Make no mistake: Justin Verlander still the Tigers' ace

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

There's a reason why manager Brad Ausmus picked Verlander to start Opening Day instead of that other guy with the funny eyes.

Justin Verlander and Opening Day are as baseball as hot dogs and mustard, the hit and run, and a 3-0 fastball.

It's not Game 1 without Verlander. Whether it's Opening Day or the start of the playoffs, you simply don't not start the flame-throwing right-hander.

The Tigers have tabbed Verlander for Opening Day seven years in a row. Since hitting the big leagues in 2006, Verlander has started Game 1 of six playoff series---three LDS, one LCS and two World Series.

You just can't start anything of note without him.

He's the guy who shows up at a house full of people and declares, "NOW it's a party!"

Verlander is 3-3 in his six post-season Game 1s, and 1-1 in his seven Opening Day starts, with five no decisions. That may not seem all that impressive, but he's still the Tigers' best option when something has to be opened, as he has been for eight years.

Verlander wears Opening Day like a prize fighter wears a championship belt. And everyone knows you have to knock out the champ to claim the title.

That's why Max Scherzer wasn't going to start on Opening Day this season.

The Tigers are probably the only team that can have the reigning Cy Young winner not start Opening Day. Even without any research, I feel safe in assuming that it hasn't happened too often in baseball history.

This is because the Tigers have Verlander, who is to Opening Day what corned beef and cabbage is to St. Patrick's Day.

There are two things that you can't start Opening Day without: the umpire yelling "Play Ball!" and Justin Verlander throwing the Tigers' first pitch.

Scherzer, who is in the news for having rejected a reported six-year, $144 million contract offer from the Tigers, is taking his spiffy 21-3 record, his Cy Young and his two different colored eyes to the bench on March 31, when the Tigers start the 2014 season against Kansas City at Comerica Park---with Verlander kicking things off, naturally.

It's the right decision that manager Brad Ausmus made.

Verlander is the champ. And he has to be knocked out to have his Opening Day belt taken from him.

Scherzer, on the strength of one great year, hasn't done enough to KO Verlander.

The only thing that was going to keep Verlander from his Opening Day start was his own body.

Verlander had core muscle surgery in the off-season, and for a time it looked dicey as to whether he'd be fit to punch in for work on Opening Day.

But then Verlander tossed some innings in spring training and he looked and felt good. It wasn't long before Ausmus had seen enough and announced Verlander would be on the mound on March 31.

The Opening Day start traditionally goes to the team's ace. So I suppose a question has been asked and answered by virtue of Ausmus's proclamation.

Justin Verlander is still the Tigers' ace.

This isn't the most pressing of questions, what with the Tigers', ahem, "interesting" off-season. But it's one of the most fun.

Scherzer's 2013 season was magical. He didn't lose a game until mid-July---and if you want to get a true gauge of a starter's effectiveness, sometimes it's best to look not at wins but at losses.

Scherzer's three measly losses almost speak louder than his 21 wins.

To make 32 big league starts and lose just thrice happens less frequently than attaining 20+ wins.

For this, plus the addition of a wicked curveball to his repertoire and his growing dominance, Scherzer richly deserved the American League Cy Young Award last season.

But he still doesn't deserve to start on Opening Day for the Tigers---not as long as no. 35 is still around.

Verlander's 2013 campaign was, at times, the opposite of Scherzer's. While the fans grew enamored with Scherzer's 13-0 getaway, they were just as perplexed and frustrated by Verlander's struggles.

Verlander, the 2011 Cy Young and MVP winner, was no longer the best pitcher in the league. He wasn't even the best pitcher in his own rotation. He might not have even been the second or third best.

But then came September and October, when the money pitchers shine.

Verlander, who now says that part of his uneven 2013 was due to subconscious, subtle over compensating for his deteriorating physical condition, nonetheless started to get things together as the year came to a close.

In his final six starts of 2013---the first of which came on September 1, fittingly, Verlander surrendered just 10 earned runs in 39.2 innings---a tiny 2.27 ERA. In three of those starts, he didn't even give up a single run.

In the LDS, Verlander tossed 15 shutout innings at the Oakland A's---in Games 1 and 5, which only happen to be the two most important games of a best-of-five series. The A's whiffed 21 times while generating just six base hits in those two starts.

In the LCS against Boston, Verlander continued his late-season and post-season brilliance, hurling eight innings in a Game 3 heartbreaker, losing 1-0, despite a pitching line of four hits, one walk and 10 strikeouts.

In 23 playoff innings last year, Verlander gave up one run. When added to his final six starts of the regular season, the combined numbers were 62.2 innings, 11 earned runs and five starts without allowing a run at all. That's a 1.58 ERA---something you need a microscope to see.

And this was all done as his body was in revolt.

So let's cheer for Max Scherzer and his Cy Young. Let's properly bow to his 21-3 record and his 13-0 start. Let's marvel at the addition of a nasty curveball to his already lethal array of pitches.

But it's going to take more than one terrific season to take the Opening Day belt away from Justin Verlander, who finished last season as strong as any pitcher ever has.

You have to knock out the champ to be the team's ace, and as good as Scherzer was last season, it wasn't enough.

Again, not the biggest worry in the world, but the record needs to be set straight.

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