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.


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