10/18/11 3:30 PM ET
Tigers emptied their tank in magical season
Leyland proud that team gave 'every ounce of energy'
By Jason Beck / MLB.com
Two days after their season ended, the exhaustion was still evident in manager Jim Leyland's voice, as he packed up to go home.
"I think I put more emotion into this team than any team I ever had," Leyland said on Monday, "to try to keep them going. I'm tired. This is one of those teams that emotion was pretty high on a nightly level. I really enjoyed it. I really enjoyed this team."
So did most everyone who saw them.
For a team that was built to win a division and contend for a spot in the World Series -- and whose manager and general manager had contract extensions that hinged on winning -- the Tigers somehow managed to surprise on their way to meeting and eventually exceeding expectations.
Detroit had a season-long thrill ride, which began with a subpar start -- and a periscope-like view of the upstart Cleveland Indians -- and ended with the team's strongest final month in a generation, which turned a close division race into a runaway. The Tigers' big dreams overtook the big expectations of the New York Yankees in the American League Division Series, before Detroit staged a dramatic AL Championship Series with Texas that might go down as the best series of the postseason.
The Tigers were hobbled and hamstrung, huffing and puffing by mid-October. Yet, they took the AL champion Rangers to extra innings twice and had three other games decided by one or two runs. Detroit finally ran out of gas after Texas' nine-run third inning in Game 6 of the ALCS, but it was far from overwhelmed.
Leyland put every ounce of his emotion into this team, and they gave an equal amount back.
"This team gave every single thing [it] had, every ounce of energy," Leyland said. "I just couldn't be prouder of them, and we got beat by the team that was the defending champion, and they defended their championship."
The Tigers grew to believe in themselves, as the city grew to believe in them. For some, that moment of belief came during the 12-game winning streak in September. The three-game sweep of the White Sox over Labor Day weekend that included an eight-run comeback and an 18-2 rout went a long way toward that.
For others, it was July 31 -- a scorching Sunday afternoon at Comerica Park, when Justin Verlander went pitch-for-pitch with Jered Weaver in a Cy Young-level showdown that turned into a staredown with Magglio Ordonez and Carlos Guillen. Others pointed to a late August series at Tampa Bay, when the Tigers took three out of four against one of the stingiest pitching staffs in the league, in a series Leyland feared more than their divisional clashes.
"I think these guys have really grasped the moment," Don Kelly said in mid-September. "It's not like you get a chance to do this every single year."
The Tigers ended up with, arguably, the most memorable year for baseball in Detroit since 1984, the last time the Tigers won the World Series. As much as their run to the World Series meant in 2006, coming seemingly out of nowhere, it didn't have the same performances as this season.
Included among the Tigers' individual accomplishments was the AL's first pitching Triple Crown winner in five years, earning Verlander acclaim as the top AL Cy Young Award candidate and serious consideration to become the first starting pitcher to win the AL Most Valuable Player Award in 25 years. They also had the AL batting champion in Miguel Cabrera, the Major League Delivery Man of the Year in Jose Valverde, the AL's All-Star catcher in Alex Avila, four potential Silver Slugger winners for the best offensive players at their respective positions, and two Gold Glove contenders.
They also played enough memorable games to last a few years, from Verlander's no-hitter on May 7 at Toronto to the three near-misses he had after that. His starts became events in Detroit, and the first hit opponents collected off him each start were greeted with an audible groan in the crowd.
Ninth-inning leads became a show for Valverde, whose save celebrations, in turn, became a party for fans who kept waiting to see how many games he could seal. He never gave fans a chance to feel the pain of a blown save.
Eventually, the memories will outlast the pain the Tigers felt as the outs dwindled down in Texas in Game 6, the club's final resting place two wins shy of the World Series pretty well sealed. The journey will be remembered more than the finish.
Record: 95-67, 1st in AL Central
Defining moment: Individually, Verlander's May 7 no-hitter at Toronto makes a pretty strong case, having set him off on a potential MVP season. The Tigers rolled through that trip with the momentum they gained from that game. As a team, though, the Tigers showed their true stripes in September, winning 12 straight games when they needed them most, to turn the AL Central race into a runaway. They put up home and road sweeps of the White Sox, swept the Indians in Cleveland and never looked back. By the time the streak ended in Oakland, they were within a victory of becoming the first team in baseball to clinch their division, and they were within a couple games of the best record in the AL.
What went right: Remember asking yourself in 2009 and 2010 what Verlander would be like if he could ever put everything together and be a true ace? This season was the answer -- from an AL pitching Triple Crown to 26 wins between the regular and postseason, to that feeling you had that he might throw a no-hitter every time he took the mound over the summer. ... Cabrera overcame his off-the-field issues at the start of Spring Training to post another MVP-caliber season and earn his first batting crown, hitting .344 with a league-best .448 on-base percentage and AL-high 48 doubles. His 1.033 OPS fell just nine points shy of his career-high from last year, to accompany 30 home runs and 105 RBIs. ... Victor Martinez might well have been the most productive major free-agent signing from last winter, giving the Tigers a veteran bat to protect Cabrera in the lineup and a veteran presence in the clubhouse. He batted better than .400 this season in at-bats following Cabrera walks, and .330 overall to go with 103 RBIs, despite just 12 homers. ... Valverde didn't always make his saves easy, but he always made them, going 51-for-51 between the regular season and playoffs. He put his name alongside Guillermo Hernandez for best seasons ever by a Tigers closer, and he teamed up with setup man extraordinaire Joaquin Benoit to front a Detroit bullpen that shut down leads from the eighth inning on. ... Avila not only became an everyday catcher, he became an All-Star and an ironman, batting .295 with 19 homers and 82 RBIs. ... Jhonny Peralta's return to shortstop was a stellar one, resulting in one of the best seasons of his career, his first All-Star selection and the best season by a Tigers shortstop since Guillen's prime. ... Benoit overcame unrealistic expectations and early-season struggles to become the eighth-inning presence the Tigers hoped for when they signed him to a three-year contract last winter. He allowed just seven runs on 26 hits over his final 46 1/3 innings from May 20 on, good for a 1.36 ERA and a .168 batting average allowed. ... Brennan Boesch overcame his second-half struggles from 2010 to blossom as a big league hitter with a .283 average, 16 homers and 54 RBIs, before undergoing season-ending surgery for a torn ligament in his right thumb. ... Doug Fister arrived from Seattle at the Trade Deadline as seemingly a fourth starter, but quickly became the second-best arm on the staff, going 10-2 as a Tiger between the regular season and playoffs, with a 1.79 ERA in the regular season. ... A mid-August trade for Delmon Young reignited Detroit's offense and rejuvenated Young, who drove in as many runs in 40 regular-season games as a Tiger (32), as he did in more than twice as many games with the Twins. His five home runs in nine postseason games powered Detroit's run.
What went wrong: Phil Coke's half-season as a starter yielded a 1-8 record for him and a 5-11 mark for the Tigers, who were without a left-hander in their rotation once they moved him back to the bullpen. Both Coke and Leyland believe the move might have worked out under different circumstances. But the pressure to win now helped set up the decision to pull the plug. ... Brandon Inge's struggles at the plate in the first season of his two-year deal grew large enough that the Tigers designated him for assignment in late July. Inge accepted the demotion to Triple-A Toledo and came back to play a big role in the playoffs. But he never regained his starting job, leaving Detroit with a decision to make this winter. ... Detroit's revolving door at second base went through five different players -- Will Rhymes, Scott Sizemore, Ryan Raburn, Guillen and finally Ramon Santiago -- but never really settled in on one starter. ... Austin Jackson repeated his stellar rookie year on defense, to stake his claim as one of the best center fielders in the league. But his sophomore struggles at the plate meant fewer runners on base for the heart of the Tigers' lineup. ... Joel Zumaya's continued elbow problems shelved him for the entire season, putting Ryan Perry in a challenging role as seventh-inning setup man that he never found the consistency to grow into. Al Alburquerque filled it for most of the summer. But when a freak batting-practice accident sidelined him for more than a month with concussion symptoms, the lack of righty relief depth proved crippling for the Tigers in the postseason. ... Ordonez spent most of the season trying to dig out of an early slump and find the form that he had prior to last September's ankle surgery. Just as he was rounding back into form, another ankle fracture sidelined him in the ALCS and put his playing future in question.
Biggest surprise: Even if you believed Avila would hold onto the everyday catching duties over Martinez, nobody expected an All-Star season. At just 24 years old, he took the reins of the Tigers' pitching staff and became, arguably, the best all-around backstop in the AL. His .895 OPS topped even Ivan Rodriguez's best season in Detroit in 2004, and was the best by a Tigers catcher since Mickey Cochrane in 1935. Most important, a Tigers organization that hadn't produced a young standout catcher since Lance Parrish 30 years ago, found a gem in its own backyard with the son of the assistant general manager.