Rotation pieced together for stretch run
After Rogers and Verlander, Tigers will depend on unknowns
DETROIT -- Kenny Rogers has about two decades of pitching experience as he tries to extend his season, not knowing what the future holds for his career, let alone his left elbow. Justin Verlander has a wealth of promise ahead of him while he builds a case as one of the best pitchers in baseball this year.
In between, the Tigers aren't quite sure what they have. Whatever it is, their hopes of defending their American League title are riding on the group, starting with this weekend's series against the Twins.
Before manager Jim Leyland could finally fill out his rotation for the rest of the season on Wednesday, a reporter asked him about possibly going to a four-man starting staff, instead of five. Leyland said, half-jokingly, "I'm lucky if I can find four right now."
After brainstorming with pitching coach Chuck Hernandez, he now has his group: a collection of arms ranging from the 42-year-old postseason hero Rogers to the reigning American League Rookie of the Year Verlander, from aggressive, experienced left-hander Nate Robertson to 21-year-old rookie Jair Jurrjens. Another youngster, Yorman Bazardo, will make his first Major League start Saturday in a spot assignment opposite Johan Santana.
It's not the deep, battle-tested rotation that made the Tigers a World Series favorite in a lot of minds when the season opened and had teams calling about their extra pitchers in Spring Training. Instead, it's a pitching staff more shuffled over the course of a season than Leyland can remember in his Major League managerial tenure. Yet, the fact that they even have a chance to get back to the postseason makes a statement about the season the Tigers have had.
"In some ways, I have a greater appreciation for this team than I did the one last year," Leyland said. "This team could've packed it in. They've been tested, and it hasn't all been great. It's been tough for them. I gained more respect than I had for them even after last year, I gained this year for this group of players. Nobody packed it in. They're busting their tails for me every day."
They're not the Cinderella team anymore. If anything, they're the team that won't go away after all they've had to overcome, pitching and otherwise. Even with Rogers' sore elbow and Jeremy Bonderman's season-ending injured one, they have a shot.
"I think that shows the resiliency of this team," Verlander said, "and the resiliency of this organization, really."
For the next two-plus weeks, they'll have to hope Rogers' elbow is resilient, too. After sharing the team lead with Verlander with 17 wins last season, including a handful of critical ones down the stretch, he has made just eight starts this season.
Rogers doesn't claim to be healthy right now, only that he can pitch comfortably through whatever is in his elbow. At his age, it's short-term feel over long-term thoughts.
Rogers' contract ends when this season does, and while he has said Detroit is the only team for which he wants to pitch next year, the Tigers could go with their younger arms next season. He doesn't want to look at this as pitching to extend his career, only to extend this season.
"Whether we can get back in the playoff race or whatever," Rogers said, "my outlook for every start is [that] every one could be my last. And I'm fine with it. We don't know what's going to happen tomorrow or next year. I'm not even looking for any of that. I really could care less about two weeks from now or two months from now or two years from now.
"I've got at least a couple more weeks of pitching, and I'm happy with that. It's more than I'm supposed to have."
Rogers will start at Cleveland on Monday, a full week after he last pitched against Toronto and opposite Roy Halladay. Rogers didn't leave with the lead, but his six-plus innings of two-run ball helped keep Detroit close enough for a two-out, ninth-inning rally. He has allowed three runs on 11 hits over 11 innings since returning.
In many ways, he's becoming the face of the mind-set Leyland wants for his team down the stretch -- no excuses, just effort.
"I'm supposed to go out there and pitch, toe that hill every five days and do my job," Rogers said. "And I didn't have that opportunity for the first three months. That makes it more difficult, but when I think about it, you do exactly what you can."
Verlander will face the Indians on Tuesday trying to continue one of the strongest late-season kicks in the AL. Not only has he won his last four starts, he has allowed just three runs on 23 hits over 28 2/3 innings in the process, striking out 26. In many ways, he has filled the role of late-season strength that Rogers carried last year.
"I just don't want to put that pressure on him yet," Leyland said. "I just want to let it happen. It could be happening right in front of our eyes, but I don't want to emphasize that too much."
Strong starts from both of those guys in Cleveland would give the Tigers a chance. Before they can get there, however, they have to hold their ground by beating Minnesota with two pitchers that have four Major League starts combined.
Robertson will start Friday's series opener at the Metrodome, where he tossed seven scoreless innings during the Tigers' last visit there in July. He has been on and off his game since, winning once in his last 10 starts, but he has had four quality starts without a victory in that stretch. From there, Detroit will turn to Bazardo and Jurrjens, two pitchers who have never pitched in the dome.
Jurrjens has faced Cleveland twice already, outpitching Fausto Carmona once and making a name in an organization where he was known as the Tigers' best pitching prospect not named Andrew Miller. By spotting his mid-90s fastball on the corners, he has shown as much or more polish at times than some veteran arms in the organization.
Detroit has already had plenty of help from the Minors to get this far. Chad Durbin went from Toledo's staff ace last year to Tigers long reliever to Major League starter, and has shuffled in between the latter two for much of the second half. Miller's first full pro season had him up in the big leagues in a spot start by mid-May and in the rotation a month later. Virgil Vasquez has filled in three times.
"To have guys that have come from the Minor Leagues and stepped up the way they did, really, that's a tribute to this organization and what they were able to do -- to build a farm system and have guys down there that can step up in situations," Verlander said. "You don't want it to happen, but what happened this year, you have guys behind that can come up and do a good job and keep us in the race. And that's what it's all about."
After all the changes and all the injuries, they're still in the race. Now, the rotation that Detroit has pieced together will try to get the Tigers closer.
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.