Tigers learned valuable lessons from '06 Series
Faced with similar layover after ALCS, Detroit focused on staying sharp
DETROIT -- The memories of the Tigers' magical run to the World Series in 2006 are still fresh. It's their play once they got there that's rusty.
Now that the Tigers are back in the Fall Classic, Detroit fans might be best off staying away from highlights the next couple days. It's no prettier now than it was then.
The game reports from back then read of clutch Cardinals hitting (12-for-52 with runners in scoring position), Tigers struggles at the plate (they hit .199 as a team), and of course the errors, eight in five games. It was a sloppy series from the Tigers' standpoint, and Leyland said in his final press conference that bone-chilling night in St. Louis that he was "a little embarrassed" by the way his team represented American League baseball. They had turned PFP -- pitchers' fielding practice -- into a punchline for baseball writers everywhere.
After the victory parade rolled through the streets of St. Louis, and the lockers were cleaned out in Detroit, the autopsy on the Tigers' postseason run came back. If atrophy wasn't the probable cause of death, it was a contributing factor.
They had six days off, almost exactly, from the moment Magglio Ordonez's AL Championship Series-ending grand slam landed in the left field seats to the moment Justin Verlander's first pitch hit Ivan Rodriguez's mitt to start off the World Series. The Cardinals had a day to get to Detroit and work out after their NLCS went seven games.
The Cardinals were tired, but fundamentally sound. The Tigers crossed the line between rested and rusted. They worked out in the days in between, took batting practice and infield grounders on the field when the weather allowed, went across the street to Ford Field and worked out there when the rains chased him off.
They even had pitchers take fielding practice, contrary to legend.
"We had the week off, so we had to put some drills in. One of our drills was PFP, so obviously I should have left well enough alone," Leyland said in the moments after Game 5. "I'm being facetious, obviously, but that's how it worked out.
"In the American League, you don't handle a lot of bunts and stuff. We knew we were going to do that this series, so we worked on it during the time frame we were off and, quite frankly, we didn't execute it during the World Series."
It wasn't so much physical rust, but mental. They couldn't help but gear down from game intensity. They struggled to gear back up.
If and when he got another chance, Leyland said, he would heed the lesson and change things up. He was thinking of it well before the Tigers finished off their ALCS sweep of the Yankees Thursday. As he stood on the stage in center field in the moments after the last out, he all but shouted it as a reassurance to fans waiting for something to be nervous about.
"We won't be sitting around for five, six days doing nothing like we had to last time," he declared. "We'll be prepared."
As it turns out, they'll still be playing when the World Series begins Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET on FOX, though their opponent remains to be determined between the Cardinals and Giants. As Leyland revealed Friday on ESPN Radio's Mike and Mike in the Morning show, the Tigers are flying Minor League players from their Florida instructional league to Detroit for simulated games Sunday and Monday at Comerica Park.
"We're going to have our pitchers throw to hitters and we're going to have our hitters face live pitching. So hopefully we'll be a little more prepared this time," Leyland told the show.
Also unlike 2006, the weather shouldn't be a hindrance. Though showers are forecast part of the time, sunny skies are expected to prevail over Detroit on Sunday and Monday as temperatures climb from near 60 on Sunday into the mid-60s on Monday.
Physically, simulated games can keep the Tigers' bodies fresh without wearing them out. For the mental side, games against Class A players can only do so much. The rest depends on what the players put into their work, and how quickly they put the celebration behind them.
In that sense, it's like Spring Training all over again. You get out of it what you put in.
"Having been in this situation before helps a lot," Verlander said, "and being able to feed off those past experiences and use them to your benefit."
When you consider the factors that got the Tigers here, it's vital. Detroit's closing stretch came without a scheduled off-day for the final three weeks of the season, though rainouts left them a couple days sitting around the clubhouse without a game. Their 8-2 record to close the season tied their best stretch of the season.
Their much-maligned defense looked remarkably solid in the postseason, including a second wind for shortstop Jhonny Peralta. The rotation became an assembly line for dominant starts, each starter falling in rhythm. With low-scoring games now a strength for the Tigers, they can't afford to lose their sharpness in fundamentals.
That's the challenge they face, no matter who they face once the real games resume. It's the challenge that was on their minds even before the last out fell.
"We're going to celebrate. This is a big accomplishment, a big achievement," team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski said. "But we're also in a position where you want that next win."