the outs recorded by Verlander and Fister have been via the strikeout.
The sparkling ERA, WHIP, and strikeout numbers obviously stand out, but not to be overlooked is the fact that both starters were able to get their team through seven innings. Saving the bullpen not only helps as you move deeper into a series, but it allows the manager more freedom to play the matchups in the seventh and eighth inning. This fact didn’t show up on Saturday when Joaquin Benoit and Jose Valverde took care of business in the eighth an ninth, but Leyland still was able to use Phil Coke and Al Alburquerque to get out of the top of the ninth on Sunday after Benoit gave up the lead. Perhaps either or both players would have been burned had Fister been able to last only six innings.
And things won’t get much easier for Oakland going forward. Sure, they’re due to face the third and fourth starter in the next two games in Anibal Sanchez and a still-only-questionably-healthy Max Scherzer, but they’ve both been pitching extremely well for over a month and a half now. Scherzer’s ERA across September and October is only 1.91 and Sanchez’s is 2.43. Combined, they’ve posted a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 6.64 over that stretch – they’re both more than capable of maintaining the high strikeout trend.
The soft underbelly of the Tigers’ pitching staff is undoubtedly the bullpen, but those deficiencies are easier to cover up when the starters are handing over a lead in the eighth inning. If the Athletics can’t get to Sanchez early, then we might not even be talking about Scherzer until the ALCS.