Gritty Robertson called on for Game 1
Tigers southpaw opens ALDS against Wang in Bronx rematch
DETROIT -- Nate Robertson built a reputation down the stretch as the battler of the Tigers' rotation. He took a line drive off his ribs, another off his leg and a handful of pitching duels, and he endured them all. He has one heck of a battle coming up on Tuesday after his team took a punch to the gut.
When Robertson lost a tough-luck 2-0 decision at Yankee Stadium on Aug. 30, offense was the question surrounding the Tigers, and nobody knew it better than the fourth-year left-hander. The Yankees put up 10 hits on him over seven innings, but a Craig Wilson solo homer and a Jason Giambi sacrifice fly -- both in the fifth -- did him in. Robertson stranded runners at second and third in consecutive innings, once with one out, induced two double plays and overcame two infield errors to keep the Tigers in the contest. Chien-Ming Wang's 7 2/3 scoreless innings kept them out of it.
Wang and Robertson will meet in the rematch on a bigger stage, but scoring is the lesser of the Tigers' problems going into Game 1 of their American League Division Series on Tuesday night.
"We're going to have to pitch better than what we have the last five days," manager Jim Leyland said. "That's as simple as it is. I would certainly think [we would]. If it's what we've seen the last five days when we get into the playoffs, we're not going to be in long."
Tigers starters -- not including Justin Verlander, whose turn was skipped on Saturday for rest in favor of Zach Miner -- ended the season allowing 22 earned runs on 36 hits over 18 innings in their final five starts. Jeremy Bonderman's win on Sept. 26 was the last time a Tigers starter lasted six innings, let alone threw a quality start.
The streak of struggles surprisingly started with Robertson, who gave up four runs over 4 2/3 innings on Wednesday. In that situation, however, the matchup wasn't in his favor, as Robertson went up against a Toronto lineup stacked with dangerous right-handed hitters. Hard as it is to call any matchup favorable against a Yankees lineup that boasts two of the top three hitters in this year's AL batting race, two hitters with more than 110 RBIs and three with more than 110 runs scored, Robertson might be the best Tiger for the challenge against the Bronx Bombers' lefty-heavy lineup.
Before Robertson's pitchers' duel in the Bronx, he had another 2-0 game going against the Yankees on May 31 before giving up two runs each in the eighth and ninth. Again, he scattered his damage, stranding the bases loaded in one inning and two on in another. They've hit for him for a .313 average overall this season, but just .222 with runners in scoring position.
"It's basically taking some of the experience that I've had in the past with guys that I have faced," he said, "and understanding what helped me get them out, what hurt me when they got me and not overloading too much. Especially when you get out there, it's one hitter at a time, one pitch at a time.
"You start thinking about the whole lineup. They're tough at the plate. They wait for a good pitch to hit. They're aggressive, but at the same time, they don't really go out of the strike zone too much."
The matchup is the main reason that Robertson will pitch the Tigers' first postseason game since 1987. Had the Tigers clinched the AL Central earlier this week and had a chance to play out the weekend without needing a victory, Robertson would likely be looking at a Game 3 start against the A's on Friday afternoon. Once Leyland summoned Kenny Rogers out of the bullpen for extra innings on Sunday afternoon, trying for the division-clinching win, Robertson's spot in the opener was pretty much sealed.
Once the game was over, it was official.
"It's a reaction to the situation that presents itself," he said. "We didn't win today, so I'm going Tuesday. I'll be ready to go. You don't have to worry about that."
For all the Tigers had to do down the stretch, the rotation order works out well. By pitching Robertson in the opener, not only will he be on track to pitch a potential Game 5 in the Bronx, but the Tigers can preserve their regular-season preference of pitching Rogers in between Verlander and Bonderman.
As Leyland said, however, the Tigers will have to pitch better to make it that far. It's the pitching, in part, that puts them where they are now.
"We've dealt with adversity," Robertson said. "This is obviously one of the toughest things to overcome, just because it was in our hands. But we've overcome things, and I know this is a team of resolve."
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.