As we enter 2012, it’s time to take a peek back at 2011, a year of continued success and great leaps forward for Detroit sports teams. The Red Wings made the playoffs for a record 20th consecutive season, while the Tigers returned to the post-season after a five-year hiatus, led by the arm of ace Justin Verlander. The Detroit Lions, just three seasons removed from an 0-16 season, won their first five games in 2011, finally earning respect in the NFL again.
At times Motown fans were almost overwhelmed with the success of their sports heroes. During one magical stretch in late September and early October, the Tigers were rolling through a 12-game winning streak to take a choke hold on the AL Central, while Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson were highlighting the Lions surprising unbeaten streak to start their season.
Here’s my selections for the best moments of 2011, in chronological order:
Verlander throws another no-hitter
If not for a single pitch that the home plate umpire ruled was a smidge inside, Verlander would have had a perfect game on May 7, in Toronto against the Blue Jays. The tall right-hander was magnificent that day, with his fastball and curveball both well in command. He retired the first 22 batters for allowing the walk on a 3-2 pitch. He got a double play grounder on the next batter and shut down the Jays in the ninth to secure his second no-hitter, having thrown his first in 2007. It may have been his best individual game performance of the year, but it was just the beginning for Verlander, who would go 21-2 the rest of the way to lead the Tigers to their first division title in 24 years. JV won the Cy Young Award and the MVP Award for his stellar season.
Red Wings score two goals in two minutes to skate past Sharks and force Game Seven
On May 10, three days after Verlander’s masterpiece, the Red Wings took the ice against the San Jose Sharks in Game Six of their Conference Semi-Finals. The Wings, favored in the series, had lost the first three games, but fought their way back to win Games Four and Five in San Jose. In Detroit for Game Six, the two rivals battled through a scoreless first and second periods. In the third with less than ten minutes left, the Sharks struck first to take a 1-0 lead. A few minutes later, the Wings scored on a breakaway, keyed off a pass by Niklas Kronwall. Less than two minutes later, Pavel Datsyuk dished the puck to Valterri Filpulla for another goal and a Detroit lead. An empty netter made the final, 3-1 Wings. The victory made the Wings just the sixth team in NHL history to win three straight and force a Game Seven after losing the first three of a series. Unfortunately, the Wings lost Game Seven.
Cabrera slugs ninth-inning homer to win game for Verlander over White Sox
On June 4, Verlander was about a month removed from his no-no, and he was throwing well but he hadn’t yet gotten into the zone that would be the signature of his 2011 season. In this game, against a Tiger rival who had given him troubles, the right-hander locked it in. In a 2-2 tie after battling former Tiger Edwin Jackson most of the game, Verlander threw four pitches over 100 MPH in the 8th inning, working himself out of a jam. It was obvious that his night was done, but that he might not get a win for his effort. Then Austin Jackson tripled to open the ninth, but after two outs, it looked like he would be stranded at third. Miguel Cabrera made sure that didn’t happen, slamming a fastball from Jesse Crain to deep right-center. Score: 4-2 Tigers. Valverde closed it down in the ninth, and Verlander had his sixth win of the year in dramatic fashion. He would win his next five starts, and 18 of 20 decisions the rest of the way.
Lions shock Cowboys with 17 points in 4th quarter
The Lions entered this game 3-0, having won seven straight dating back to the 2010 season. QB Stafford and freakishly talented wide receiver Johnson were stifled in the first half however, and Detroit looked mediocre again, trailing 20-3 at the half. When Tony Romo tossed a touchdown to make it 27-3 early in the 3rd, it felt like the old Lions were back. But this was not your father’s Lions, y’all. A pair of Romo passes were intercepted by Detroit defenders and returned for scores. Then, in the 4th quarter, Stafford and Megatron connected for two TD’s, the final one a dagger to the hearts of the Cowboys late in the game. The final score was 34-30, advantage Lions, and at 4-0 with a victory over a team many picked to go to the Super Bowl, they started to earn respect.
Tigers eliminate Yankees in Game Five of ALDS
Just four days after the Lions thrilling win over Dallas, on October 6, the Tigers squared off with the Yankees in a deciding Game Five of the ALDS. The night before, the Yankees had thumped the Tigers to even the series, and with the contest taking place in Yankee Stadium, it seemed like the momentum was with the Bombers. But Doug Fister, the lean gunslinger acquired from Seattle at the trade deadline, gutted out five innings before handing over a 3-1 lead to the bullpen. What followed was a nail-biting, edge-of-your-seat finish that saw three Tiger relievers stave off the pesky Yankees. Joaquin Benoit especially earned his big contract, stamping down the Yanks over 1 1/3 innings, whiffing ARod with two runners on in the 7th. Two innings later, Papa Grande fanned ARod again, this time to end the series, 3-2 Tigers. For the second time, Detroit eliminated the Yankees in a playoff series.