ARLINGTON, Tex. — Having gone the distance to topple the pinstriped force of the New York Yankees, they now face the defending American League champion Texas Rangers. But the Detroit Tigers really do expect to win the 2011 World Series. You can tell by their words and their actions.
After they took Game 2 from New York last week, Jose Valverde, the Tigers’ goofball closer, declared, “It’s over.” Then came Thursday night, when they purposely shelved the best starting pitcher in baseball and saved him for later.
The American League Championship Series will open Saturday in Arlington, Tex., with the Rangers and Tigers sending their aces to the mound. The Rangers earned the right to pitch C.J. Wilson on full rest by polishing off the Tampa Bay Rays in four games in the first round. The Tigers preserved presumptive Cy Young winner and possible MVP Justin Verlander by choice.
The Tigers could have used Verlander in relief in Game 5 of their AL Division Series on Thursday night, as the Yankees did with their ace, CC Sabathia. Instead, they gambled. Verlander threw a side session before the game, and starter Max Scherzer pitched in relief. If they won, the Tigers knew they could start the ALCS with Verlander on full rest and the chance to start him two of the first five games. They have designs on grander glory than the ALCS T-shirt they hand out when you win the division series.
“I know [Verlander] wanted to pitch today,” Scherzer said Thursday night, soaked in champagne in the winning clubhouse. “But we’re trying to win the whole thing. I know we had to win today, but we want to win this whole thing. To do that, we need Verly to pitch this next series.”
The Tigers, of course, will have to do more than just send Verlander to the middle of the diamond if they want to prevent the Rangers from making consecutive trips to the World Series. The Rangers have to be considered the favorite, and they have accumulated as much talent as any team in the majors. In the regular season, the Rangers scored 68 more runs than the Tigers and allowed 34 fewer.
The Rangers have a deep rotation and bullpen. Only one Ranger with an ERA of more than 4.00 — Game 3 starter Colby Lewis — will take the mound despite pitching in a home park that provides a decided advantage to the hitter.
“We know it’s not going to be easy,” Tigers outfielder Magglio Ordonez said.
Detroit has an extra degree of difficulty because of a potentially crucial injury. Right fielder Delmon Young suffered a left oblique strain late in Game 5, and his status remains uncertain. Oblique injuries typically sideline players for weeks, not days. Young tried to throw Thursday night and felt too much pain to do so. On Friday, he walked gingerly into a conference room for media interviews. Still, he’s holding out hope.
“I’m just going to give it every shot to try to be out there tomorrow,” Young said Friday. “If I can play tomorrow, I’ll be out there tomorrow.”
Upon arriving from the Minnesota Twins at the trade deadline, Young batted third for the Tigers and slugged .458 over 40 games. He went 6 for 19 with two walks and three crucial home runs in the ALDS, becoming one of the primary cogs in the Tigers’ offense.
“Since he got here, he hasn’t stopped producing,” Ordonez said. “He had a lot of big hits for us. He’s one of the reasons that we’re here. I don’t think you can replace him.”
If Young cannot play, the Tigers will turn to a pair of young outfielders, right-handed Ryan Raburn and left-handed Don Kelly, who hit a home run off Ivan Nova in the first inning Friday night. The Rangers will start left-handers Wilson and Derek Holland in the first two games, so Raburn may receive those two starts.
“Once everything gets more clear, it will work itself out,” Kelly said. “Nothing’s been decided. We’ll be able to piece it together.”
Said Manager Jim Leyland: “We have Plans B. I wouldn’t say Plan B. We have Plans B.”
The Tigers can find solace in all of them including Verlander pitching early and often. He is the best player in the series. The Rangers have the best overall team, one that experienced these games a year ago .
“They’re matter-of-fact right now,” Rangers Manager Ron Washington said. “I don’t think we can predict what’s going to happen, but I can predict one thing. You’re going to see some very good baseball.”