Tigers' starters staggering opponents
MAY 14, 2013 9:14p ET
Detroit’s starting pitcher walks off the mound after a commanding performance and heads toward the dugout, walking slowly as the fans rise to their feet.
Doug Fister received another one of those standing ovations Tuesday night, after allowing two runs on five hits without a walk in his seven innings. The Tigers were on their way to a 6-2 win over the Houston Astros, and another quality start was in the books.
Wednesday afternoon, it will be Max Scherzer (5-0) facing the Astros. He’s followed my Justin Verlander, perhaps the top pitcher in the game, then it’s onto the vastly improved Rick Porcello.
Anibal Sanchez (2.05 ERA) might be the most consistent hurler in the rotation, and he comes before Fister (5-1, 3.06 ERA).
Tigers starters entered Tuesday’s play leading the American League with 3.24 ERA, 238 strikeouts, 25 quality starts and tied for the lead with 18 wins. They lead every major pitching category and have three of the top-10 strikeout pitchers in the league while on pace to shatter the major-league record for strikeouts in one season.
They are a standing ovation waiting to happen.
Tigers manager Jim Leyland nodded when this was mentioned and said, “Knock on wood.”
The skipper then proceeded to rap the wooden desktop in his office with his knuckles.
“We feel good about our pitching staff,” he continued, “and at the end of that day, that is what’s going to win it for you.”
Pitching with power and focus are what wins in the postseason, and Leyland knows he has both in abundance.
Fister fell behind, 2-0, but didn’t panic against Houston. Scherzer and Sanchez also trailed early in their starts on this homestand but found their rhythms and collected victories.
That’s a matter of focus.
“All our guys, all of our starters, are good at that,” Leyland said. “The days they pitch, they come in here solemn. They get their game faces on.”
Is that experience or personalities coming through?
“That’s a great question,” Leyland said. “A lot of it is personality. They get ready differently – with superstitions or listening to music.”
Verlander has a precise schedule he follows the day of each start and enters the clubhouse wearing headphones and staring lasers at anything in his path. He talks to nobody.
Fister nestles into a big leather couch in the middle of the clubhouse, puts on headphones, pulls his team hoodie over his head and takes a nap.
Once focused, each starter comes out with the intensity of a prize fighter, looking to punch out batters and seeing nothing but the mitt and fingers of their catcher.
Focus can get lost behind power and stuff, but it’s what wins games.
“They don’t get excited when things don’t go right,” Leyland said. “They are mature and know our offense will come back.”
Detroit (22-15) became the first team to reach 200 runs in the majors this season, getting to 201 on Tuesday, and has a .284 batting average, which is far and away the highest in the game.
“Our pitchers know we’re going to score runs,” Tigers pitching coach Jeff Jones said. “When they give up some early runs, they focus on holding the other team right where they’re at.
"They’re very competitive as a group and just want to win.”
Not having to stress out over giving up runs is critical. Pitchers who feel they have to be near perfect to win usually press and lose.
Detroit’s starters are mastering the simple art of worrying only about the batter in front of them. It sounds easy, but it’s not. They slow down the game, and that’s the best route to success.
I asked Fister what it's like being part of a staff that gets standing ovations on an almost nightly basis.
“It’s an honor to be a part of this staff,” he said. “You have your end to uphold, and there’s a high standard here to follow.”
They rarely acknowledge the cheers. They walk back, heads down, and are greeted by the back-slaps and high-fives of teammates in the dugout.
Sometimes they look up and nod slightly to fans. Sanchez doffed his cap after setting the team’s single-game strikeout mark with 17.
It takes something pretty special to get them to take a bow. You get the feeling they’re already focusing on their next start.
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