DETROIT — From All-Star starter to postseason headliner — Max Scherzer is Jim Leyland’s pick again.
Detroit’s 21-game winner will start the AL division series opener Friday night at Oakland, with star Justin Verlander following in Game 2. Leyland announced the Tigers’ rotation Tuesday, putting an end to any speculation about who would start Game 1.
“I truly feel that I could start any one of my guys and I would feel comfortable,” Leyland said. “I think that the kind of year Scherzer’s had … I’m sure somebody will find something wrong with this choice, but I think that’s kind of hard to argue.”
Scherzer (21-3) was baseball’s lone 20-game winner this year and started for the American League in the All-Star game, which Leyland managed. But Verlander (13-12) was the 2011 AL MVP and has been one of the top pitchers in the game over the last few seasons, so Leyland could have picked either.
“It’s awesome,” Scherzer said. “We’re going up against a great team, and I have a shot to go out there and pick up the win, first time. What more can you want?”
The Tigers won the AL Central for a third straight year, thanks to an exceptionally deep rotation. Anibal Sanchez, the AL’s ERA leader, won’t pitch until Game 3 against the Athletics. Doug Fister starts Game 4.
Leyland said relievers Bruce Rondon and Phil Coke will likely miss the series due to elbow problems.
Scherzer is a favorite to win his first Cy Young Award, and it’s not just because of his lofty win total. He finished fifth in the AL in ERA and second in strikeouts while holding opponents to a .198 average.
No wonder Verlander was deferential to his teammate after Leyland’s announcement.
“If it was me, I’d probably make the same decision,” Verlander said. “Max has had a magical season, and when a guy has a season like that and everything’s going right, why not ride it?”
Verlander was the Cy Young winner in 2011 and finished a close second last year to David Price. This season has been more of a struggle. His 3.46 ERA was his highest since 2008.
Verlander pitched six scoreless innings in each of his final two starts, and if he can provide more of the same in the playoffs, the Tigers should be dangerous.
“I put in a ton of work, and I really feel like the last couple starts were a whole lot better,” Verlander said. “I’m pretty doggone close to right where I need to be.”
Scherzer will face Bartolo Colon (18-6) in the opener. Colon was second to Sanchez in the ERA race.
Leyland said the final decision on a Game 1 starter came in the last few days, and he decided Tuesday was a good time to announce it.
“I’m doing this so I didn’t get bugged by you guys for another three or four days,” Leyland said. “It gives you guys some time to play with it, it gives your readers time to second-guess it, enjoy it, agree with it, whatever they want to do. So we figured we owed that to you.”
Rick Porcello, Detroit’s No. 5 starter, will move to the bullpen. The Tigers can use some help in relief if Rondon and Coke can’t pitch. Rondon looked good recently, but it sounds as if his arm problems will keep him sidelined for the time being.
For all their impressive pitching, the Tigers are still vulnerable if their lineup slumps. Last year in the World Series, Detroit was shut down by San Francisco in a four-game sweep.
After clinching the division last week, Detroit lost three straight in Miami against the lowly Marlins, scoring only three runs in three games. Henderson Alvarez threw a no-hitter against the Tigers in the finale.
“I’m not as concerned as the fans and everything, because I know this is the way it is — we either hit or we don’t,” Leyland said. “That simple. I’m not going to sit around and worry about it.”