Eleven more wins: Tigers' focus on World Series win
After falling short in 2012 Fall Classic, Detroit embraces championship expectations
MINNEAPOLIS -- The Tigers' rallying cry last offseason said plenty about where they expected to be: Four more wins.
That's how many they fell short of a World Series championship, having been swept by the Giants in last year's World Series. Even as they celebrated another division title Wednesday, some were already counting down.
Eleven more, Torii Hunter said at one point during Wednesday night's celebration. The math was fitting, since he was the biggest addition the Tigers made to try to get those wins.
"This is what I came here to do, to get on the right track and win me a World Series," Hunter said. "This is the first step. We've got a lot to do, a lot of work to do, but I definitely think our main goal is the World Series. We're definitely going to enjoy this, but we're looking straight ahead."
Ever since the Tigers opened Spring Training in early February, those World Series expectations have been with them. Four more wins is a catchy slogan, but it overlooks the 100 or so wins it takes to get back there.
It took 93 victories for Detroit to hold off Cleveland and clinch its third consecutive division title. It takes seven more to escape the American League bracket of the postseason. For a team that has advanced a little further each year, winning the World Series is the next logical step, but it takes a big assumption that there wouldn't be a setback.
"This was a tough year for the guys, because the expectations were so high," manager Jim Leyland said, "and it was almost like we were set up to fail. From Day 1 of Spring Training, I told them, 'Don't get caught up in the expectations. Get caught up in how you're going to live up to those expectations.' I think that's what they've done."
Some of those expectations came from the media. Some came from a fan base that ranks among the most loyal, most ardent in baseball. Some, too, came from up top. This is a team built to win now, financed by team owner Mike Ilitch and fueled by his quest to add a World Series trophy to his collection of Stanley Cup titles won by the NHL's Detroit Red Wings.
At age 84, Ilitch's quest has an urgency to it.
"Without him," team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski said, "this would not be possible."
This team, more than the two division champions before it, seemed to play through the expectations. Unlike the past two years, the 2013 Tigers didn't need a September run to take the division. By season's end, they'll have held at least a share of the lead for 141 games of the season, more than the previous two seasons combined (they led for just 33 games last year).
The Tigers knew how good they were going in. They just went about playing that way more consistently. They've played .500 or better every month of the year. Aside from a 12-game winning streak from late July into August, including a four-game sweep of second-place Cleveland, Detroit didn't win more than five games in a row, and its longest losing streak was four.
"Our primary goal -- I don't think it's been any secret -- even last year it was to win a World Series, but understanding it's a process," catcher Alex Avila said. "You can't get there in the beginning of the year. You can't get there in the Division Series. That's the ultimate goal, everybody knows that, but it's gotta be a process as far as making sure you take it one game at a time."
After back-to-back postseason runs, the Tigers know what October baseball entails. The way they've been winning lately, they're already preparing for it. Their clinching win in Minnesota was a 1-0 victory in which they took a lead two batters into the game and held it behind seven scoreless innings from Max Scherzer.
It was the Tigers' 12th shutout of the season. Four have come in the last five weeks -- two 1-0 victories, two 3-0 wins, no runaways. They've scored four runs or less in nine of their last 15 games, yet they've won five of those nine.
As much attention as Detroit's star-studded offense has drawn, centered around Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera, the Tigers win on pitching. They leverage the strength of the Majors' most complete rotation, keep games close and buy time for their offense to break down the opposing starter.
It's the formula that carried Detroit to the World Series last year, and pushed the Tigers past the vaunted Yankees the year before that. The standout seasons alternate, from 2011 AL MVP Award and AL Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander the past two years to a 21-game winner in Scherzer and the AL ERA leader Anibal Sanchez. The collective effort remains the same.
All five starters boast at least 13 wins this year. One of them is going to be jettisoned to the bullpen for the postseason.
"Throughout the entire season, you have to have guys step up other than your horse," Avila said, "and we have through the whole year. The majority of the time, it's going to be those horses. And other points in the year, you have to have other guys step up."
Now comes the time when they all have to step up. When Verlander talked all summer about getting his mechanics primed, he set the postseason as his deadline, not the next start. When Scherzer dismissed Cy Young Award talk, the World Series trophy was the one he wanted.
"When you're on this team, you don't pitch for awards," Scherzer said. "You pitch for the postseason."
It's here, and so is the math. They want four more wins in the postseason than last year, but they need 11 more wins to get it.