3/28/2013 10:00 A.M. ET
Fresh perspective drives Detroit in title quest
By Jason Beck / MLB.com
LAKELAND, Fla. -- Four more wins, the rallying cry goes, at least for fans.
That's how close the Tigers came to a World Series title last year. Mathematically, it makes enough sense.
For the players, though, they can't take the 95 wins they needed to get there for granted.
That's the balance the Tigers have tried to strike while getting ready this season. They know how close they came to winning it all, but they can't forget how much had to happen to simply get to the postseason, let alone get an American League pennant.
More than last year, these guys might have the perspective.
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"I think definitely this year, guys came in a little more focused, more with a purpose in mind because of getting where we wanted to be last year but not winning the World Series," catcher Alex Avila said. "I think this year, there's a little bit more of a focus this spring from some of the guys, just because everybody realizes we have a pretty good team. We've been good for a while. Let's make sure we do everything we can to prepare the right way and do everything we can to win a World Series -- not only win the division, but to put ourselves in a good situation. And I think that definitely had to do with losing last year.
"The year before, we went to the ALCS, but the World Series, actually getting a chance to play in it, getting so close, it's definitely a little bit tougher to swallow than losing the ALCS."
There are very good reasons why so few teams in recent years even get to the World Series in a third straight run through the postseason to the LCS, let alone win it. The 2006 Cardinals are the only team to win it all after three consecutive extended postseason runs since the Yankees dynasty from 1996-2001. The Phillies made it to back-to-back World Series in 2008 and '09, but they finally ran out of gas in the 2010 National League Championship Series against the upstart Giants.
Usually, the pitching bears the greatest toll from all those extra games. The Phils succumbed to it even after adding Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay in consecutive years. The Rangers finally lost enough pitching through free agency and attrition that they couldn't overcome a late-season slump from Josh Hamilton to hold off Oakland at the end in the AL West last year.
The 2011 Rangers fell an out shy of becoming the first team since Tony La Russa's Oakland A's in 1988 and '89 to lose the World Series one year and then win it the next. Then last year, they didn't get through the opening round, running out of gas on a division race they commanded for most of the year.
"Winning the World Series is the ultimate goal," Avila continued. "We realize also that it's not easy getting there. It's very hard to win your division, and it's hard to advance. You have to be able to take care of business. You have to be able to do whatever it takes to win that day. Everybody says it all the time, but it really is one game at a time. The results take care of themselves. You have to win the division and then you move on.
"The ultimate goal is the World Series, but we all know what we have to do to get there. I think that's what everybody is focused on."
Dynasties aren't easy these days, which is why what the Tigers have done already is impressive, even in a division with some smaller markets and rebuilding projects. Skipper Jim Leyland is just the third manager to win back-to-back AL Central titles since the division was created in 1995, joining Twins great Ron Gardenhire (2002-04, '09-10) and former Cleveland manager Mike Hargrove (1995-99).
Owner Mike Ilitch's will to win and aggressive spending have helped Detroit overcome losing talent to the open market. Attrition is something that the team medical staff and pitching coach Jeff Jones have worked on.
The third factor -- complacency -- is something that can only be addressed within the clubhouse. And the Tigers seem to have the mix for that. They've seen what happens when teams come in with World Series expectations and struggle to handle it, because they went through it themselves.
Last year's team was a study in clubhouse vibe. After losing the fiery leadership Victor Martinez provided in 2011 to will Detroit to a September surge, the Tigers rode the steady, low-reaction personality of Prince Fielder -- the man Ilitch signed to fill Martinez's void in the lineup -- to weather a turbulent season and peak at the right time.
This year's team not only has both of those personalities, it has the proven leadership of Torii Hunter, added over the offseason and a big presence on those Twins teams that ruled the Central in the previous decade before joining the Angels five years ago. Even Hunter is curious to see the mix.
"Victor, he's very energetic, a lot of fun," Hunter said. "When you see a guy like that with all that energy, it's contagious. He's leading by example and he doesn't have to say anything. Prince smiles all the time. He's cracking jokes. When you see a guy smiling and laughing, it pumps you up. Miguel [Cabrera], he's always a happy-go-lucky guy. That pumps you up. It's a good group of guys over here."
It also has Leyland, who has made a ritual of telling his players each spring that dealing with expectations is like studying for a test: It's only bad pressure if you're not prepared for it.
"Do I feel pressure? Certainly," Leyland told reporters this spring. "But to me, it's like I tell the players: It's good pressure. We've got a good team. We're going to study for the test. We'll be ready. Are we going to be good enough? I don't know, but it's not bad pressure. It's good pressure, because we've got a good team.
"I've managed teams when I went to Spring Training and we couldn't [fool] anybody. We had no chance to win a division title. My first year in Pittsburgh, we had no chance. None. You can't [fool] people. You all know what the deal is. Everybody, as a manager, you like to come to Spring Training knowing you've got a chance to win. And we've got a chance to win. Are we going to win? I have no idea. Two years ago, they picked us fourth, we won the division by 15 games. Last year they picked us to win it easily, and we were very fortunate to win it. It's hard."
Every division race is different, and so is every team. And this might be the most balanced team Detroit has seen in close to 30 years. The most important factor might come down to mind-set.