10/02/12 10:27 AM ET
Ten reasons why the Tigers won the AL Central
By Jason Beck / MLB.com
It wasn't by the margin they might have hoped, and it certainly wasn't in the fashion they expected.
An offense that was supposed to outslug every team in its way had its struggles to produce runs, but Detroit's rotation proved it was more than Justin Verlander and four chances to stay competitive. By the end of the season, the Tigers were feared as much or more for the pitching they can throw into a postseason series than the lineup.
But perhaps most important was the job the Tigers did against the White Sox. Detroit rallied into the division lead just three times after May 1. The first two came after sweeps of the Chicago at Comerica Park, where Detroit took eight of nine games from the South Siders for the season. If the Tigers go 9-9 against the White Sox instead of 12-6, they are on the outside looking in.
Here's a look back at 10 reasons why the Tigers pulled out their second consecutive division title:
The rotation filled out
Between Doug Fister's injuries, Rick Porcello's inconsistencies, Drew Smyly's inexperience and Anibal Sanchez's inexperience with the AL, the Tigers went through most of the summer with a huge amount of pressure to win when Verlander or Max Scherzer was on the mound. Once Fister got past his oblique and groin injuries, Detroit got last year's frontline starter back. Then Sanchez settled in and pounded the strike zone without getting hit, including a complete-game three-hitter against the Royals on Sept. 25. the Tigers' rotation posted a 2.46 ERA in September, nearly half a run better than the next-closest AL team.
As much attention as the Orioles have earned for their success in close games, the Tigers stood as the opposite, losing 11 consecutive one-run decisions from Aug. 24-Sept. 23, accounting for all but four of their total losses during that stretch. Just when it seemed like close losses were going to be their demise, they rolled off three one-run wins in a five-day span as part of a stretch of six wins in seven games to clinch the division.
Whether or not you believe he should win the AL Most Valuable Player Award, Cabrera is the most valuable hitter to a Tigers team that struggled to score runs most of the summer. The slugging third baseman scored or drove in 40 of Detroit's 127 runs from Sept. 1 through Monday. When Cabrera doesn't hit -- and he had an 0-for-22 streak and another hitless stretch earlier in the year -- the Tigers don't produce much. As Prince Fielder put it after hitting a go-ahead home run Sunday, "It's his team. I'm here to help him."
Victor Martinez's season-ending knee injury last offseason created the need for a slugging, left-handed-hitting first baseman. The Tigers had to get creative to sign Fielder, both on the payroll and on the field -- where Cabrera moved to third base -- and they had to suffer defensively as a result. In the end, though, Cabrera cites Fielder as the difference in his MVP-caliber season, allowing him to see more strikes that he can hit.
Austin's hitting limitless
WAR might as well be a dirty word around the Tigers these days, the way it has become the first reason cited for Mike Trout's MVP candidacy over Cabrera. But it also has Austin Jackson just outside the top five position players in the AL. While his defense has become a constant in the vast outfield of Comerica Park, Jackson has matured as a hitter into the kind of leadoff weapon Detroit envisioned. His on-base percentage is above anything he has done before thanks to an uptick in walks, giving Cabrera more RBI opportunities.
For a good month and a half, Scherzer looked like one of those power pitchers who would never harness enough control to translate his pure pitching into results. A 15-strikeout performance against the Pirates in late May changed all that, and the fireballer went 14-4 with a 3.11 ERA after that, striking out 180 batters over 142 innings. Some scouts called Scherzer a tougher pitcher to face than Verlander. Other opponents simply called him a co-ace. Either way, Scherzer played a huge role in filling out the rotation and giving opponents another date in a series to dread.
Most of the arms in Detroit's bullpen are the same guys from last year, a group that fell one arm short time and again versus Texas in the 2011 AL Championship Series. Enter Dotel, who took Ryan Perry's old seventh-inning spot and expanded on it to give the Tigers a veteran right-hander to bridge the starters and setup man. Just as important, Dotel became a mentoring presence for a group of young Detroit relievers.
How does a Minor League journeyman with just four games above Double-A ball become a starting player on a division champion? He signs on with a team woefully short on speed and finds ways to contribute, whether he's hitting or not. What began as a fill-in stint for an injured Jackson in May became a season-long roster spot, then a starting job in left field. Berry added a baserunning aspect Detroit didn't previously have, and a defensive strength the Tigers lacked in one of their corners.
Partly thanks to Fielder's relaxed presence, partly thanks to manager Jim Leyland's steadiness, the Tigers never showed signs of panic, even when they trailed the White Sox by three games with 16 games to play. Maybe it came off as complacency every once in a while, but they believed that they hadn't played their best baseball yet.
Remember in the winter, when the Tigers supposedly wouldn't trade top pitching prospect Jacob Turner for Matt Garza? Six months later, they not only dealt Turner, but packaged him with Futures Game catcher Rob Brantly to Miami for Sanchez and Omar Infante. It's the kind of deal that can get general managers in serious trouble if it doesn't work, especially with Sanchez up for free agency at season's end, but it filled their two major needs in one move. Once Sanchez settled into the AL and Infante regained some confidence, Detroit looked like a more complete team.