NEW YORK – From deep in Yankee Stadium's left field, a rookie watched the brilliance of Detroit Tigers pitcher Anibal Sanchez on Sunday evening, and a ridiculous thought filled his head. If we can just get one run we will win this, Tigers outfielder Quintin Berry thought to himself.
It is, of course, a preposterous notion, almost arrogant in its assumption, that in the second game of the American League Championship Series, against the New York Yankees, one of baseball's most feared lineups wouldn't pull together as much as a run against the Tigers' starting pitcher. But even from far in left field, hundreds of feet from home plate, Berry could see something obvious to everyone in the stadium.
The Yankees were not touching Anibal Sanchez.
"The way Sanchez was throwing on the mound you could see he was getting it anywhere he wanted," Berry said. "I knew if we could get a lead in the game we'd be able to win."
The reason the Tigers, 3-0 winners Sunday, might be the most dangerous team in this baseball postseason comes from the fact it has something nobody else in these playoffs possesses. It has a starting rotation that can shut an opponent down for an entire series. So far, the difference in this ALCS is the pitching of Doug Fister in Game 1 and Sanchez in Game 2. They have yet to be scored upon.
Think about that: neither Tigers starting pitcher has given up a run so far and that's before Justin Verlander – perhaps the best pitcher in baseball – starts Game 3 on Tuesday. Yankees fans complain that their hitters, led by Alex Rodriguez and Robinson Cano, have been horrible this series. They wonder how a lineup that is paid tens of millions of dollars suddenly can't hit. They boo their disgust.
Maybe secretly they wonder how Fister, Sanchez and Max Scherzer came to be so good.
Dominance comes from the touch of a finger, the snap of a wrist, the slightest ways in which a hand can move. After Sunday's victory, Scherzer, the Tigers' Game 4 starter, stood in the clubhouse and talked about a staff that has come together all at once. The answer, he said, is simple. He, Verlander, Fister and Sanchez are making their off-speed pitches as well as they ever have.
Each of the four, save for Fister, has a blazing fastball. Each is known for overwhelming hitters with pitches that race well over 90 mph. But hitters can time fastballs. It's often the other pitches, the sliders, changeups and curves that make the biggest difference. Nothing makes a 95 mph fastball look faster than when it follows an 83 mph curve.
"Tonight, Anibal's slider was unhittable," Scherzer said. "My changeup is my best pitch but my slider right now is the best it has ever been in my career. It's great because it gives the batter a lot to think about."
Scherzer said he has been working on the slider for much of the year. He has been focusing on the pressure his middle finger puts on the ball as he releases it, finding ways to make it dance. Lately, the feel is so good he can continually find the right force to put on his finger to make the slider skip through the strike zone or dart down just enough out of the zone in hopes of luring a hitter to swing and miss.
It is rare when a pitcher feels this precise. It is even rarer when a whole starting rotation has the same sensation.
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"Right now they've all got command of all their pitches," Tigers catcher Gerald Laird said with nothing so much as awe in his voice.
In a way it is probably luck that everyone is pitching as well as they are at the most important part of the season. But this is baseball. Sometimes you get lucky. Sometimes your starting pitchers all have the best changeups and sliders they've ever thrown in their lives.
"We're trying to win every inning we can," Fister said.
Now comes Verlander in Detroit and Scherzer the day after. And somehow this is starting to feel like a very short series – the broken Yankees against Detroit's starters who are pitching the best they ever have.
So good they almost wonder how long it can last. Can the fingers continue to have the right feel on the ball? Can they exact the precise pressure needed to make every slider move to exactly the right spot? All they can do is hope yes.
And try not to think too much about it.
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