The phrase "battle of the aces," or one to that effect, was used in the presence of Terry Francona the other day in reference to a matchup between Indians ace Justin Masterson and the Tigers' Justin Verlander.
Francona quickly offered a correction.
"Detroit," he said, "has four aces, which is why they are so good."
And the Tigers are "so good" right now -- rattling off a dozen straight victories and, more to the point, bringing down the hammer on Francona's Tribe in the American League Central standings this week -- because that rotation has officially reached the elite level that many projected at the beginning of the season.
"The starters have been the key in this stretch," manager Jim Leyland said. "Let's start right there. They've been giving us innings. Quality innings. That's the key."
Back in March, it was clear that Detroit had the makings of a top-notch rotation in which it's difficult to decipher No. 1 from No. 4, the type of unit that not only survives but thrives in October.
In the ensuing months, although Max Scherzer emerged as a virtually unbeatable ace, All-Star Justin Verlander showed his human side, Anibal Sanchez dealt with shoulder soreness and Doug Fister tossed up several duds. This is all nitpicking, really, because the Tigers have not endured any prolonged stretches of subpar starts to set the club back. But from the end of May to July 26, their 3.87 ERA wasn't much better than that of the Indians (3.98), and it certainly wasn't befitting of a group stocked with such a bankable track record.
Well, here in the dog days, with the stakes raised, that Tigers rotation we expected has stepped into living color. Detroit's surge -- which includes not just the 12 straight victories, but taking 16 of the last 17 overall -- is the product of superb starting pitching. And with Scherzer continuing to look like an AL Cy Young Award candidate, Verlander summoning his old stuff, Sanchez at full strength, Fister finding his form and even fifth starter Rick Porcello posting a sub-2.00 ERA since the start of July, the rotation is running at the peak of its powers.
Over that 17-game stretch, which began on July 21, Tigers starters have posted a 1.83 ERA, by far the best in the Majors in that span (the Royals are next, at 2.32). Detroit's starters have held opponents to a .208 average in that stretch (also the best), gone an average of seven innings per start and issued just 26 walks in 118 innings.
Now, with the AL Central title looking more and more like a foregone conclusion, Tigers fans can start salivating over where this rotation could take them come October.
"This is probably as good as any rotation I've had," president and general manager Dave Dombrowski said. "Of course, the Braves [in the 1990s] had the best rotation year-in and year-out, and they only won one [World Series]. That's why it's so hard to win."
It is hard to win. But it's easy for the Tigers to feel confident every time they take the field. Because while it's one thing to have an ample offense paced by an MVP in Miguel Cabrera, it's another to know that your pitching staff can back it up.
For the better part of the first half, Detroit's bullpen was burdensome enough that one couldn't help but wonder if too much pressure was being placed on the starters. That situation, though, has evolved considerably, with Joaquin Benoit settling into the closer role, Drew Smyly assuming the eighth and Dombrowski bringing erstwhile Astros closer Jose Veras aboard to lend a helping hand. The Tigers might even have struck relief gold by plucking old friend Jeremy Bonderman off the scrap heap, if his 2013 Detroit debut is any indication.
The point is, Scherzer and Co. can now comfortably pitch to their strengths and know it's not all going to unravel if they don't finish the job themselves.
"It's a great group," pitching coach Jeff Jones said. "It makes you feel good going into a series, going into a game, that you've got a chance."
The most significant key to the group realizing its potential is Verlander, who has spent the majority of this season enduring issues possibly borne out of the gargantuan innings log that came with the Tigers' 2012 AL pennant run. Verlander has had several starts this season in which he sacrificed command in an attempt to regain his velocity and other starts where the velo simply wasn't there. Either way, the results have been awfully inconsistent.
Check back in a month, but Verlander believes he discovered a needed mechanical tweak that will allow for better extension of his arm in the bullpen session before his start in Cleveland this week. And judging by the results against the Indians, who managed just a run on four hits with seven strikeouts in eight innings against Verlander, it's difficult to doubt him.
"He had that look in his eye," Jones said. "The dominant look. We haven't seen that a whole lot this year. He's been searching a little bit, trying to find it. He found it last game. And actually, his last three games, his stuff has been better. He didn't get the results in one of them [in a rare seven-run outburst from the White Sox offense], but you could see he was starting to come on, stuff-wise."
Pair that version of Verlander with Scherzer in a short series and, well, you're in business. Back them up with Sanchez, who has a 2.19 ERA and has held hitters to an .579 OPS in six starts since returning from the disabled list, and polish things off with Fister, who has a 1.59 ERA in five starts since July 12, and business is particularly favorable in a short-series setting.
The addition of Jose Iglesias at the non-waiver Trade Deadline has the potential to make business even better. Paced by Porcello and Fister, Detroit's starters have the fourth-highest ground-ball percentage in the Majors, and Iglesias is a major defensive upgrade over Jhonny Peralta.
Ground balls and strikeouts pay major dividends on the postseason stage, and the Tigers get plenty of both. Their 8.45 strikeouts-per-nine-innings mark is the best in baseball. That K rate, in fact, has been elite all year, but it took a little bit of patience for the rotation to reach an elite level overall.
They've reached it now. And in a related development, the Tigers refuse to lose.
There is still business to take care of here in the season proper, and the Tigers are quite careful not to get ahead of themselves. But they know that they have something special brewing, because they know that they have a rotation that can match up against any other.
It's a confident feeling. They've got that look in their eyes.