MONDAY MORNING MANAGER: Week 21
(my weekly take on the Tigers)
Last Week: 3-4
This Week: (8/29-31: at NYY; 9/1-3: LAA)
The Tigers and the Yankees, for all the years they spent together in the AL East, rarely duked it out with each other for division supremacy. The Tigers seemed to be up during the years the Yanks were down, and vice-versa. The Yankees hung around in 1972 before fading down the stretch -- the year the Tigers won the division on the season's final weekend. And in the strike-shortened 1981 season, the Yankees again were semi-serious contenders for the second half title before giving way to the Brewers and Tigers (Milwaukee won). But other than those two years, the Tigers and Yankees have been stretch run strangers.
Until this week.
There's gonna be a showdown in Yankee Stadium Tuesday-thru-Thursday, and while it doesn't have divisional or pennant implications, it's still the most important series the Tigers have played against the Yankees since ... 1961. No joke.
The Tigers were the Yankees' only true competition in '61. They matched the Bronx Bombers win-for-win, homerun-for-homerun. These were the Yankees of Mantle and Maris -- plus another bunch of thumpers -- but the Tigers had their own Murderer's Row of Norm Cash, Al Kaline, and Rocky Colavito. It was the Yankees, actually, who did most of the chasing that summer.
Then came a showdown -- that word again -- series at Yankee Stadium Labor Day weekend. The Tigers went into New York 86-47, and 1 1/2 games behind the Yanks, who stood at 87-45. What followed was ugly.
The Tigers got swept in the Bronx, but it wasn't just that they got swept -- it was HOW they got swept.
Friday night, the teams played to a scoreles duel before the Yankees got a run in the bottom of the ninth to win, 1-0. On Saturday, the Yankees broke open a 3-2 game with four runs in the eighth, winning 7-2. And on Sunday, the teams played a see-saw affair before the Tigers went on top with a run in the top of the ninth to lead, 5-4. But Mickey Mantle led off the bottom of the frame with a homer to tie it, and Elston Howard slugged a three-run shot to win it, walk-off style. Yankees 8, Tigers 5.
The lead was 4 1/2 games when the Tigers left New York, but the bleeding didn't stop there. They lost five more games in a row, while the Yankees kept winning. By the time the Tigers had snapped their eight-game losing streak, the Yankees had increased their lead to 10 games -- one week after the showdown series began. It was a sudden, definitive ending to what had been a wonderful pennant race.
The 1961 Tigers won 101 games, yet still finished eight games behind the 109-53 Yankees. No split divisions or wild card in those days. No postseason, despite their spiffy record.
If the Tigers get swept in New York this week, it certainly won't be as devastating as the 1961 sweep. But it won't be any less difficult to watch. These are the games that separate the men from the boys, don't you know.
"I'm sure Jimmy Leyland will have his team ready," Yankees manager Joe Torre said yesterday of the Tigers -- 2006 version.
Well, ready or not, here they come.