Friday, September 29, 2006

Finishing First More Than About Playoff Opponents

Well, the comeback is complete. Sorta.

The Minnesota Twins -- those pesky, annoying, chihuahuas of baseball -- are now 70-31 in their last 101 games and have caught the Tigers for first place in the AL Central. Their record in the last 30 games seems like 28-2.

Oh, but they haven't really tied the Tigers.

The Tigers own the tiebreaker against the Twins, which means if the teams finish with the same number of wins, the Detroiters are awarded first place, and the Twins become the Wild Card. What's at stake is either beginning the playoffs at home against Oakland, or on the road against the Yankees. I'd say that's a significant enough reason to want to finish #1.

But it's not the only reason. Not only is it nice to call yourselves Division Champs as opposed to The Best Second Place Team in the League, there's the matter of being territorial. The Tigers have been in first place all by their lonesomes since May 16. You kind of get used to the idea, and you don't want to share it. But here come the Twins, who've finally picked the locks and gained entry.

The Tigers can still shove the Twinkies out the door, if they can just keep pace this weekend. Assuming neither team will sweep their final series, the Tigers should be able to nail down the crown. All they need to do is go 2-1 against the Royals. The Twins finish at home against the White Sox.

At this juncture, the issue of finishing first should be less about who the Tigers play in the playoffs and where, and more about not wanting to relinquish something which has been theirs for 4 1/2 months.

Tigers have always been territorial animals.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Cards' Collapse Nearing A History Maker

It's enough to stir Gene Mauch in his grave. I wonder if Dick "Don't Call Me Richie" Allen is paying attention. Or if the ole pitcher-turned-politician Jim Bunning is having ghoulish flashbacks.

The St. Louis Cardinals are on the brink of something, and it isn't good. It isn't good at all.

Last week, the Cards held an 8 1/2 game lead over the Houston Astros in the NL Central Division. There were about a dozen games to be played.

Today, after a seven-game Cardinals losing streak and an equally as long Astros winning spell, the lead is down to 1 1/2 games.

The 1964 Philadelphia Phillies, managed by Mauch and starring first baseman Allen and pitcher Bunning, had a 6 1/2 game lead over the Cardinals with 12 games to play. Their record was 90-60. Ten games later, that record was 90-70. A ten game losing streak, at the worst possible time. The Cardinals captured the NL pennant. No Wild Card for the Phillies to cling to.

But if the 2006 Cardinals blow this thing, and in doing so also fail to achieve Wild Card status, it would trump the '64 Phillies' collapse. To have that large of a lead with a week and a half to play, and not close the deal ... well, Cardinals fans might have to take a number at the base of the Gateway Arch in order to get their chance to jump off of it.

I hadn't realized the scope of what was going on in the NL Central because there tends to be a little race going on in Detroit at the moment, which is sorta dominating my attention. But when I heard about it this morning, and checked the newspaper to see if it was indeed true, I let out a "HUH!" that could have been heard all the way to Busch Stadium. Somehow I doubt they're unawares in St. Louis, however.

Funny that it's the Astros making the charge. Last season, Phil Garner's bunch scuffled along until after the All-Star break, when they turned it on and stormed not only into the playoffs, but into the World Series. Now here they come again, threatening to spoil what seemed like a lock of a champagne bath. The Astros have five games remaining, the Cardinals six. The six Cards games were supposed to be spent getting the pitching rotation and roster set for the postseason.

Now they are games of life and death. Better get the Coast Guard out, ready to comb the Mississippi River. You might find more than fans in there; don't count out a manager or a player or two, if life turns into death in the standings.

Monday, September 25, 2006


One Down, Four To Go: Tigers Clinch Playoff Spot

(my weekly take on the Tigers)

Last Week: 5-2
This Week: (9/26-28: TOR; 9/29-10/1: KC)

The champagne flowed, and it really shouldn't again for awhile, but for now everyone has my permission. There are four more hurdles for the Tigers to climb before the REAL champagne bath: the AL Central title, the ALDS, the ALCS, and that thing called the World Series.

But for now, good for them. Three years ago this week, the Tigers were 38-118. Eighty games below .500. Three years ago this week, the Tigers were trying to avoid the mother of all ignominies: setting the MLB record for most losses in a single season. Three years ago this week, the Tigers were the biggest jokes in all of professional sports. Three years ago this week, the Tigers seemed so buried beneath an avalanche of losing and negative stigma that it appeared they'd never be uncovered.

It cannot be overstated how far the Tigers have come in three years, having now clinched an AL playoff spot thanks to their three-game sweep in Kansas City over the weekend. They did it the way I beseeched them to do on Friday, which was to pillage the town and show no mercy. None of the three games was close.


I like to point to that record, instead of the final 2003 mark of 43-119, because 80 games below .500 is spectacular in its ineptitude. The Tigers went 5-1 in their final six games just to GET to 43 wins. Two mediocre but better seasons followed, but nothing that necessarily pointed to this: 94 wins with six games to play in 2006. A chance for the best record in all of baseball. A legitimate shot at a world's championship. That kind of rise in such a short period of time is amazing. This isn't the NFL, where parity reigns and teams can bounce from 5-11 to 10-6 to 4-12 in successive seasons, like ping pong balls. Baseball can be cruelly weighted toward the haves, and once you're a have not, you can stay that way for years and years.

Ahh, but not if you have the right people at the top. Not if you have a blueprint, a game plan, and stick to it without wavering. Not if you inject some well-timed free agents and fleece some teams in trades. Not if you give the keys to the executive washroom to the right guy.

Dave Dombrowski should get serious consideration for AL Executive of the Year. He took a chance on a manager who hadn't managed in seven seasons. He took a chance on a starting pitcher who was past 40 years of age. He took a chance on a closer whose better years appeared behind him. He added a lefthanded bat at the trading deadline for peanuts. But DD should also win it for what he did before that. For signing Pudge Rodriguez in 2004. For bamboozling the Mariners for Carlos Guillen. For getting Jeremy Bonderman for Jeff Weaver. And on and on.

This is a team, these 2006 Tigers, made up of marginal stars and rookies and grizzled veterans but above all, of pitching. A team ERA that is far and away the best in the game has been the rock onto which the team has clung, even when they were going 11-23 and their world was appearing to come apart. For even during that horrible stretch, their pitching never abandoned them for very long. It was their bats that did that.

Pitching, pitching, pitching. Say it the same way you say the word "location" when discussing real estate. The Tigers had plenty of it, and in the end, that's what catapulted them to their first postseason appearance since 1987.

Oh, that and Jim Leyland. He'll have us dismiss his impact, but we know better. What's more, the players do, too. And that's why he's the AL Manager of the Year.

See ya in October.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Time For Tigers To Be A Royal Pain In Kansas City

This is what good baseball teams do in late September: they go into the ballpark of a team that might lose 100 games, and they -- and pardon my language -- kick their ass.

In this case, their Royal ass.

The Tigers have an opportunity to clinch a playoff berth, and seize control of the Central Division, this weekend in Kansas City. The Royals have been the Tigers' punching bags this season, having only beaten Detroit once in 12 tries.

Don't tell me about how "respectable" the Royals have been since the All-Star break. Don't tell me about the fits they've given other upper echelon American League teams recently. Don't tell me about how their motivation is to play spoiler, and that they could use that to carry them this weekend.


The Tigers, frankly, might be facing their biggest litmus test of all this month, in Kansas City today thru Sunday. For these are the series that the legitimately good teams capture with all the finesse of a pillaging group of Vikings. There are no prisoners taken by the elite teams when they face the dregs of the league. No mercy. No letting up for air.

The Royals, no matter what you say, are among the very worst teams in all of baseball, and the Tigers better treat them as such.

The White Sox, sinking faster than Refrigerator Perry attached to a boat anchor, are so far out of sorts that the Tigers, at this point, can't help but qualify for the playoffs, no matter what they do in Kansas City this weekend.

Again, hogwash.

The Tigers need to finally flex their muscles and take the Royals to the woodshed, maybe even in a three game sweep. No more fooling around. Forget that the magic number for a Wild Card berth is only four. Don't back in. Storm into Kansas City, slap them around, and get this Wild Card thing wrapped up ASAP so the concentration can be on the division and setting up playoff pitching schedules.

That's what the good teams do.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Tigers/Yankees Have No Playoff History, But Tigers/A's Sure Do

For all their years together in the American League, the Tigers and the Yankees have no postseason history between them. Prior to the league splitting into two divisions in 1969, the two original AL entries never tied for a pennant, thus not causing any postseason playoff games. And since MLB split yet again, like an amoeba, into three divisions per league in 1994, the Tigers ... well, they've been the Tigers. And the Yankees have been frequent October players.

All that might change this year, of course -- and in the very first round. If the Tigers finish as the AL Wild Card, then they'll square off against the Yankees in the ALDS -- even if the Twins finish with the league's best record.
Teams from the same division cannot meet in the first round, according to MLB rules. If the Tigers win the
Central, they'll play the Oakland A's -- no matter what.
Ahh, the Oakland A's.
Some of you might recall that the Tigers and A's DO indeed have some postseason history, and it was some dandy stuff.
The year was 1972. A players strike -- the first ever -- in spring training lapped into the regular season, canceling some games, which were never made up. As a result, the Tigers would finish 86-70, and the Red Sox 85-70. The Tigers wrapped up the division on the season's final weekend by taking two of three from the Bosox at Tiger Stadium.
That meant the Tigers would take on the A's in the best of five ALCS. The first two games were in Oakland. In Game 2, A's shortstop Bert Campaneris, enraged by being hit in the foot by a Lerrin LaGrow pitch, inexplicably threw his bat at LaGrow, who had to duck to avoid it. Tigers manager Billy Martin led the charge of Detroiters out of the dugout, and the expected melee ensued. The Tigers dropped both games in Oakland, but came home to Detroit and won Game 3.
In Game 4, the A's went up by two in extra innings. It looked dire. But the Tigers loaded the bases with nobody out, and eventually scored three times to force a deciding Game 5.
The final game was a heartbreaker. The A's won it, 2 to 1, despite an awesome pitching performance by the Tigers starter Woodie Fryman. The Tigers were that close to advancing to their second World Series in five seasons.
The '72 club was aging, and before long it was evident that the world champs from four years earlier didn't have much left in the tank. With the Tigers' minor league system unable to produce any impact players, team management stuck with the vets until it was too late. A ninety loss season in 1974 and a 102 loss stinker in 1975 resulted.
If the Tigers play the A's in the ALDS, it'll be another best of five deal. And the first ever Yankees and Tigers postseason series might be in the offing.

Monday, September 18, 2006


Chicago Series Chance For Tigers To Display Killer Instinct

(my weekly take on the Tigers)

Last Week: 3-2
This Week: (9/18-20: at CWS; 9-21: at Bal; 9/22-24: at KC)

The thing about a 162-game baseball season is that, despite all those contests, you only get a few opportunities to place your cleats on an opponent's throat and apply pressure. Often, in fact, you DON'T get those opportunities. Only four teams from each league make the playoffs, after all.

The Tigers have a chance to squeeze the life out of the Chicago White Sox this week, and it will be fun to see how they go about it. The Tigers' magic number to clinch at least a Wild Card berth is nine, meaning they could lop off some serious mass from that number with a good series in Chi-town. Taking two of three would knock it down to five.

This will be a test for the White Sox, too. They've been mostly miserable lately, and their playoff hopes are hanging on by a thread. How much pride will the defending champs display this week? They, with a good series, can throw the race into a tizzy. That is, if the freaking Twins ever decide to lose a few here and there.

All this is unchartered territory for just about every Tigers player -- this pennant race/let's put 'em away thing. Few players have ever played for a winner, and I don't think that's a non-factor in the team's current 13-24 slide. Yet it's the White Sox who should be feeling the pressure, for they're the one team in this three-club race that's used up most of its mulligans. Their margin for error erodes with every loss, and last weekend's three-game sweep at the hands of the Oakland A's -- with former White Sox player Frank Thomas doing most of the damage -- certainly didn't help.

As difficult as it may be to concede first place, or not worry about the charging Twins, the Tigers need to treat the White Sox as the wounded enemy who needs to be vanquished without remorse. For in a three-team race for two spots, only one ballclub needs to be eliminated, correct? This is a great chance to make sure it's the White Sox who are on the outside looking in, and not the Tigers.

The Tigers are 1-5 in Chicago this season. But only not-ready-for-primetime teams would draw on that record's negative energy, as opposed to laughing in its face.

You know what you do when you can't laugh, don't you? You cry.

Friday, September 15, 2006

No Moral Victories: Tigers Must Qualify For Playoffs To Call 2006 A Success

Joaquin Andujar, eccentric pitcher with the Cardinals and Astros, was once asked to sum up a pennant race in one word.

"Youneverknow," was his reply, making up a new word from three.

It's also my response, whenever I hear an apologist for the Tigers' last month of follies tell me, "Hey, if you had been told in April that the Tigers would be in first place in September, you'd have been thrilled."

Sure -- in April.

But after 146 games, it's an awful attitude to take. Because, as Andujar so wonderfully said, "Youneverknow."

Youneverknow when you're going to get this chance again. Youneverknow how many more times you'll be set up, as the Tigers were in August, for a romp to the playoffs. Youneverknow if this was THE year, and heaven help us if they fritter it away.

There's nothing wrong with expectations changing from April to September. They should, frankly. If a team proves itself to be better than the pasty-face prognosticators on TV and radio thought they would be coming out of spring training, then good for them. But go out there and grab it; don't assume that this is going to be an annual thing.

Good, young, homegrown talent is terrific, and it's still the best way to build a winner. But just because a ballclub has a wealth of it is not a guarantee that the winning will pour out of the spicket like water. Young players can be derailed. ALL players can have down years. The competition is trying, too.

I hope like heck that the Tigers aren't, subconsciously, satisfied with the season they've had thus far. Three years ago, they had to play like the dickens to avoid setting a MLB record for most losses in a season. That kind of pressure was heavy. Today, they play to avoid becoming a different kind of cautionary tale. No team has been 40 games over .500 on August 7, as the Tigers were, and failed to qualify for the postseason. A playoff-less season, at this point, would go down as one of the biggest collapses in baseball history.

Doubtful folks will be praising them for their improvement over last season, should that collapse materialize. And nor should they.

I'm sorry, but no pats on the back at this point. There are 16 games remaining. The Tigers are going to have to play them with spit and vinegar if they want to get into the playoffs. They've gone past the point of moral victories. There's only room for real victories -- such as a playoff berth.

Will this chance happen again next year? Or the year after that?


Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Small Ball? Tigers Don't Play That

Earl Weaver’s Baltimore Orioles teams of the 1970’s used the three-run home run as their chief offensive weapon. The Orioles had little speed, but lots of power. And pitching. Weaver knew nothing about “small ball.” Actually, he was familiar with the term, but most likely used it in a way that would be inappropriate for me to repeat in a family blog.

The Tigers’ tool belt has but one item anymore: the solo home run. They’ve been great at hitting those all season. It’s one reason why Marcus Thames, for example, has less than 60 RBI despite having hit 27 homers.

Thames and Carlos Guillen (twice, including the walk-off winner) hit solo homers last night, and the Tigers got a 3-2 win. Plop, plop, fizz, fizz. Eleven wins in their last 33 tries -- .333 ball. So easy to be satisfied anymore. The Tigers haven’t won two games in a row since taking the first two games against the White Sox at CoPa in late August. So the team that loves the solo home run is now trying to win a division with solo victories – one here, another there. Usually with a few losses in between.

I heard catcher Vance Wilson use a word yesterday that I really didn’t need to hear in the thick of a pennant race, when talking about his team: fear.

“We don’t really have a lot of guys who’ve been in pennant race situations before,” Wilson told FSD. “So maybe lately there’s been a little fear there.”

Great. The Tigers are scared, and playing tight. The backup catcher, who some say would make a great manager someday, confirms it. But at least he’s honest.

Last night’s win was great, but I’ve given up hoping that it’ll be “the win” that turns this thing around. I thought that about those two White Sox wins, and the two wins in Boston, and the Craig Monroe blast in New York. Each time after those victories, I thought the Tigers would be catapulted by them. They weren’t.

But I’d feel better about last night if the Tigers had scored some runs in some other fashion other than by cranking the ball over the fence.

Yet I suppose anything in the left-hand column is good anymore.

Monday, September 11, 2006


Tigers’ Nadir Can Either Be Death Knell, Or Turning Point

(my weekly take on the Tigers)

Last Week: 2-5
This Week: (9/12-13: TEX; 9/15-17: BAL)

This is as low as it gets.

With one 12-1 loss yesterday, the Tigers: a) saw their winning percentage dip below .600 for the first time in months; b) had their AL Central lead cut to two games, the smallest since the All-Star break; c) lost for the 22nd time in their last 32 games; and d) fell oh-so-meekly – again – to one of the better pitchers in the league.

I’ll tell you this: a, b, c, and d might not spell anything, but they DO add up – to the nadir of this season.

This is the lowest point, and it’s so because the Tigers have never looked as feeble, as impotent, and as helpless as they do right now. They hardly look like a team on the verge of clinching a playoff spot. They look more like a team hanging on for dear life, hoping that somehow the calendar becomes their friend and their opponents stumble.

OK, but not all is lost.

If the Tigers can circle yesterday – September 10, 2006 – as the date on which they sunk to their lowest depths, but use it to their advantage, then maybe 9/10/06 can be a turning point. Maybe they’ll be able to point to it at the end of the season as the date on which they hit bottom, and then rose back up, like a phoenix. Maybe it doesn’t get any worse, and the law averages will enact themselves, and the Tigers will start to win some ballgames.

That’s all they need to do, by the way – just win a few ballgames. The Tigers, at this point, only need to bob themselves a tad above .500 – like 10-8 the rest of the way – to finish with enough victories (96) to make the Twins and the White Sox play like gangbusters the rest of the way. The Twins are only one behind Detroit in the loss column, but they would still need to win 14 of their last 20 to finish with 97 victories. And if the Tigers do stumble some more – and they might – they have that 3 ½ game bulge over the White Sox for the Wild Card to comfort them.

It’s amazing, really, that we should talk about the Tigers as merely Wild Card contenders, when just one month ago, the divisional race was an absolute joke. The Tigers and that spiffy 10-game lead looked like such shoo-ins, this September Scramble was unfathomable. But this is baseball, and these are 162 game seasons, and only can a ten-game lead survive the 10-22 quagmire the Tigers currently find themselves in. And it’s barely surviving. The Tigers have pretty much used up all of their mulligans. It’s time to win some ballgames.

They still only have to win a few more than they lose the rest of the way to settle matters. Trouble is, 10-22 stretches don’t portend a return to winning any time soon. That’s nearly a quarter of the season playing .313 ball.

The Tigers better hope it doesn’t get any worse than this.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Hondo, Redux Would Be Nice Tonic For Gasping Tigers

What the Tigers could use right now is a 2006 version of Frank Howard.

Howard – The Capital Punisher. Hondo. All six-foot-seven of him. The man who once hit ten homers in one week, in 1968.

The Tigers bought Howard late in the 1972 season from Texas, missing postseason eligibility for him by hours. No matter. Hondo, 369 career homers under his belt when the Tigers acquired him, became not only one of the team’s biggest – literally – cheerleaders, he chipped in with a homer in 33 late-season at-bats. The Tigers won the AL East during the season’s final weekend. Howard, sadly, had to watch the ALCS from the dugout, prevented from being on the Tigers’ playoff roster. The Tigers lost to Oakland in a five-game heartbreaker (the ALCS was best-of-five back then).

Today, the Tigers, 9-19 in their last 28 games and now Dmitri Young-less, could use a big bat to rescue them. Big Al said at Tigers Blogger Night Tuesday that he wished the team would have pursued Alfonso Soriano at the trading deadline. Certainly he wouldn’t have traded prospect Cameron Maybin, would he, for Soriano? Yet that’s who the Nationals were requesting.

Anyhow, a thunder stick would look awfully nice in the middle of the Tigers’ lineup, even if it was just for a few weeks in September, while the team tries to get this thing back onto the track.

Frank Howard is 70 years old and is likely no longer a stretch run candidate, even for a team owned by a man who has a fetish for acquiring players long in the tooth, at least with his hockey dealings.

But is there someone ELSE out there?

Let’s hope Dave Dombrowski’s airtime minutes have been skyrocketing lately.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006


Fitting That Tigers' Playoff Hopes Should Ride In The Metrodome

(my weekly take on the Tigers)

Last Week: 2-4
This Week: (9/5-6: SEA; 9/7-10: at Min)

Sports are full of ironies and coincidences and poetic justices -- and injustices.

Such were my thoughts when I looked at the Tigers' schedule this week and saw four games in that horror of horrors, the HHH Metrodome in Minneapolis.

How fitting that the Tigers' hopes of either doing some serious damage to the AL Central race or coming back to the pack should rely on the outcomes of these four games in Minny.

For years, the Metrodome has been, to understate things, unkind to the Tigers. Of course, mostly bad Detroit teams have flitted in and out of Minneapolis, but still -- the Tigers have even less success there than in any other AL city that they've tried to be competitive in. It's been, simply, a nightmare to play there, and strange things seem to happen.

The Tigers lost two of three in Minnesota in May -- including a rare Todd Jones blown save. Then, in late July, the Tigers were on the verge of a sweep, with Jeremy Bonderman cruising on a Sunday afternoon, when he and the team melted down in the eighth inning, robbing them of victory. That inning included a balk, an error, one maddening turf hit after another, and the usual deafening roar of the Twins crowd.

So now the Tigers will have to play four ballgames in that funhouse, with the expressed purpose of gaining at least a split. Notice how the talk isn't about winning three of four. In fact, some faithful just pray the Tigers don't get swept.

Bring your earplugs, for even on TV, the crowds are sure to be annoyingly loud.

Fitting, isn't it?

Friday, September 01, 2006

Gibby's Idea From The Heart, But Unfathomable

The voice on the other end of the phone was, as usual, direct and without any sort of wishy-washiness.

"If the Tigers had any sort of class at all, they'd fly Alan Trammell in and have him throw out the first pitch of Game 1 of the playoffs," the voice said. "He worked his (expletive) ass off for the organization."

And then Kirk Gibson admitted that it would never happen.

Gibson says he hasn't spoken to Tram recently, but that #3 was "fine" with the decision made last October to strip him of his Tigers stripes and hire Jimmy Leyland. Of course, you can't strip what's wrapped around a man's heart.

Motor City Sports Magazine will be doing a feature on Gibby's son, Cameron, who's quite a hockey and baseball player, and Chris Chelios' hockey-playing son, for a future issue. But for a moment on the phone, the talk turned to today's Tigers.

"Craig Monroe pulled a Kirk Gibson last night," I said about C-Mo's game-winning homer in New York Wednesday night.

"That was some good stuff," Gibby said. "He's doing really well. Happy for him."

But back to the Trammell/throwing-out-the-first-pitch thing.

It's a sweet thought, I suppose, but there's no way the team will look backward in a year that's causing everyone to look forward. It also would not be without some controversy, I believe. Trammell was fired. He did not quit. If he had his druthers, he'd still be roaming the dugout. And everyone knows that. Too uncomfortable. And not fair to Leyland, either -- although he's a grizzled guy who can take care of himself.

I suggested another kind of tribute.

"They should build a statue in Comerica Park of Trammell and Lou Whitaker turning a double play, to join the other ones out there," I said.

"Don't hold your breath," Gibson said.

I hope he's wrong. It's not too soon in CoPa's history to start thinking about the next statue.

You could do worse than to honor Trammell and Whitaker, don't you think?