Tigers' finish more impressive than their start
It took nearly all season, but Detroit living up to expectations just in time
Tigers manager Jim Leyland was sitting in his office outside the visiting clubhouse at Target Field on Saturday, talking with reporters about a six-run lead against the Twins that turned into a two-run lead before three catches by speedy outfielders helped Detroit hold on.
"It hasn't lacked for excitement," Leyland said.
Fast forward to Monday night, as setup man Joaquin Benoit looked around the visiting clubhouse at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City with his team celebrating another American League Central title. Benoit pondered what it means to go back to the playoffs -- his third straight, the Tigers' second.
"I sense that this is the year," Benoit said. "We've been through struggles, but we haven't been on a winning streak. This is a good way to start right now."
Benoit isn't one for bold predictions. He leaves those to his bullpen teammate, closer Jose Valverde, famous for correctly predicting the Tigers would knock the Yankees out of the playoffs last year. When Benoit has an observation, it's not for drama.
What's more, he's not the only one feeling that way.
"I think we showed what we were really made of this last month when almost every game was like a playoff game, when we needed to win," ace starter Justin Verlander said. "We've got a lot of veterans with a lot of poise here, and I think we're dangerous."
To many, Detroit underachieved before pulling out the division crown and earning a return trip to the playoffs. To the players, the Tigers might be playing their best baseball at just the right time.
"Somebody gave me a great quote: 'Diamonds are made under pressure,'" team president and general manager Dave Dombrowski said. "I think this exemplifies that, because this is one of those [seasons] where it's been tough all along. It hasn't been easy. We were three games back 10 days ago or 12 days ago. So all of a sudden you're in this spot, and once you get there, anything can happen. But first you've got to get there."
When Detroit went to the World Series in 2006, the club took the opposite route, starting fast before fading down the stretch to lose the division title on the season's last day, then recovering for a postseason run. Their division-winning run last year included a 12-game winning streak in early September before the Tigers played close to .500 ball the rest of the way, including the postseason.
These Tigers haven't won more than six in a row, but they haven't lost more than five straight. Their stretch of seven wins in eight days to go from a game down in the division to clinching ties their best seven-game stretch of the season, coinciding with the White Sox running out of gas. This isn't the kind of late-season surge that propelled the Cardinals into last year's postseason, but it isn't a case of waiting for the White Sox to falter, either.
"It's basically the run we thought we could go on," catcher Gerald Laird said Monday night.
The Tigers produced the kind of baseball many believed they were capable of playing all year, though they had more lower-scoring games than were expected given their type of offense. As a result, they'll finish the season leading the AL Central alone for the final eight days after leading the White Sox for just two days total from late April onward.
"If we keep playing, anything can happen," center fielder and leadoff man Austin Jackson said. "We did that and we put ourselves in this situation at the end of the year where we had a chance to get to the playoffs."
Now that Detroit is in, the task is to carry it forward. The Tigers have more than faith in their favor to believe they can.
Their biggest contributors are having their best months at the right time. Verlander, who had his best outings at midseason last year, went 5-1 with a 1.93 ERA in September, allowing just two earned runs over 28 innings in his final four starts. He'll deliver the first pitch of the AL Division Series on Saturday at Comerica Park.
Doug Fister, limited by injuries for most of the first half, had a 2.34 September ERA that was more than a run lower than those in any of the other months. He was one out shy of averaging exactly seven innings a start. Fister will most likely follow Verlander in the ALDS rotation, which posted a league-best 2.46 ERA in September. If Max Scherzer is healthy, the Tigers can field a postseason rotation with four legitimate front-line starters.
First baseman Prince Fielder hit just 16 home runs over his first four months as a Tiger, but has hit 14 since Aug. 1 while batting better than .335 and drawing a walk for every two hits.
Then there's Triple Crown candidate Miguel Cabrera.
"It's surreal, unbelievable what he's done this year," Verlander said. "It's amazing to me how he continues to get better. You look at his numbers in the past, and he's like the best player in the game, and yet he turned it up to another level this year somehow.
"Where do you think we'd be without him?"
They wouldn't be batting .300 as a team with runners in scoring position since Sept. 1. Cabrera is 9-for-24 in those situations during that stretch, numbers that include half of Detroit's eight home runs with RISP. It hasn't made for an abundance of runaway victories, but it's been close enough.
Half of Cabrera's 12 home runs since Aug. 31 either changed the lead or stretched it from one run to multiple runs. He scored or drove in nearly a third of Detroit's runs in September, and he made at least three defensive plays over the final week-plus that saved runs in close contests. All the while, he played with a bounce in his step and a smile on his face that were difficult to find in some past Septembers.
Whether or not he wins the AL Most Valuable Player Award, Cabrera plays with as much pressure as any player in the Junior Circuit. When the Tigers clinched last year's division title, you could see a sense of relief on his face as he sat back and watched teammates celebrate. This year, the sense from Cabrera was that it was a step.
"Right now, we're excited because we're winning," Cabrera said Monday. "We've got to be ready for the playoffs, and that's our goal right now."
That's the kicker: Between Detroit's run to the AL Championship Series, Milwaukee's drive to the National League Championship Series last October behind Fielder and even the Cardinals' World Series victory featuring reliever Octavio Dotel, every prominent Tiger comes in with recent postseason experience. They know the process, and they know the expectations.
They also know from watching that it's not always the best team that wins it all, but the hottest.
"This is what we play for," Leyland said. "We have a chance to play for the big prize. This is why Mr. [Mike] Ilitch owns the team, to get the prize."
It took them a while, but at just the right time, they're playing like a team that could get the prize.
"It's where you finish, not where you start," Verlander said. "I think everybody here's really excited."