MLB.com Columnist

Tracy Ringolsby

Tigers facing Wild ride with untested starters

Detroit 1 game behind O's in Wild Card race with 5 to go

Tigers facing Wild ride with untested starters

DETROIT -- Now comes the biggest challenge for the Detroit Tigers in their season-closing bid to claim one of the two American League Wild Card berths.

It was one thing to have Justin Verlander take the mound on Tuesday night in a game critical to the Tigers' bid to claim one of the final playoff spots in the next five days.

"Justin has been there," Detroit manager Brad Ausmus said. "He has been the guy when a team needs a big start; he has done it. He did it before I got here. He has done it while I have been here."

And Verlander did it again on Tuesday, turning in a dominating 7 2/3 innings in the Tigers' 12-0 victory against an Indians team that had clinched the AL Central title the previous night and now is focused on next week and the start of the postseason.

Ausmus, however, won't have the luxury of handing the ball to Verlander again until the final game of the regular season in Atlanta on Sunday, at the earliest.

Things are going to get a bit more challenging until then as the Tigers attempt to make up a one-game deficit to the Orioles for the second AL Wild Card spot and hold off a charge by the Mariners, who slipped a game back of Detroit after an 8-4 loss at Houston on Tuesday.

Face it, Ausmus is shuffling a rotation in which Verlander is the only one of the nine pitchers to start a game for the Tigers this season who has worked the 162 innings necessary to qualify for the ERA title. Rookie Michael Fulmer (11-7) is the only starter other than Verlander (16-8) with a double-figure victory total.

Fulmer is set to start against Cleveland on Wednesday, and he has had the kind of season that if he were to pitch the 6 1/3 innings necessary to reach 162, he could take over the AL ERA lead if he allows three or fewer earned runs. If he pitches 6 1/3 and allows fewer than three earned runs, he'll be the only qualifying AL pitcher with an ERA under 3.00.

Fulmer could join former Tiger Mark Fidrych in 1976 as the only rookies to win an ERA title in the AL or the National League since the mound was lowered in 1969.

What's more, the Tribe, getting its rotation lined up for the postseason, will have a "bullpen night" for the second game in a row.

But then … well, Fulmer and Verlander are a combined 27-15 with a 3.04 ERA this season. The seven other pitchers the Tigers have used this year are a combined 27-38 with a 5.26 ERA.

Lefty Daniel Norris is scheduled in Thursday's finale against the Indians, making what will be only his 13th start and 14th appearance in a season that has seen him spend a 37-day stint on the disabled list and then be sidelined for another 28 days in July.

And for that three-game series in Atlanta that will close out the regular season, "don't have that yet," Ausmus said of his planned rotation.

Detroit would have Verlander pitching the regular-season finale on Sunday, particularly if a postseason bid is at stake. But as for Friday and Saturday in Atlanta, it's two from the threesome of Matt Boyd, Jordan Zimmermann and Buck Farmer.

Boyd failed to retire a batter in a 12-9 loss to the Royals in a start last Saturday.

Zimmermann opened the season 8-2 with a 2.58 ERA. But since then, he has struggled in seven starts (1-4), was limited by injuries to just one start between June 30 and Sept. 10. And since Sept. 10, he has only one start -- a one-inning, six-run effort against the Orioles -- and a three-inning relief appearance last Sunday.

Farmer's big league efforts this season consisted of 13 relief appearances before a five-inning, four-run start on Monday in Cleveland's AL Central-clinching victory.

"Norris has pitched pretty well as of late," said Ausmus. "In my mind, that bodes well, but until you experience [pennant race pressure], you never know how you react to it. If it comes to the last game, we have a guy in Verlander who has experienced it before. Before the next time Verlander pitches, we need some young guys to harness the energy or emotion involved in these games or find a way to block it out."

The Tigers' postseason hopes rest on that.

Tracy Ringolsby is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.