Five questions for Tigers-O's series

This series is all about the big three: the three great starting pitchers for the Detroit Tigers and the three crucial players who will not be playing for the Baltimore Orioles.

This might suggest a mismatch, but those who see it that way weren't watching the 2014 season. We have learned to never, ever discount a team managed by Buck Showalter, especially the one he has this season.

Here are five questions.


Can the Detroit rotation be beaten?

The three American League Cy Young winners from the past three seasons, Max Scherzer, David Price and Justin Verlander, will start the first three games of a playoff series: That will be a first in baseball history. Scherzer had another terrific season, and Price won Game No. 162 to secure the AL Central title for the Tigers. Verlander will be the key, not just in this series but perhaps in the entire postseason. If he can be the Verlander of old, or at least something close, the Tigers will certainly have the best rotation in the American League in the playoffs. Verlander is 7-5 with a 3.28 ERA in the postseason in his career, and he is 4-0 with a 1.79 ERA in the division series. In his last two starts this season, he threw 15 1/3 innings, allowed two earned runs, walked none and struck out 10, his two best back-to-back starts of the season. His velocity was better, and his command was much better. He looked a lot like Verlander, not like the guy who has been hit very hard, and has been wild, this year, recording a 4.54 ERA. "He's not throwing 100 in the ninth anymore," one scout said. "But he is still Verlander."


What do we make of the Orioles' rotation?

We hear it every day: The Orioles don't have a legitimate ace, and you can't win in October without dominant, swing-and-miss starters; yet the 2002 Angels did (different time, different era, we understand). But the Orioles finished fifth in the AL in starters' ERA (3.61) and the Tigers finished 10th (3.89). Chris Tillman might not be a classic ace, but he had a 3.34 ERA. And, if not for his last start of the season, he would have finished the year with 20 consecutive starts allowing three or fewer runs. Wei-Yin Chen (16-6), Bud Norris (15-8) and Miguel Gonzalez (10-9) are more than solid, and Kevin Gausman can be spectacular. It might not be the Tigers' Big Three, but don't underestimate Baltimore's starting pitching. But their hands are full with the red-hot big boys in the middle of the Tigers' batting order, Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez. Cabrera, bad leg and all, hit eight homers in September. And in a season in which 114 players struck out at least 100 times, Martinez struck out 42 times in 561 at-bats.


How good is Baltimore's bullpen?

As good as any entering the postseason: a collective 3.10 ERA for the season and a .229 batting average against. The Orioles entered the season without a closer, but Showalter is the best at figuring it out, as he has had to do several times in his time in Baltimore. The end result is Zach Britton with 37 saves, and only 46 hits allowed in 76 1/3 innings. He has been great, but the rest of the bullpen has been just as good. Darren O'Day, Tommy Hunter, Andrew Miller, Brad Brach, T.J. McFarland and Brian Matusz, among others, come from all sorts of arm angles and have all sorts of velocity. When you can follow a big left-hander such as Miller (in 20 innings pitched with the Orioles, he has issued four walks while having 34 strikeouts) with submarining right-hander O'Day (1.70 ERA), that pen is a nightmare for an opposing team. And no one matches up better than Showalter.


How good is the Tigers' bullpen?

The Tigers tried everything in the offseason to shore up a pen that has been the biggest reason for their postseason struggles the past two years. And still Detroit finished 13th in the American League in bullpen ERA (4.29) and only the White Sox's bullpen had fewer strikeouts. Closer Joe Nathan (4.81 ERA) is the key; he has really struggled most of the year without his great velocity, and without his great slider. But in his last four appearances (small sample size), he allowed one hit and no runs. "He looks better to me," one scout said. "His slider is sharper. But he's not the pitcher he was two or three years ago." The Tigers might get a boost from Anibal Sanchez, an injured starter who is hoping to be effective out of the bullpen in October. If it comes down to a battle of bullpens, though, the Orioles win.


Can the Orioles win without so many of their key guys?

They have survived without catcher Matt Wieters -- a leader, a great defensive catcher -- since June. His replacement, rookie Caleb Joseph, has been better than expected, and the Baltimore pitchers love throwing to him, and he has a tremendously high baseball IQ. Backup catcher Nick Hundley is also the son of a defensive coordinator, and he knows what he's doing back there. Steve Pearce has done a remarkable job all season, and he will be counted on to replace Chris Davis (suspended for testing positive for amphetamines) every day at first base in this postseason. Pearce is the first player since Cap Anson in 1884 to go six seasons into his career hitting no more than five home runs in any single year, then hitting 20-plus in his seventh year. Replacing Manny Machado at third base will not be easy, but the main guy there, Kelly Johnson, is a veteran who will not be overwhelmed.

The pick: Tigers in five