It wasn’t that long ago that the Detroit Tigers were difficult to watch. They squandered leads, stranded runners, shuffled off the field seemingly listless. This was a month ago, folks.
But right now this team is playing their best baseball of the season, fueled by a starting rotation that’s buzzing along and a defense that’s making plays at crucial moments.
I’m reminded of a famous line from one of my favorite movies, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid:
“Who are those guys?”
After a season in which they played under perhaps unrealistic expectations, the Tigers have saved their best baseball for when it matters, and it’s paying off. A focused team now, the Tigers are fond of reminding us that it takes 11 victories in the post-season to secure a World Series title (well, 12 if you’re the wild-card, but you get the idea). The Pistons used to cross off the wins as they marched their way to the NBA Finals, and the Tigers can mark off five so far. Who can argue that they don’t have a great chance to get the other six? That’s their goal – anything less is not acceptable – and it’s a new attitude for this franchise.
In 2006 the Tigers were a team that shocked baseball – and their own fans – by owning the best record in the game for most of the season. They slid into the wild card slot and everyone was worried when they faced the New York Yankees in the first round. When they beat the Yankees it was almost as if they’d won their own little World Series.
I remember being in new York at the time, working for my friend Dale Petroskey and the Baseball Hall of Fame. Dale is a Michigan native and a Tigers fan. He had the cell number for Todd Jones, and after Jones recorded the final out to eliminate the Yanks he called the number and the two of us left a delirious, incoherent message for the Detroit reliever. That was how Detroit’s baseball fans felt at that time, we were thrilled to have something to root for. In ’06 we were just three years removed from a dreadfully embarrassing 119-loss season, we had a new manager and some unknown new players. Making the Series that year was frosting on top of the cake. When we lost to the St. Louis Cardinals it was disappointing, but not crushing. At least we were a baseball town again.
But since ’06, the Tigers have had mixed results, missing the playoffs in a heartbreaking Game 163 in 2009, losing leads in their division to fall short, and then being trampled by a superior Texas team last fall in the ALCS.
In 2012, the Tigers ponied up for Prince Fielder, adding more power to a strong team. They played several months of the season in a “win one, lose one, win one, lose one” pattern, but they squeaked past their competition to win the division. Since they clinched, this Tigers team, one with immense talent in key positions and some swagger, is focused. They aren’t satisfied with just being in the post-season.
Do you think Justin Verlander cares too much about his MVP and Cy Young Award? Or that Miguel Cabrera is thinking about his Triple Crown and the MVP debate? No. These guys want a World Sereis ring, and they know how close they are. They know it isn’t to get into the playoffs. They realize their time may never come again.
When Verlander toed the rubber for Game Five against the A’s in a zoo of an atmosphere that felt more like a College World Series setting than the MLB Playoffs, he was focused like a laser. He gave us one of the most dominating performances in post-season history. And even though some were worried that having used their ace in a Game Five would come back to haunt the team in the next round against the Yankees, the Tigers went into New York and snagged both games. Now, with JV well rested for Game Three, things are lining up perfectly for the Tigers.
Even the blown save fiascoes starring Papa Grande seem to be part of a larger narrative that’s playing out in the Tigs favor. Jose Valverde has been pitching with his confidence tank near empty much of the season. At times it has looked like he was having a nervous breakdown on the mound in front of 40,000 people. He’s not our closer anymore? Thank you very much. The bullpen has other working parts that can shift into that role.
The Tigers may not win the World Series – though it looks pretty good that they will brush aside the broken and booed Yankees to get there – but if they don’t it won’t be because of a lack of talent, focus, and effort.
At this point in October, with the way the team is playing, with new characters playing a role on the offensive side each night, it seems like they have a recipe for success each game. The starting pitching has performed as well as any rotation in recent baseball history, and the bullpen (outside of Papa) is doing well too. All of this and Cabrera has yet to get red-hot!
No, there are no guarantees that the Tigers will win it all this fall, but there’s no doubt that this team can win it all. The years of being happy to be in the post-season are over – the team is playing their best baseball at the perfect time, making them the team to beat this October.
As fans we need to make sure to enjoy this. Remember back in ’03 when we were counting losses? This time, we’re counting W’s, and the Tigers are six away.