10/21/2013 10:00 A.M. ET
Tigers' lofty goals make ALCS loss tough to stomach
Dominant rotation, Miggy's greatness fuel Detroit to brink of return trip to World Series
By Jason Beck / MLB.com
DETROIT -- The Tigers opened up Spring Training with this mantra: Four more wins. Eight months later, they fell two wins shy of where they had been a year ago.
Four wins was how close the Tigers came to that elusive World Series title last year, having been swept out of the Fall Classic by the Giants. Two wins were what they needed to get through an American League Championship Series battle in Boston.
That's the problem with postseason expectations: They sometimes take the journey to get back there for granted. And as the Tigers sat in the cramped visiting clubhouse at Fenway Park late Saturday night -- bruised, battered and emotionally drained -- their difficulty in defining the season showed the problem.
The Tigers had to fight like crazy to get to the postseason, battling not only the upstart Cleveland Indians but themselves. Then they had to win two consecutive games for a Division Series comeback against Oakland. They thought they were poised to do the same thing in Boston, having lined up their twin aces to pitch Games 6 and 7, only to watch the ALCS turn against them in six.
Therein lies the problem Detroit has to reconcile.
"When you get to this point in the year, the expectations are always high," said Justin Verlander, who was waiting to start Game 7. "The expectations were high coming into Spring Training, about as high as they could possibly be. But once you get to the playoffs it's a grind, and you can't say, 'OK, we're going to make it to the World Series.'
"You don't just say that and end up there. You have to play the games."
That said, the disappointment was obvious.
"That's the type of organization we are now," Alex Avila said. "There's a winning culture that's here, so any time you don't achieve that, it's disappointing, which is OK because that's what makes our organization and our team great. You have to have high goals."
This is one of the first occasions when the Tigers have not met their high goals. For the first time in a few years, they have taken a step back from the previous season. There was only one place left for them after last year's World Series.
"It's just disappointing," said Max Scherzer, the Tigers' Game 6 starter. "You work so hard; you work your whole offseason and all the way through your whole season to be able to pitch well in that moment. You try to execute as a team. We just came up short. It's just frustrating when things don't go your way. You strive to learn and move on and hope you get another shot at this."
Whether the Tigers played at their best for the big moments was another question that brought some reflection.
"I don't think we played our best baseball," Verlander said. "That's hard to do at this level -- to be clicking on all cylinders is when you win 12 in a row like we did at some point during the year. Every game comes easy [then]. At this level, it's not easy in the playoffs when you're playing against the other best team in the American League.
"I don't think we left anything out there. Everybody did everything they possibly could. It's just disappointing, but there's nothing to hang your heads about whatsoever."
The lingering question for many will be what this team could have done in October with a healthy Miguel Cabrera. He played through injuries from the end of June on, but the damage did not really reflect in his hitting until September. When that power dropped, the best hitter in the game became merely a really good player.
Cabrera's home run totals plummeted, but it would have been manageable with doubles power, making him more like a Victor Martinez type of hitter. But with his mobility limiting him to singles on all but the hardest of hits, that possibility was gone. Cabrera ended up with a third consecutive batting crown, the first right-handed hitter to do so since Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby in the early 1920s, but Cabrera also ended up a shell of his healthy self.
"It's something that you deal with as a team," Verlander said. "Guys get hurt. Guys aren't 100 percent, and he wasn't 100 percent for the whole last month and a half. In my book, that makes him every bit more the MVP than it would have otherwise. I think 90 percent of baseball players would've been sitting on the couch not playing, dealing with what he's dealt with this year."
Asked if there was disappointment, Joaquin Benoit came up with what might end up being the middle ground for a lot of players from this team.
"To a point," he said, "but we got to play in October, and that's what makes it fun. The first goal is to go through to the playoffs. Being in the last four teams, we wanted to be in the last two, but I mean, I feel really proud of all the guys here. I think everybody did their best. Hopefully next year we continue to get better."
Record: 93-69, 1st in AL Central
What went right: The Tigers put together one of the best starting rotations the AL has seen in a generation, from 21-game winner Scherzer recording the best record by a Major League starter since Cliff Lee to Anibal Sanchez's ERA title (2.57) in his first full AL season. … Cabrera did not repeat his Triple Crown season, but he had a statistically better season, including the third straight AL batting title. … Torii Hunter defied his age at the plate, putting up his second consecutive season with a .300 average and .800 OPS in his mid-30s. His 84 RBIs came mainly from the second spot, giving Detroit its best two-hole hitter since Placido Polanco. … Martinez not only came back from knee surgery that cost him the 2012 season, he overcame two rough months at the plate to bat .301 with 83 RBIs, stretching out the productive heart of the batting order. … Drew Smyly lost out on the fifth-starter job to Rick Porcello, but he became arguably the second-best arm in the bullpen, proving his left-handedness plays well in most any role on Detroit's pitching staff. … Team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski found the shortstop of the future in the wake of losing the shortstop of the present, trading for Jose Iglesias at the non-waiver Trade Deadline to replace suspended All-Star Jhonny Peralta. … Omar Infante arguably deserved All-Star consideration amid a season that ranked him among the most productive second basemen in the league, including a .318 average, .795 OPS and 10 home runs.
What went wrong: A bullpen that began with rookie Bruce Rondon trying to win the closer's job before throwing a single pitch in the big leagues never really found its top form, despite Benoit's solid half-season at closer and Smyly's emergence in lefty setup. What was once a deep mix of proven relievers and talented young arms proved too thin down the stretch because of injuries and inconsistency. … Though the Tigers led the Majors in hitting and ranked second in OPS, runs scored and RBIs, the output was unpredictable on a game-to-game basis. Detroit scored nine or more runs 22 times but was held to two runs or fewer in 39 games. … Prince Fielder nearly matched his RBI total from last year, but his .279 batting average and .819 OPS were dramatic drops from his 2012 debut season in Detroit. … The question surrounding this team will always be what might have been had Cabrera been healthy. Detroit's offensive struggles, however, left it needing Cabrera simply to get into the postseason. … Austin Jackson ran hot and cold atop the batting order before a deep, deep slump into the postseason landed him in the eighth spot for most of the ALCS. … Avila hit .303 with an .876 OPS after the All-Star break, but he had to dig out of a deep hole thanks to a .177 average and 67 strikeouts in the first half. … The Tigers hired Jeff Cox as a baserunning consultant to make them more active on the basepaths, but did not have a single player reach double-digits in steals, and they were not particularly efficient advancing on base hits, either.
Biggest surprise: It was not Scherzer's success that was a surprise, but the degree of it. Scherzer had a chance to become the first 20-1 pitcher since Roger Clemens in 2001. Only Verlander had a lower WHIP ratio among AL pitchers over the last nine years than Scherzer's 0.97 mark. Scherzer basically took over Verlander's status as the nastiest pitcher in the AL, while Verlander spent most of the season working through fastball command issues.
Hitter of the Year: Same as it ever was. Though Cabrera wasn't close to 100 percent down the stretch, and his hitting showed it, he was still the team's best offensive weapon. Between a hip flexor, an abdominal strain and the groin issue, Cabrera was actually hobbled in some shape or form since the end of June, which makes his season -- he still posted a .994 OPS after July 1 -- all the more impressive.
Pitcher of the Year: This isn't as clear-cut as one might think. If wins were Scherzer's only strength, as some initially tried to portray, then Sanchez would have a very good case on the weight of his ERA, strikeout rate, no-hit bid and franchise-record 17-strikeout game. But Scherzer's season was about a lot more than wins, from the low walk and hit totals to an outstanding strikeout-to-walk rate.
Rookie of the Year: Iglesias was with the team for just the final two months of the regular season, plus the playoffs, but his work at shortstop saved the Tigers' fortunes in the division. He also brought a defensive flair Detroit had not seen since at least the days of Alan Trammell. In less than half a season, Iglesias provided the Tigers with their two defensive highlights of the year, from a tumbling throw charging a ground ball in August to his race from the other side of second base into short left field in Game 5 of the ALCS.
Defining moment: Facing a challenge from the upstart Indians, the Tigers went into Cleveland and swept the Tribe in a four-game series in early August that included a go-ahead home run from Avila in the ninth inning of the opener and a tying home run from Cabrera two nights later. They then went into New York and lost two out of three to the Yankees despite Cabrera home runs in all three games, including two off closer Mariano Rivera. They were not consistent, but they were exciting.