10/11/06 1:30 AM ET
Doubters no obstacle to Robertson
Tigers left-hander rewards Leyland's trust with Game 1 win
Make it four straight twice for the Detroit Tigers -- four straight victories in the postseason, four straight successful performances by starting pitchers.
This is the surest formula for postseason success, and the Tigers had it memorized on Tuesday night as the American League Championship Series opened at McAfee Coliseum.
To get to this point, the Tigers had received a capable start from Justin Verlander and then brilliant starts from Kenny Rogers and Jeremy Bonderman in the Division Series. The only member of the Detroit postseason rotation who had not been victorious was Robertson, who lost Game 1 of the Division Series.
That all changed on Tuesday night when Robertson was matched against the ace of the Oakland staff, Barry Zito. The day before the game, Tigers manager Jim Leyland was questioned about keeping his rotation order intact and giving the Game 1 ALCS honors to Robertson.
"Well, there really wasn't much decision on that one," Leyland said. "It's kind of Nate's turn."
Leyland went on to state his faith in Robertson's ability, but his actions had already spoken louder than his words. By keeping the rotation in order, Leyland was saying that Robertson fully deserved to start the opener of the ALCS. And why not?
Robertson was 13-13 on the season, but his 3.84 ERA deserved better than that.
"He was kind of, at times, our hard-luck guy," Leyland said. "I have total confidence in Nate Robertson."
That confidence was repaid in the ALCS opener with five shutout innings on the way to a 5-1 Detroit victory.
"I just had to go out there and make sure that I didn't make skip look bad tonight," Robertson said.
Robertson was not overpowering or untouchable, giving up six hits and three walks.
"Their whole lineup is so scrappy -- throughout the whole night they had me working," Robertson said. "I think those were five of the toughest innings that I've pitched all year."
If Robertson allowed many baserunners, he was immovable when that was what the situation required.
He had runners on second and third with no outs in the fourth. Leyland visited the mound.
"I basically just told him: 'Don't worry about the two runners that are already on,'" Leyland said. "'You've got to make your pitches from here on out. Don't worry if those two runs score. Don't let this thing open up trying to not let anybody score.'"
Robertson then struck out the next three batters. That led A's manager Ken Macha to remark that Robertson "reached back and got a little extra."
Informed of that comment, Robertson smiled and responded: "Yeah, I came up with a super-fastball all of a sudden or something. I appreciate Ken Macha giving me a boost in confidence there.
"If you've got guys in scoring position with no out, you have to make pitches. I've never backed down in situations like that. If they beat me, they beat me with my best stuff, so I came right at 'em."
Robertson also had runners on first and second with no outs in the fifth, but he got a double play and a lineout.
All in all, it was a commendable performance made even more notable by the fact that it came in a matchup with Zito.
There was still a postgame question about the "gamble" that Leyland had allegedly taken by starting his No. 4 pitcher.
"I don't have a No. 4 pitcher," Leyland said. "I've always said that my No. 1 pitcher is the guy who's starting that night."
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So for this ALCS opener, the Tigers' No. 1 starter was Nate Robertson. If conventional wisdom says that you have to juggle your rotation to have a high-profile starter in this spot, well, Jim Leyland doesn't manage that way. It was Nate Robertson's turn to pitch. Leyland had confidence in Robertson. Robertson returned the favor with five innings that were not spotless, but certainly were scoreless.
This performance and this result seem to leave the Tigers in a very positive position. The surest route to postseason success is having strong pitching. And the beginning of that journey is strong starting pitching. This was how the Chicago White Sox won the World Series in 2005. But it was also the way the New York Giants won the World Series in 1905.
The postseason is about pitching, and if all four of your starters are at their best levels simultaneously, you're on your way in October. Most clubs can only wish for this kind of synchronized pitching success, but it appears that the Tigers are right there and right there when it matters most.
The work of the starting pitchers may be particularly telling in this series, because the two teams appear to be well-matched in bullpen depth and effectiveness.
"As I looked at the series, because both teams have solid bullpens, it's going to be who scores on the starters," Macha said.
Nothing is guaranteed after winning one game in a best-of-seven event. But beating the Athletics on the road, beating the Athletics' ace on the road and getting a fourth straight winning performance from a starting pitcher creates the definite impression that the Detroit Tigers have hit their stride at precisely the right time.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.