If the season ended Thursday, the Detroit Tigers would own the American League‘s second wild-card slot.

And they’d be one dangerous wild card.

After sweeping a doubleheader from the Minnesota Twins on Thursday, Detroit sits at 82-70, a half-game up on the Baltimore Orioles (82-71) and one game behind the Toronto Blue Jays (83-69) in the WC scramble. 

The Tigers have won four straight and will play seven of their final 10 games at home. Their offense is clicking. And they have resurgent ace Justin Verlander ready to pitch in the do-or-die Wild Card Game.

Let’s start with Verlander. The 2011 AL Cy Young Award and MVP winner posted a plus-4.00 ERA in 2014 and logged just 133.1 innings last season, all while battling injuries.

The signs were pointing ominously toward a career on the downslope.

In 2016, he’s regained his Cy Young-caliber form. He allowed two earned runs in six innings with 11 strikeouts in the Game 2 win Thursday and now owns a 3.21 ERA with a Junior Circuit-pacing 234 punchouts in 213 frames. He’s been especially excellent since the All-Star break, posting an AL-best 2.16 ERA.

A great pitcher on an equally great run—that’s precisely who you want on the mound with the everything on the line.

That assumes two things: First, that the Tigers will punch a postseason ticket. Second, that they’ll be able to line up Verlander for the Wild Card Game.

As Evan Woodbery of MLive.com pointed out, “Verlander is currently slated to start on the final game in the season in Atlanta. If the Tigers have clinched a playoff spot by that time, he could be skipped. If they get into a [must]-win game one day earlier, perhaps he could pitch on short rest.” 

If Detroit does return to the October stage after missing the dance in 2015, Verlander won’t be the only reason.

The offense ranks fourth in the AL with a .760 OPS. Miguel Cabrera is hitting .307 with 34 home runs. J.D. Martinez has a .928 OPS and has been an unsung second-half hero. Victor Martinez (.288 average, 25 home runs) and Ian Kinsler (.277 average, 26 home runs) have done their thing.

After a dispiriting start, Justin Upton is finally living up to the six-year, $132.75 million deal he signed with Detroit this winter. He went deep Thursday and has four homers and nine RBI in his last six games.

The rotation isn’t all about Verlander, either. Michael Fulmer is the favorite to take home AL Rookie of the Year honors. The Tigers have notched a victory the last five times 23-year-old Daniel Norris took the ball. And 25-year-old Matt Boyd twirled an eight-inning gem in his most recent turn Sept. 20.

“We wouldn’t be here if those three guys weren’t pitching the way they are,” manager Brad Ausmus said of his young arms, per Anthony Fenech of the Detroit Free Press.

On the other hand, veteran Anibal Sanchez owns a 5.77 ERA, and free-agent pickup Jordan Zimmermann is working his way back from a neck strain.

Add a bullpen that sports a 4.08 ERA, and it’s safe to say the burden will fall on Verlander and the lineup if the Tigers hope to make a deep run.

That said, the American League is wide open. Every contender is flawed. 

The Cleveland Indians, who lead Detroit by seven games in the AL Central, have an injury-depleted starting rotation. It’s almost certainly too late for the Tigers to catch them. But they could hang in a playoff series, just as they could hang with the AL West-leading Texas Rangers and their pedestrian plus-nine run differential. The same goes for the AL East gaggle, though the Boston Red Sox appear to be putting it together at the right time.

We’re getting ahead of ourselves, of course. The Tigers haven’t wrapped up anything. This will likely go down to the wire.

If they do, though, and if they can find a way to put Verlander on the slab with Cabrera and Co. behind him, look out. It’s worth noting that neither the Jays nor the O’sDetroit’s two closest competitors for wild-card positionhave a transcendent, shutdown ace.

Verlander has been under the autumn glare before, logging 98.1 playoff innings scattered over five seasons with a 3.39 ERA and 112 strikeouts.

“I like pitching in big games,” Verlander said, per Fenech. “I always have.”

If the Tigers can keep their claws in for another week-plus, he may well get the chance.


All statistics current as of Thursday and courtesy of MLB.com unless otherwise noted.

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