Monday, October 30, 2006

Tigers-Cards 2006 Not Great, But '68 Version Was (And So Were These)

Watching the Tigers fall down and go "boom" against the Cardinals in the World Series got me to thinking about the great Fall Classics that I've been fortunate to have witnessed. Of course, the 2006 version wasn't one of them, but neither was the 1984 Series, even though the Tigers won and Kirk Gibson belted the most dramatic homerun in franchise history (sorry, Maggs).

There was 1975, of course.

The Cincinnati Reds -- the Big Red Machine -- were up on the Red Sox, three games to two, with Game 6 in Boston's Fenway Park. The Series had already included a very controversial play in one of the games in Cincinnati. The Reds' Ed Armbrister had bunted in front of the plate, and Boston catcher Carlton Fisk had trouble fielding it and throwing the ball to second base, because Armbrister was sort of in his way. The home plate umpire (Marty Springstead, I think) failed to call Armbrister out for interference, enraging Fisk and his manager, Darrell Johnson.

So here the Reds were, up three runs in the bottom of the eighth in Game 6. And up to the plate strode pinch-hitter Bernie Carbo, a native of metro Detroit. Carbo slammed a game-tying homerun into deep right center, a three-run shot. The game carried on into the 12th inning, when Fisk ended it with his now famous shot that was just fair. You've seen it a million times -- Fisk using body language and throwing his hands to the right, willing the ball to stay fair. But the Reds scored in the top of the ninth in Game 7, and won one of the best World Series since World War II.

It's not a fit of homerdom to say that the 1968 World Series between the Tigers and Cardinals was one of the better ones. There was the comeback from the 1-3 deficit, the nailing of Lou Brock at home plate in Game 5 that turned things around, and Mickey Lolich's three complete game victories. And Bob Gibson's 17 strikeouts in Game 1.

1977 comes to mind. That was the Series in which New York's Reggie Jackson hit three homeruns -- on three first-ball swings -- to clinch it in Game 6 in Yankee Stadium. But it was also a Series in which third baseman Graig Nettles of the Yankees put on a fielding clinic, topped only by ...

Baltimore's Brooks Robinson in the 1970 World Series was a human vacuum cleaner. Perhaps you've seen those newsreels, too. The one I remember most was of him backhanding a ball hit by the Reds' Lee May, that was crushed with such ferocity that the momentum of simply spearing it carried Robinson several feet into foul territory. But Brooks planted himself, spun, and threw May out from foul territory, nipping him by a half step with a throw that reached Boog Powell on one hop. It remains the most amazing play I've ever seen made by a third baseman. In addition to that gem, Robinson made several other spectacular plays in that five-game Series, won by the Orioles.

In 1972, little-used Gene Tenace hit four homeruns against the Reds. He did it in 23 AB, after only hitting five homers in over 200 AB in the regular season. In '73, the Mets, who won only 82 games in the regular season and were in last place in late August, gave the A's fits before succumbing in seven games. The 1991 Series was memorable for Jack Morris' brilliant performance in Game 7, which followed Twins teammate Kirby Puckett's dramatic walk-off homer that won Game 6 over Atlanta.

And who can forget Billy Buckner's error in Game 6 of a memorable seven-gamer against the Mets?

There've been a few others, should I spend some more time racking my brain. Maybe the Mets' defeat of the Orioles in 1969 should be one of them, even though it was only a five game Series, because of how severe of underdogs they were.

Regardless, neither the '84 Tigers win over the Padres or this year's Tigers loss to the Cardinals is among the great World Series in recent years. But I doubt the Cardinals fans at the parade in St. Louis Sunday cared much about that.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Tigers' Season Is Over, So What NOW For This Blog?


When I started this blog in March, it was designed to be a cozy, low-profile little place where I could ruminate on baseball, culled from 37 years of following and covering the sport. I was going to be nostalgic, give you recommendations on books and videos, and generally just chat about America's Pastime. And I did that, until April 3rd.

Then the Tigers started going bananas.

Needless to say, the direction changed. I started Monday Morning Manager, which was a look back at the Tigers' previous week, and a look ahead to the next. In the playoffs I added Burning Questions after every game.

So NOW what do I do?

I hadn't really thought about what I would do with WHYGJG when the baseball season ended. But now I guess I ought to, huh?

So beginning tomorrow, October 31st, this blog will be updated every Monday and Thursday until spring training begins next February. Sometimes I wonder if I have enough useless baseball info stored in my feeble brain for that kind of a schedule for four months. I guess we'll see.

See ya on Mondays and Thursdays.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Burning Questions: World Series Game 5

World Series Game 5
Burning Questions

What, ultimately, did the Tigers in?

Too many mistakes and not enough offense to overcome them. And that's nothing that you won't hear, read, or see anywhere else. It's pretty simple, really. The Cardinals took advantage of just about every Tigers miscue, and that was poison.

Where was Granderson, Polanco, Ordonez, etc?

Good question, isn't it? I severely underestimated the effect the week-long layoff between the ALCS and the World Series would have on the team. I should have known better. Hitting is about timing and being in a rhythm, and each of those guys you named had both going well in the first two rounds. Then they had to sit around for a week in cold weather. You can add Pudge Rodriguez to that list, too, by the way.

So, it was Sean Casey vs. the Cardinals?

Basically. And that wasn't nearly enough, in the end. Casey's performance was all the more remarkable, considering he was the least healthy of all the Tigers going into the Series.

OK, what about all the freaking throwing errors by Tigers pitchers?

It's amazing to me, that pitchers, who make a living throwing a ball sixty feet, six inches at a target at speeds of over 90 mph, suddenly morph into sissy girls when they have to throw to a base. It's not just the Tigers' hurlers. Throughout any given season you'll see the same nonsense: pitchers who just aren't comfortable throwing to any base. They tend to short arm it, or lob the ball ridiculously high. It's almost funny -- except when it happens to your team in the World Series.

Did the pressure of the World Series overwhelm the Tigers?

Well, just about nobody on their roster had played in any postseason games, period, before this season, so you can make a case for that. We tend to forget that Justin Verlander and Jeremy Bonderman are 23, and Joel Zumaya is 21, and on and on. I must admit they looked like they wilted under the bright lights. But this experience will be invaluable to them as their careers go on. To be that young and have played in a World Series is huge.

Is it too soon to look ahead?

Never. The Tigers need a beast of a bat in the middle of the lineup. Everyone else in their division has one, and the White Sox have several. The Tigers don't have that monster who strikes fear into opponents -- a guy who can deliver a homerun at any moment. Think of how intimidating Jim Thome is, or Travis Hafner, or Justin Morneau, especially in late-inning situations when a homerun would be awesome.

The Tigers need that, and they either need Curtis Granderson to improve his OBP and lower his strikeouts, or else consider a different leadoff hitter -- preferrably a guy who's a threat to bunt and/or steal occasionally. I was fooled on Granderson. I thought he was supposed to be this fleet-footed guy who could create havoc. But he's basically a free-swinging power hitter at the top of the lineup, who has better than average speed. Although, until the World Series, he cut down on his strikeouts dramatically in the postseason. Granderson struck out 174 times and only stole eight bases in the regular season, with a low walk total. Does that sound like a prototypical leadoff hitter to you?

Before we say goodbye to Burning Questions for the year, who among today's Tigers have probably played their last game in the Old English D?

Wow, I guess I'd have to say Matt Stairs is a possibility, of course. But beyond him, I don't know that fringe guys like Alexis Gomez or Neifi Perez are safe. But that's still not going out on a limb. I think you're fishing for a surprise choice, so I'll give you two: Marcus Thames and Fernando Rodney. If either of those guys were moved, I wouldn't choke on my waffles.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Burning Questions: World Series Game 4

World Series Game 4
Burning Questions

Did David Eckstein make a pact with Satan?

Sure seemed like it, didn't it? First, he annoyingly fould off a bunch of pitches to start the first inning before dribbling an infield hit, then the ghost of Curt Flood takes Curtis Granderson's feet out from under him to create a double, and then Craig Monroe barely misses a circus catch, for the game-winning double.

Eckstein looks 14 years old, but he was lethal last night. He had some kind of luck.

What is it with Tigers pitchers and fielding?

It's the strangest thing. The only one who can make plays, it seems, is Kenny Rogers. With everyone else, it's an adventure. As far as throwing to first base, pitchers tend to fall in love with lobbing the ball, instead of just throwing it, and the result is often high tosses. That's what happened to Fernando Rodney last night. As Fox's Tim McCarver correctly pointed out, Rodney had plenty of time. He should have gloved the ball, planted his feet, and fired it to first. It's funny how most pitchers completely change their throwing motion when it comes to tosses to first base.

Well, not HA HA funny.

The offense was a LITTLE better, wasn't it?

Well, yeah, but that and a dime will get you a cup of coffee.

The Tigers still aren't putting together many strings of hits, and despite getting two, two-out hits in the third inning, too many big guns are still misfiring, i.e. Magglio Ordonez, Placido Polanco, and now Craig Monroe has joined that list. Time is running out. The Tigers need not only a victory, but a BIG victory. Jeff Weaver is starting Game 5, and the Tigers let him off the hook numerous times in Game 2.

What did you think of Brandon Inge cutting the ball off in the seventh inning, enabling the go-ahead run to score, but also enabling the Tigers to end the inning by tagging out Albert Pujols?

I would have let that ball go through to the plate. I thought Monroe had a shot at nailing the runner, which was the go-ahead run, as you said. I think I'd have taken my chances at getting that out, even if it would have left a runner on third had the throw not been successful. You're trying to protect a lead, and an out at the plate there would have been a momentum-changer. It was worth the risk, but at that moment, everything happens so fast and the decision is split second. But it sure looked like Monroe had a shot at the runner at the plate.

Looks like you were right about Scott Rolen being the Cardinal you fear the most.

I'd much rather be wrong, believe me. Rolen can look so bad on one pitch, and so good on the next. That's the sign of a good, disciplined, confident hitter. Seems like he's always ripping a double somewhere.

So Pudge got off the schneide, and Casey keeps hitting. But it's not enough, right?

Right. It was good to see Pudge's hits, but this lineup is most effective when everyone contributes. The Tigers are not, and never have been this season, a team that can be carried by one or two individuals. Their offense is best when multiple hitters are getting into the act. And right now, not enough folks are swinging well.

Are you saying this Series is over?

Of course not.

It's never over until you win four, and the last two times the Cardinals held 3-1 leads in the World Series, they lost: 1985 and 1968. But that aside, when you're down 1-3, all you should do is focus on the next game, and the Tigers have been pretty good at that all year long. I know time is running out, but I firmly believe if they can get that one win where the offense cooks, they'll be on their way, with two games in Detroit.

The Cardinals have been getting all the breaks, and all you can do is hope that they used up all of their allotment.

What about the decision to NOT start Kenny Rogers in any games happening in St. Louis?

Probably good. Let's put it this way: it's hard to argue against it. It's not like the Tigers' rotation is chopped liver. If the choice was between Rogers and a fifth starter, the you go with Rogers, regardless of the city. But Jim Leyland feels he can get a winnable outing from Justin Verlander, and I agree. Then you have Rogers starting Game 6 at home.

Tell me why I should feel good about Game 5.

It's not Game 4?

Seriously, the Cards got every break in the book last night, and still barely won. The Tigers' offense seems to be awakening a little bit, and you know they'll come out fighting. They got lots of baserunners against Weaver in Game 2, but just couldn't finish him off early.

Besides, I truly don't think the Tigers' fate is to lose all three games in St. Louis after the postseason ride they've taken us on.

Feel better now?

A little.

Better than nothing.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Burning Questions: World Series Game 3

World Series Game 3
Burning Questions

Curtis Granderson, Placido Polanco, and Pudge Rodriguez are a combined 0-for-34 in the Series. Can I panic now?

Yes and no. The glass is half-full people will tell you that those guys are overdue. The naysayers -- read: panickers -- will say that the Tigers are sunk because none of those three seem to show any signs of breaking out of their slumps.

My feeling? I tend to think their bats will warm up, beginning tonight. But it's not just those three. Not much offense is coming from the others, either.

Still, you could have made a mint in Las Vegas if you would have said that trio would start the World Series 0-for-34.

Why did the Tigers not make Cris Carpenter work more last night?

The six-day layoff between the ALCS and the World Series is having more of an effect than I thought on the Tigers and their hitting approach. They were in a great rhythm in the first two rounds. Now, everything has ground to a halt. Part of that is due to not trying to work the count a little more and maybe draw a walk. It's amazing how many times walks start successful rallies.

That said, Carpenter pitched brilliantly. The Tigers just made it a little easier for him than they needed to.

The defense has gone a little south. Agreed?

The Tigers are throwing the ball around a little bit carelessly, that's for sure. Pitcher Joel Zumaya was the latest transgressor.

The thing about defense in baseball is that it just takes one miscue to open some floodgates. It matters not that you may have played flawlessly for many innings in a row. It's all about timing. Unfortunately, the Tigers are making defensive mistakes that are leading directly to runs being scored. It's like fumbling and having it always returned for a touchdown.

How come the Tigers never score when Nate Robertson pitches?

That's not just in your mind; it's true. For whatever reason, Nate doesn't get the run support. But next year, maybe he'll get tons of it.

Tonight's starter, Jeremy Bonderman, has been a frequent recipient of run support. Let's hope that trend continues.

But to answer your question, it's just one of those things. A bad thing. but one of those things nonetheless.

Will Jim Leyland shake the lineup up for Game 4?

Well, what would you have him do?

He can't pull too much out of his hat, unless you want to give Marcus Thames or Alexis Gomez a shot, but where? There's no DH in St. Louis. He's just gonna have to run the same guys out there, for the most part. Maybe he'll change the order. Sometimes that works.

The Tigers look tight. Agree?

Well, when you don't score, you always look bad. Call it tight, call it pressing. Whatever words you choose, they don't seem like they're having all that much fun right now. The deeper you get into a series and don't score much, it's only human nature for guys to want to do too much. Everyone wants to be "the guy" who breaks everyone out.

So, yes, I would agree they look tight, but mainly because everything is so hard for them right now.

So, can they still pull this off?

Of course.

But needless to say, tonight's game is huge. It's funny about playoff series. Every loss is magnified, and every win is an elixir. If the Tigers win tonight, and score a few runs in the process, things will look so much brighter in Tigertown. The Series will be tied, with rookie Albert "I Won't Be That Good Again" Reyes starting Game 5, versus Justin Verlander. Suddenly, the outlook will be much brighter.

We won't talk about losing Game 4.

Who's your Tiger tonight?

I have a good feeling about Pudge. He's too good to be hitless in his last 20 at bats. Look for him to get a couple hits and drive in a few. If he doesn't, you didn't hear it from me.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Burning Questions: World Series Game 2

World Series Game 2
Burning Questions

How long can Kenny Rogers keep doing this?

The way the Tigers have been struggling to drive runners in against the Cardinals, he might have to do it one more time, or something close. You just keep waiting for him to cave and finally give up some runs, but it doesn't happen.

One thing's for sure: I've never seen him so impassioned and fired up on the mound. He's like an evil Mark Fidrych out there. The way he gets so animated after throwing a ball, I'm almost afraid to see what he'll do if he ever does give up a run. He might implode.

What was the key moment, in your mind?

Without a doubt, the top of the fifth inning.

The Tigers had just blown a bases-loaded, nobody out situation in their half of the fourth, and were holding on to a slim 2-0 lead. They had Jeff Weaver on the ropes, and coudn't finish him off. It could have, should have, been a big inning for them. But Weaver wriggled out of it, and I felt that if the Cardinals scored even one run in their half of the fifth, the momentum would have shifted dramatically. And Rogers certainly was due for some damage. But the Professor did his thing, and the Tigers tacked on another huge run in the bottom of the fifth.

Your thoughts on bringing Todd Jones in the game in the ninth inning?

I'm almost always an advocate of letting a starter begin the ninth inning with a lead of three runs or more, especially when he's throwing a shutout. Last night was no exception. Granted, Todd Jones got the first two hitters out in the ninth, and nobody really hit a ball hard, but the Cardinals nonetheless ended up with the bases loaded. And yes, he got the necessary out when he needed it.

Ahh, but one of the reasons the bases ended up loaded was because Jones misplayed a comebacker to the mound. And guess who's one of the best fielding pitchers in baseball? Kenny Rogers. Even if the Cardinals just tied the game instead of going ahead, it would have been a backbreaker for the Tigers and would have put enormous pressure on them to win in the bottom of the ninth.

I said it at the time, and I'll say it again: manager Jim Leyland should have trotted Rogers out there to start the ninth.

Did Sean Casey lean into the ball to get hit in the fourth inning?

Well, he certainly didn't do a whole lot to get out of the way. But I don't know that I've ever seen an umpire make that call, and it would have been very gutsy to make it in the World Series.

Back to Rogers. What about all this nonsense re: his hand and what was on it?

It's almost laughable to watch the media stumbling all over themselves chasing this "story." MCS Magazine's Marketing Director Chris Okroy says that the substance was probably pine tar, and not a combination of dirt, moisture, and rosin, as the umpires were satisfied in believing. But Okroy also says that the pine tar isn't to doctor the ball; rather, it's for, in Chris's word, "gription." Whatever.

Regardless, whatever was on Rogers' hand was only present in the first inning, so you can't say that he had his game-long success because of it. But we're far from hearing the end of this, unfortunately.

So what's going on with Pudge Rodriguez?

Yeah, I know. Pudge is 0 for his last 19, and looks bad at the plate. He's just going through a bad spell now, and at the worst possible time. But unlike Frank Thomas, who got virtually no support from his Oakland teammates in the ALCS, Rodriguez at least is surrounded by a lineup that has been pretty reliable in the postseason. Other than Pudge, the team as a whole hasn't been lighting it up in the World Series, and is leaving runners in scoring position again, but you get the feeling it's only temporary; maybe it's due to the cold weather in Detroit and the one week layoff. Look for the bats to warm up in St. Louis.

As for Pudge, you just gotta hope that the law of averages will be on his side, and he'll break through. In fact, I'll predict it here: the Tigers will win a game in St. Louis directly because of something Pudge does at the plate.

Which player scares you the most on the Cardinals?

Believe it or not, it's not Albert Pujols. For some reason, Scott Rolen is giving me the creeps. Maybe it's because he struggled so mightily in the 2004 World Series, and is off to a pretty good start in the '06 Fall Classic. There's just something about him that makes me think that he's going to punish the Tigers in this series.

What did you think of the Tigers' decision to bring Alan Trammell and Sparky Anderson back for pregame festivities?

Wonderful, classy move, especially in regards to Trammell. Bringing Sparky back is almost a no-brainer, although he didn't have too much to say about the Ilitch ownership in his 1998 book, They Call Me Sparky.

It's practically unheard of for a team in any professional sport to bring back the fired coach/manager one year later for such pomp and circumstance. Usually, when you're gone, you're gone. But Alan Trammell will always be a Tiger, and last night proved it.

Speaking of Trammell, there are reports that he will soon be named as Lou Piniella's bench coach with the Cubs. Thoughts?

Alan Trammell in a Cubs uniform?

THOSE are my thoughts.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Tigers/Cardinals: World Series Preview

World Series Preview

Call it the rubber match of a series 72 years in the making.

The Tigers will play the Cardinals in the 2006 World Series. The teams are 1-1 in world championship play -- the Cardinals winning in seven games in 1934, and the Tigers returning the favor 34 years later. So here we are, 72 years after their first World Series meeting, and the Tigers and Cardinals are finally getting around to playing their rubber match.

Here's a position-by-position look at the matchup:

Catcher: The Cards' Yadier Molina now has Magglio Ordonez-like status. His two-run homer in the ninth inning gave the Cardinals the pennant in Game 7. But Pudge Rodriguez is a future Hall of Famer and has rendered opposing teams' running games almost nonexistent. It'll be fun to see if he has some more big game hits in him, after being mostly quiet in the ALCS. Probably against just about every team in MLB, the Edge would go to the Tigers here.

First Base: It's still up in the air who the Tigers will play here. Sean Casey (slight tear in calf muscle) says he can go, but manager Jim Leyland seems less convinced. If Casey doesn't play, Carlos Guillen will fill in again. Although Guillen is the Tigers' best player, in my mind, he'd be playing out of position, which would still give the Edge to the Cardinals, because Albert Pujols is simply the MVP of the National League. The best thing for the Tigers would be if Pujols somehow channeled Frank Thomas and went into the tank. But don't count on it.

Second Base: Ronnie Belliard might be familiar to Tigers fans, because he used to play for the Indians. He's a roly-poly guy who can hurt you with the bat. He's not nearly as handy with the glove as the Tigers' Placido Polanco, the ALCS MVP. But Belliard was a key acquisition for the Cardinals. Still, it's hard to give any other team the Edge here, just like at catcher. The Tigers have the advantage.

Third Base: Former Phillie Scott Rolen had a tiff with manager Tony La Russa early in the NLCS about not being in the lineup for Game 2. Supposedly they have put that behind them. Rolen is a veteran who knows how to play the game. Brandon Inge is the most athletic Tiger, and gives the Tigers power at the bottom of the order, but which could be negated in Busch Stadium due to the pitcher batting behind him (I presume Inge will hit eighth). Inge has also turned himself into one of the best fielding third sackers in the game. Edge: Tigers.

Shortstop: David Eckstein is another former American Leaguer, having played on the Angels. He was their everyday shortstop in their 2002 World Series winning year. A career .283 hitter, Eckstein hit a solid .292 in 500 AB, and only struck out 41 times, which makes him an ideal leadoff hitter. However, he only drew 31 walks, too. Again, this position for the Tigers will be determined by Casey's status. It'll either be Guillen or Leyland's choice of Neifi Perez, Omar Infante, or Ramon Santiago. Clearly, if Guillen doesn't play SS, the Edge goes to the Cardinals. But if Casey plays first and Guillen plays SS, the Edge swings to the Tigers. So, not knowing the status, we'll call this Even.

Outfield: The Cardinals start either So Taguchi or Preston Wilson in left, Jim Edmonds in center, and old friend Juan Encarnacion (former Tiger) in right. It's a talented group, and is the best defensive outfield the Tigers have faced in the postseason. Both Edmonds and Encarnacion have power, and while Edmonds specializes in the circus catch, Encarnacion has a rifle arm. Taguchi has little power, but is very serviceable with the glove. Craig Monroe, Curtis Granderson, and Magglio Ordonez have each had their moments offensively and defensively, and have played very well overall. Because of their exploits in the postseason, I'm giving the slight Edge to the Tigers.

Bench: Scott Spiezio has authored some dramatic postseason moments. Pitching coach Dave Duncan's son, Scott Duncan, hit 22 homers in less than 300 AB. John Rodriguez hit .301 in 183 AB, and is typically used as a defensive replacement in the OF. The Tigers bench was little used, except to cover Casey's injury. Ironically, the Tigers' best bench player may never see an inning of postseason action: backup catcher Vance Wilson. Edge: Cardinals.

Designated Hitter: Too many options that are unknown for both teams. Even.

Pitching: Few teams can match the Tigers' rotation, and the Cardinals are not one of them, although they're better than the Mets. They did get a great effort out of Jeff Suppan in Game 7, but Chris Carpenter has been roughed up. Another former Tiger, Jeff Weaver, has been a pleasant surprise. In the bullpen, Jason Isringhausen is the closer, but he's hurt right now. So those duties have fallen to righty Adam Wainwright, who possesses a nasty breaking ball and a good changeup. The Tigers' bullpen has been awesome all season, and with Joel Zumaya healthy for the World Series, it's back to full strength. The starters are all very capable, and no matter who Leyland starts and when, he's almost sure to get quality innings. Hard to go against the staff with the best ERA in baseball. Edge: Tigers

Manager: Wow. Tony La Russa and Jim Leyland. Two heavyweights in their profession. Both have won a World Series. Both have known heartbreak in the playoffs. And, of course, they are best of friends. Not unlike the Pistons/Spurs matchup of 2005, with Larry Brown and Gregg Popovich going at it. Leyland, for his part, wants to ot discuss the relationship. Ha! Nice try, Jim. La Russa's Cards got swept by the Red Sox in 2004, baseball's team of destiny that year. I'm afraid the Tigers are the team of destiny this year, but the Cards' losing won't be La Russa's fault. Still, Edge Tigers.

Overall: Despite the long layoff, I just don't see this magical season ending with a World Series loss. Perhaps that's naive, but the Tigers are truly the better squad. All that talk about rust is nonsense: if you're good enough, you're good enough. And the Tigers are good enough. It will be the first series they play with home field advantage. Tigers in five.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Macha Deserved Better Fate, As So Many Of Them Do

Already, before this playoff run has even been completed, the Tigers are leaving casualties in their wake.

The Oakland A's fired manager Ken Macha yesterday, a few days after the Tigers dispatched his club in four straight games to capture the AL pennant. Better hands have been dealt.

In four seasons -- his first job as a manager -- Macha's A's won 360 games, an average of 90 per season. This season, the A's appeared in their first ALCS since 1992. They swept away a Twins team that was the hottest in baseball going into the postseason. Then they ran into a buzz saw of a Tigers team -- one that not even the mighty Yankees could handle.

All that, and Macha got the pink slip anyway.

The old football coach Bum Phillips said that if a team wants to fire you, they'll come up with a reason.

In this case, A's management trotted out one of the excuses from the team brass Greatest Hits Album: He wasn't communicating with his players. Whatever that means.

It's an age old, handy reason. It at least dates back to the Pistons slapstick days, when the team fired Ray Scott as coach in 1976. "He wasn't communicating well with his players," Pistons GM Oscar Feldman fed the media at the time. Age old.

"I felt that there was a disconnect," A's GM Billy Beane said in announcing Macha's cashiering. "It's not to point the finger squarely at Ken."

Yet it is only Ken who is losing his job.

I don't know then, what could have saved Macha. Beating the Tigers once? Twice? Four times? What would have demonstrated that there was no "disconnect"? And how was he not communicating? Perhaps it was with Frank Thomas that Ken Macha had trouble communicating. Thomas went hitless in the ALCS. The Big Hurt was exactly that -- to his own team. Maybe Nick Swisher was another with which Macha didn't communicate so good. Swisher got exactly one hit in the Tigers series. Swisher -- an appropriate name, considering the results of so many of his swings.

But the A's weren't going to fire their two sluggers, who had so cruelly abandoned them in the worst possible time, so the manager gets the ziggy instead. Poor communication.

Poor excuse.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

"Teddy Ballgame" A Softy After All, Diles Says

(reprinted from my senior blog, Out of Bounds)

He had never told it to anyone, at anytime, except to his family. Nobody but Dave Diles’ loved ones knew about his friendship with Ted Williams. Just the way Williams preferred it. For it turns out that Teddy Ballgame wasn’t always the irascible, pugnacious sort after all. And Williams couldn’t have folks possibly know that.

Diles, 75 last Saturday, was as much Detroit sports television as snow is winter. From the early-1960’s until the late-1970’s, Diles casted sports during the six o’clock and 11 o’clock shows, hosted a radio show, did some freelance TV shows, and, perhaps most famously, flew to New York on weekends to work for ABC, most notably during the college football season as host of the halftime and postgame scoreboard shows.

“I never lived in New York. Let’s get that straight,” Diles said, correcting me when I asked him how long he’d lived in the Big Apple. “I commuted every weekend, about ten months out of the year,” he said on the telephone from his home near Athens, Ohio.

Well, it sure seemed like Diles lived in New York, because I remember him on ABC almost as much as, if not more so, than watching him on WXYZ-TV channel 7. Diles was happy to discuss a career that was fulfilling, if not one that rose to superstar status (“I was no Keith Jackson or Howard Cosell,” Diles says), while we chatted the other day for a nostalgic piece for Motor City Sports Magazine.

There were good friends, for one. And one of those was the iconic Williams.

“I first met him when he was nearing the end of his career with the (Boston) Red Sox,” Diles told me. “I was leaning on a bat near the batting cage in spring training. And here comes Williams. He kicks the bat out from me, and I fell onto my ass. I looked up and he was grinning and razzing me about something (Red Sox manager) Mike Higgins had supposedly said about me. “We kind of struck up a relationship, then it became a friendship.”

Back in those days, newspapers were smitten about homerun hitters. The papers and their art departments had a fetish for publishing wide shots of the ballpark the day after a big homerun. The flight of the longball was drawn onto the photo with an elliptical black line with an arrow at the end. And always, the estimated distance was superimposed, too.

“Ted used to love playing in Detroit,” Diles said. “The hitting background was great, and there was the upper deck in rightfield. He used to call Briggs (later Tiger) Stadium his favorite ballpark, outside of Boston.”

It was then that Diles, who was a young AP reporter at the time, began a sort of routine.

“So when Teddy would hit one out, and the papers in Detroit created one of those photos, I’d have them make an extra one,” he recalled. “And I’d take it to the ballpark and put it in [Williams’] locker. I’d see him on the field during batting practice and I’d say, ‘I put something in your locker.’ He liked that. He liked me. And I liked him.”

“If you ever f***ing tell anyone that I was here, I’ll never f***ing talk to you ever again, you hear me?”

But, Diles said, there was a soft side of Williams that the Hall of Fame slugger was very careful to keep from the public eye.

“One time I was scheduled to visit some sick kids over at Detroit Osteopathic Hospital, and Williams came along. He and I talked to the kids, and he was great with them. “On the way out of the hospital, he said, ‘If you ever f***ing tell anyone that I was here, I’ll never f***ing talk to you ever again, you hear me?’” And Diles never did, until the very moment he let his caller in on the secret.

“I had the good fortune of being invited to his home in Florida after he retired,” Diles said. “And when I retired, we kept in touch, usually by telephone. It was quite a friendship. And I never told anyone about it, other than my family, until this very second.”

Regarding his time in Detroit, Diles spoke of violations of code when it came to former Lions player and coach Joe Schmidt.

“I know that you’re never supposed to become friends with those whose careers you are chronicling, either in print or on the air,” Diles said, “but I violated that code when it came to Joe Schmidt. I found him to be wonderful. I had a very special relationship with him.”

But at the top of his list as far as professional relationships go, was #9 himself, Gordie Howe. “I think God broke the mold when He made Gordie. He was always good for a quote, and he was always accessible. If I asked him to do a charity event, his only question was, ‘When do you want me to be there?’”

Diles quit channel 7 in 1972 over a dispute with management. Already bogged down with his ABC work and the radio shows, Diles asked out of doing the 11 p.m. newscast. But management, citing the increased ratings at 11 versus other times, wouldn’t allow it. So he quit, but only after being assured that his not working for channel 7 wouldn’t affect his status with ABC. He returned to channel 7 in 1979. Diles’ replacement at channel 7 was an ascerbic, snarling man named Al Ackerman. And that hiring also contributed to Diles’ crankiness with WXYZ.

“I was the sports director [at channel 7], and I thought it was underhanded that they should bring in someone (Ackerman) without consulting me first. I had wanted Larry Adderly to do the 11 o’clock show, but of course they wouldn’t let me out of it. But then they hired Al, who I never really respected professionally. I thought he was just about shtick. I had no relationship with him personally. So shortly after Al replaced me, I walked into the station manager’s office, and I quit.”

Diles will be inducted into the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame on October 30, at a gala dinner at Cobo Hall. He’ll go in, along with other inductees who include Tigers pitcher Frank Tanana; MSU football star Sonny Grandelius; Pistons GM Jack McCloskey; Red Wings vice president Jimmy Devellano; and NBA forwards Dan Majerle and Greg Kelser.

Of turning 75, Diles said, “Bet you didn’t think I’d make it, did you?”

Not only did he make it, he sounds fit enough to eventually have 75 way back in his rearview mirror.

He’s not ready to re-join his friend Ted Williams just yet.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Burning Questions: ALCS Game 4

ALCS Game 4
Burning Questions

This one looked rough for a while, didn't it?

Truthfully, I thought we might be looking at a Game 5. Again, I should have eaten my words. I've been guilty of extreme pessimism with these guys, stemming from their last 50 games of the regular season. But suddenly MLB is doing its NHL impersonation: the regular season doesn't mean diddly.

As far as rollercoasters go, the last couple innings were wild, weren't they?

Oh, you have no idea. Tigers leave the bases loaded in the seventh, which I was sure was going to haunt them. Then the A's get the leadoff man on in the 8th, with the "Isn't he DUE?" Frank Thomas coming up. Double play. Whew! THEN, Jason Grilli loads the bases with walks. Ugh. Then Wil Ledezma gets a pop up.

Then the first two Tigers go out in the 9th. Looks like extra frames. Then Craig Monroe and Placido Polanco get base hits.

And THEN...

Great baseball theatre.

How big of a loss would Game 4 had been for the Tigers?

Hard to say, but pretty big. It would have put the pressure squarely on them to win Game 5. 3-0 series leads, to me, are the worst because you have everything to lose and nothing to gain. You just want to get the damn thing over with. Just glad that we don't have to worry about that now.

Would you EVER have imagined that Frank Thomas would go hitless in the ALCS?

No, but that's what makes baseball such a great game. Sometimes the pitchers get ya, sometimes you wear them out. In a way, I feel bad for Thomas, because he had such a great year and it's a shame the lasting memory is of him going hitless in the series. It should take nothing away from what he accomplished in 2006.

Did Placido Polanco actually ever make an out during the ALCS?

The stats say he went 9-for-17, but I really don't remember any of the outs. The guy is like a hitting machine. When he came up in the 9th inning and Monroe at first base, I genuinely thought he'd end it with a gapper to right center. What a player he is. He was absolute poison to the A's.

Some words about Milton Bradley, please.

It was nice to talk about Bradley for what he did ON the field, for a change. He wore the Tigers out, and his catch in the 9th inning off Curtis Granderson, on a bad leg, was impressive. The Fox cameras later caught him pointing at the Tigers, a sign of his respect for them. A class move for a guy who's not normally not known for being such.

Did Jim Leyland leave Jason Grilli in too long in the 8th inning?

Well, obviously not, because the A's didn't score. But that's hindsight. I thought he should have been lifted after the first two walks and Nick Swisher at the plate. Eight straight balls at that point, and few were even close to being strikes. It forced Ledezma to come in with no margin for error. I know it's considered unseemly to question Leyland and his magic wand, but I thought he got lucky.

So where does Magglio Ordonez's homer rank amongst great Detroit sports moments?

Wow, that's a toughie. It will be remembered for ages, that's for sure. Years from now, people will be telling their grandkids that it came in Game 7. Did you know that a lot of people think Kirk Gibson's homerun off Dennis Eckersley in the 1988 World Series came late in the series? But it was actually Game 1. If the A's had won that series, it's doubtful that Gibby's homer would have been as legendary.

As for Maggs' shot, I'd certainly put it in the top five. Gibson's homerun off Goose Gossage in the 1984 World Series; Steve Yzerman's overtime goal in Game 7 of the conference semifinals against St. Louis in 1996; Jim Northrup's World Series-winning hit in Game 7 in 1968; and Vinnie Johnson's winning shot in the 1990 NBA Finals would join it.

Who should the Tigers hope to play in the World Series: the Mets, or the Cardinals?

Either would be fine. Neither of those clubs has the pitching to keep up with the Tigers. Sunday's Game 4 of the NLCS was 12-5 for the Mets. You'll never see such a score in any game involving the Tigers, unless they're the ones getting the 12.

The idea of beating both New York teams in the postseason, though, is juicy. But the oldtimers, like me, would also like to see a Tigers-Cardinals Series. Those two teams have unfinished business, you see. The Cardinals beat the Tigers in 1934, and the Tigers returned the favor 34 years later. So a Tigers-Cards Series would be the rubber match, so to speak.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Burning Questions: ALCS Game 3

ALCS Game 3
Burning Questions

A's manager Ken Macha says his team's task is "not impossible," and that this series is "far from over." Agree with him?

Well, no, but what else is he supposed to say? Sure, the 2004 Red Sox overcame an 0-3 hole against the Yankees, but that was also the first time in MLB history that it happened. The thing that tells me the A's are done is that they are showing no signs of breaking out of their funk. It's not like they're pushing the Tigers to the brink in every game.

Kenny Rogers. Any words?

I don't know that Webster has come up with them yet. But seriously, Rogers is incredible. What he's doing right now is crazy stupid. I'm dying to see what he does in his World Series start(s). And no, I'm not counting my chickens. Well, maybe just a little.

The Tigers can throw Jeremy Bonderman in Game 4. Not too many playoff teams can start anyone comparable, can they?

Try none of them. The Tigers' rotation, which Fox analyst Kevin Kennedy correctly points out doesn't even include Mike Maroth, is the deepest in baseball. And in the postseason, that depth simply beats the opposition into submission.

The Tigers looked mortal with RISP yesterday, yet had just enough offense to win. But what's up with the A's bats?

Colder than the Detroit weather, and at the worst possible time. But then again, the A's weren't too good during the regular season with RISP, either. Their bug guns, A.K.A. Steve Swisher, Eric Chavez, and Frank Thomas, are invisible, unless you are a fan of bad streaks of hitless at-bats and strikeouts. They seem totally baffled by whomever takes the mound for Detroit. But that's what the Tigers pitchers can do to you, when they're on.

Have the playoffs turned into a coming out party for any Tigers in particular?

Sure. Craig Monroe, because of his power. Curtis Granderson, for his power and his defense and his ability to cut down on his strikeouts on the sport's biggest stage. Carlos Guillen, because the baseball world is finding out just how good he is. Ditto Placido Polanco. And some others. Basically, this entire team is having a party, and there's another one to go.

So the Tigers are going to the World Series?

Yes, and in one game less than what I predicted. I smell a sweep, because the A's just look so dead. However, they're sure to bring their best effort to CoPa today, facing elimination. But will it matter? The Tigers pitchers are on an amazing roll right now. And it won't stop with Bonderman today. Pop those champagne corks at approximately 7:45 tonight!

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Burning Questions: ALCS Game 2

ALCS Game 2
Burning Questions

Is Jim Leyland God? Alexis Freaking- Gomez?

There's something special going on with the Tigers right now. They're looking more and more like the team that went 76-36 thru August 7. And during that amazing run, Leyland pushed all the right buttons at all the right times. Funny thing is, when I saw Gomez in the lineup, I had a feeling he was going to do something good. It just goes to show you that Leyland has the trust of everyone, including bottom feeders like bloggers and magazine editors.

Care to amend your choice of Carlos Guillen as your Tiger MVP this season? Where would they be without Placido Polanco?

That's a great point. My reasoning was that I think Guillen, pound-for-pound, is the Tigers' best player. But the best player isn't always the most valuable, if that makes sense. We've already seen how Polanco's loss caused the entire Tigers offense to stall. If he were to be missed for any significant amount of time, heaven forbid, the Tigers would be in a world of hurt. Can I give co-MVPs out?

No, but we'll move on. Key moment for you in Game 2, please.

I'd say the Tigers fourth. The half inning after runs are scored are key for both teams, especially in the playoffs, and especially for the road team. The A's and their fans were feeling pretty good about themselves after Milton Bradley's first homerun made it 3-1 Oakland in the third. But for the Tigers to come right back with a four spot to claim a 5-3 lead was deflating for the A's.

Can't blame this loss on Bradley, though. But where are the rest of the A's hitters?

Well, this isn't a team blessed with as much offense as the Yankees, but they're certainly better than what they're showing right now. Nick Swisher and Frank Thomas, especially, are MIA and if that continues, bye-bye Oakland this weekend. As for why it's happening, it's the pitching, stupid. The Tigers hurlers are having great location right now, and even though the A's hit a few homers last night, none really hurt them, including Bradley's first, because it was so early in the game.

What's with Leyland's infatuation with Neifi Perez?

You can almost abide Perez's horrid bat if he was the second coming of Mark Belanger at shortstop, but he's not. He's an average fielder with limited range. And to hit him second in the lineup? Ay-yi-yi. Even the great ones do mysterious things, and this Perez thing with Leyland definitely qualifies. It'll be interesting to see if he sticks with Perez, now that it's all but 100% that Sean Casey will miss the rest of the series. God, I hope he doesn't.

Are the A's beaten already?

Heavens, no. But their feet are perilously close to the open grave. They got a little better hitting with RISP in Game 2, but they don't do it anywhere nearly as consistently as the Tigers have been doing it lately. The deeper this series gets, with the Tigers able to start Kenny Rogers and Jeremy Bonderman in Games 3 and 4, you get the feeling that the A's are in deep, deep trouble. It's highly unlikely they'll leave Detroit still alive in the series, but if they are, you never know what can happen. But never say a team is beaten until the last out is made in the clinching game. You know that.

Did Cory Lidle's tragic death have an effect on the A's?

Perhaps, but I think when something like that happens, it can affect both teams, whether they played with him or not. It's times like that when players feel like they're part of a big fraternity, so losing one is like losing a brother. I think it's something that, frankly, is mostly forgotten about once the first pitch is thrown.

Is Todd Jones' adventure in the ninth anything to worry about?

Naah. It happens sometimes, and it happens very infrequently with Jones, despite what his critics say. He got the out he needed to get, although Thomas could have changed the complexion of the entire series with a walkoff grand slam. The location on the final pitch was excellent: a high fastball, which was enticing to Thomas, but yet it was far enough away that it would have taken an incredible swing to jack it out of the park. It was a great pitch, yet nobody really mentioned it.

Speaking of that, what do you think about Fox's announcing team of Thom Brenneman, Lou Piniella, and Steve Lyons?

Piniella is horrible, and his voice sounds like he's pinching his nostrils together when he talks. Brenneman doesn't know how to pronounce the Tigers' players names properly (he actually called Jason Grilli "Jason Greeley"). Lyons is alright. Overall, I'm not that impressed. Give me Mario Impemba and Rod Allen anytime.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Burning Questions: ALCS Game 1

ALCS Game 1
Burning Questions

So which was it: Nate Robertson pitched well, because he got out of jams, OR he struggled because he put lots of runners on base?

Yes to both. But I lean toward the glass is half full theory here. If a guy pitches himself into trouble, but then gets himself out, my hat's off. Striking out the side in the fourth after the A's put runners on second and third with nobody out might have been the key moment of the game. Robertson is bulldog, and even though the umpire kind of squeezed the strike zone on him, he was able to get guys out when he needed to. So, he pitched well, overall. He didn't allow any runs, after all.

Good to see Brandon Inge get going, huh?

Like I've said, each series is different. Yes, sometimes a cold guy can stay cold, and a hot guy can stay hot, but mostly the stats from one series to the next are much different for most hitters. But you could see the relief on Inge's face as he crossed home plate after his homerun. The Tigers have been using that method to jump start their offense a lot in the postseason: a homerun to start the festivities. Now if we can only get Craig Monroe some hits.

How much will the Tigers miss Sean Casey, who is out with a calf injury for Game 2, at least?

Well, Carlos Guillen will move to first, and while he's no Casey with the glove, he's serviceable. The question will be who plays shortstop. The Tigers are carrying three extra infielders: Neiffi Perez, Ramon Santiago, and Omar Infante. I'd like to see Infante, but Leyland seems to like Perez. We'll see. But as far as Casey goes, his bat was heating up in the playoffs, and he bats lefthanded. The matter of who bats third isn't as important, because the Tigers' lineup from 3 thru 9 is pretty interchangeable. It'll be a loss, but nothing major, if it's just for one or two games.

The A's continue to hit poorly with RISP in the postseason. That can't continue, can it?

Well, if it does, they're toast. But I assume you mean that you think they'll snap out of it sooner or later. I agree, but to what degree? (Hey, that rhymes!) Look, the Tigers' rotation isn't going to get any easier for the A's as this series goes on. If they don't deliver at least a couple of times soon, this is going to be over quickly. They were able to survive the Twins because of some longball and one big game where the bats boomed. But with RISP, they look like the Tigers did in late August/early September when they struggled mightily.

How deflating is it for the A's to lose Game 1 with Barry Zito starting it?

You can't hang your head this time of year. There's a ballgame tonight; put it behind you and go to battle. The A's didn't win 93 games just because they have Barry Zito. Put it this way: if the A's win tonight, and can even take one of three in Detroit, they'll still be alive and coming home, albeit down 3-2.

What's the best matchup for the Tigers in this series?

The double play ball. The Tigers turn a ton of them, and the A's hit into two tons of them. Four GIDP's last night. You'll win a lot doing that on defense, and lose a lot doing that offensively. There's no secret here: the team that does best with RISP -- offensively and defensively -- wins most games. It's kind of like the new NHL: special teams determine a lot of games. And RISP situations in ballgames are like power plays in hockey.

Sticking with Tigers in five, I presume?

Did you see anything happen last night that should change my mind?

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

ALCS Preview: Tigers/A's

ALCS Preview

The Tigers and the A's are set to get it on in the ALCS, their second such meeting. In 1972, as you'll have drilled into your head by the time this is through, the Tigers lost a heartbreaking 3-2 series to the A's, the last game decided by one run. In fact, all the games were very close, and two went into extra innings.

So, without further ado...

Catcher: There was a window, several years ago, when Jason Kendall was one of the top 20 players in baseball, for my money. He was a catcher who batted leadoff, and he was excellent defensively. Not much power, but always a good BA. Then some injuries and age caught up to him, and he had some down years. But he's back in 2006 with a .295 BA, and he's batting leadoff again. Pudge Rodriguez has no equal in MLB defensively, and he is clutch in big games. He started sowly in the ALDS, but delivered in Detroit. Edge: Tigers.

First Base: The fact that Nick Swisher (35 HR) is hitting seventh in tonight's lineup is testimony to the A's lineup, which flies under the radar. Sean Casey has been streaky since the Tigers acquired him, but when he's on, he's a great spray hitter and RBI man. Both are solid with the glove. This is a toughie, but I'll give the Edge to the A's.

Second Base: No contest. The A's will start late season acquisition D'Angelo Jimenez, who's batting .183 in 71 AB this year. Enough said, except this: Placido Polanco is poison to other teams when he’s healthy. He’s one of the top five #2 hitters in the game today. Edge: Tigers.

Third Base: A great duel here. Eric Chavez is very similar to Brandon Inge: good glove, a little pop, and athletic (no pun intended). Inge didn't hit in the ALDS, but new series tend to be salves for that kind of thing. And, it can turn around the other way, too; hot players in the previous series may not stay that way in the current series. I haven't lost faith in Inge, but I give the slight Edge to the A's.

Shortstop: The A's will go with 30 year-old Marco Scutaro, who, despite his age, has only been a semi-regular player for three seasons. He batted .266 in 365 AB, but has an OBA of .350. Carlos Guillen has earned the right to be mentioned in the same breath as Derek Jeter among the elite shortstops in baseball. The guy just goes out there and delivers, every night. Edge: Tigers.

Outfield: The A's outfield of Jay Payton, Mark Kotsay, and Milton Bradley (from left to right) is very capable and they cover a lot of ground, although Bradley is probably the weakest defender. All of them can hurt you with the bat. The Tigers got production out of Craig Monroe, Curtis Granderson, and Magglio Ordonez at various times in the ALDS, and all three seem to be playing well. Defensively, it's probably a push between the two clubs. This is a tough one, so I'll wimp out and call it Even.

Designated Hitter: What can you say about Frank Thomas? I thought he should have been named the Comeback Player of the Year instead of Jim Thome. He's back to being the Big Hurt this season, and he's the commodity the Tigers still don't have: that beast of a bat in the middle of the lineup. Marcus Thames is so very strong, but he doesn't deliver with the consistency of Thomas, nor does he possess that "scare factor" that Thomas has. Edge: A's.

Pitching: Remember not too long ago, when the A’s starting pitchers were looked at with envy by the rest of baseball? Now you have to give that nod to the Tigers. What they did to the Yankees was obscene. The key will be whether the A’s can get off to a 1-0 lead with Barry Zito pitching. If not, the Tigers will have the distinct advantage. The A’s bullpen is on par with the Tigers; in fact, in some respects it may even be better. Huston Street and Todd Jones are both dependable closers. But with Justin Verlander, Kenny Rogers, and Jeremy Bonderman throwing well, the Edge is definitely with the Tigers.

Bench: Unlike other team sports, benches don't factor as much in MLB in the playoffs. In fact, no Tigers bench player even played in the ALDS. Only one bench player played for the A's. But looking at it on that dreaded paper, I'll give the Edge to the Tigers, if only because Omar Infante can be a secret weapon, and if anything were to happen to Pudge, God forbid, Vance Wilson is the best backup catcher in the league.

Managers: Ken Macha is one of the better managers in the game, and many teams covet him. He almost left the A's a couple of years ago, but was talked into staying. But the way the Tigers are totally locked in behind Jim Leyland is crazy good. Leyland seems to be able to make the right decisions at the right time, and he's unconventional. He tends to make the other team's manager react more often than not. Edge: Tigers.

Overall: The A's dispatched the hot Twins in three straight, which is both an example of how the regular season doesn't matter so much, and how good the A's are. They are starting at home, which can be both a curse and a blessing. They'll have had three days off, but they didn't have to travel. The Tigers, at least against the Yankees, returned to their earlier formula for success: timely hitting, and pitching. Oh, how they hit with two outs and RISP! I picked against them in the ALDS, and it worked. But I have to say, I think they'll make it to the World Series. Tigers in five.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Burning Questions: ALDS Game 4

ALDS Game 4
Burning Questions

What happened to Yankees in four? What happened to the Yankees, period?

Pitching, pitching, and more pitching. The Tigers had more of it, as the more accurate experts correctly pointed out last week, and so they are moving on while the Yanks are going back to the Bronx.

The Yankees' impatience yesterday against Jeremy Bonderman might on first glance seem foolhearty, but Bonderman had thrown 29 of his first 35 pitches for strikes. Hard to be patient when the guy on the mound is begrudgingly throwing balls.

So what was the turning point of the series?

Probably Curtis Granderson's triple in Game 2 off Mike Mussina. That may seem like an obvious choice, because it broke a 3 to 3 tie and provided the Tigers with their eventual margin of victory. But sometimes you have to choose the obvious. It was the turning point because it came off an 0-2 pitch, and Grandy struck out 174 times during the regular season. Some probably thought he'd whiff here, too, but instead he whacked a triple that drove in the winning run in the seventh inning. The Tigers winning that game, I believe, gave them the confidence they needed to finish the Yankees off in Detroit.

Any final words about Alex Rodriguez?

Well, as I said yesterday, he became one of the least dangerous Yankees hitters because he's a mess upstairs. He showed class in his postgame interview, standing bravely in front of reporters, maintaining his desire to stay in New York. But he clearly was unfairly targeted as being the lone goat of this series, when the truth was that only two Yankees truly showed up: Derek Jeter and Jorge Posada. The rest of 'em were horse feathers.

Joe Torre almost broke down during his postgame presser. What's up, do you think?

This series loss, I believe, hurt him as much as any other, if not more so. A couple of reasons for that: his team was heavily favored; and the way in which his club was dominated, I think, is giving him pause about how much the Yankees have left with this current cast. Plus, we're talking six straight years of postseason disappointment here. This may have been the straw that broke George Steinbrenner's back. Stay tuned.

If Kenny Rogers' performance in Game 3 was the best you've seen in Detroit, then what about Bonderman in Game 4?

Just as brilliant. It's hard to put one above the other, because of the intangibles surrounding each, but I'd put either one of them at #1 and the other at #1A. Bonderman had only thrown 35 pitches in the fifth inning. That's stupid. He was perfect through five. For once, he didn't blow a big lead his ballclub gave him. The amount of times he had Yankees hitters flailing away at his hard slider were too numerous to count. Bravo.

Magglio Ordonez woke up, and Pudge Rodriguex had two more RBI. Good sign, right?

Oh, absolutely. The Tigers, unlike all their counterparts in the Central Division, lack that real beast bat in the middle of the lineup. So, they have to rely on timely hits and moving runners along, as opposed to waiting for the three-run homer. Ordonez' homerun yesterday set the tone, and Pudge's RBI single up the middle was prototypical. For all the hype about Granderson and Craig Monroe and Carlos Guillen, etc., the Tigers won't go much further if Ordonez and Rodriguez go into any long slumbers.

How about the Tigers carrying Jim Leyland off the field?

Beautiful. That's what sports and the human condition are all about. It took me by surprise, but I loved it.

And the Tigers coming back onto the field to share champagne with the fans?

Loved it, too. It may have been a little over the top, considering it was only the ALDS, but I think some of that was due to the team blowing the Central title last weekend, robbing the home fans of a celebration that they were sure was going to happen. It was like the players said, "Here's to make up for last weekend!"

Derek Jeter said the games are played on the field, not paper. Great example here, huh?

You bet. Hardly anyone picked the Tigers, except my friend Lee Panas at Detroit Tiger Tales, who picked the Tigers in five. His reason? Pitching, of course. But Jeter was right. He bristled when a reporter said, "Who could have picked you guys being outscored 14 to 3 here?" Basically, he said that's why they don't just look at a lineup and hand out trophies. And if any team knows about playoff disappointment lately, it's the Yankees.

So what about a quick look ahead to the ALCS and the A's?

Break out that old 1972 16mm film of the '72 Tigers/A's ALCS. How much you wanna bet some of that footage will be broken out by Fox sometime this week?

But seriously, this should be a fun series. Two relatively young, exciting teams with great pitching on both sides. And isn't it amazing what Frank Thomas did this season? I figured he was through when the White Sox severed their ties. Talk about "He who laughs last..."

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Burning Questions: ALDS Game 3

ALDS Game 3
Burning Questions

First things first: Where does Kenny Rogers' pitching performance rank among those you've seen in Detroit?

Right up there. Maybe #1. I once saw Jack Morris mow down the Royals with a one-hitter in which he faced the 27-batter minimum, but that was a regular season game between two teams who were going nowhere. When you factor in the Yankees lineup, the critical nature of the game, and the fact that Rogers' career record against the Yankees was less than stellar -- less than mediocre, really -- I can't think of any pitching display that tops Friday night's. He was absolutely amazing. He made an All-Star-laden lineup look silly.

What were your thoughts when Rogers walked off the field after being lifted in the eighth inning?

I had chills, and it wasn't because of the nippy weather. The ovation, topped off by Rogers doffing his cap and acknowledging the fans, was ... ooh! Haven't seen anything like that in Detroit in years.

Why bring in Joel Zumaya with a six-run lead?

It was only for one out -- Alex Rodriguez. He'll still be available for Game 4, if needed. I think manager Jim Leyland wanted to make a statement. He felt that Zumaya could get the struggling A-Rod out, and that it would serve as an exclamation point to Rogers' performance. Sure enough, Zoom Zoom only needed two pitches to retire Rodriguez on a lazy fly to shallow right center.

Speaking of A-Rod, is his earlier slump back?

Not his earlier slump. His postseason slump. Rodriguez has become the whipping boy in New York for the Yankees' recent playoff flops, and it's in his head now. He's one of the least dangerous Yankees hitters, right now, because of it.

The Yankees have now gone 15 straight innings without scoring. They were an astounding 0-for-18 with runners on base last night. What's up?

The old "good pitching beats good hitting" theory. And that doesn't mean that good hitters can never beat good pitchers. It just means that when the good pitchers are on top of their game, as Rogers obviously was last night, they'll usually beat good hitters. The Tigers' bullpen has been rock solid, too. It all adds up to a 2-1 series lead.

How about Curtis Granderson?

He's coming of age, and it's wonderful to see. I was glad to see him dropped to ninth in the order, by the way. Less pressure, although with Brandon Inge batting eighth, now you have two guys in a row who strikeout a lot. But then again, Inge batted ninth a lot when Grandy led off, so I guess it's the same thing. But Granderson is the series MVP thus far, easily.

Gary Sheffield didn't play against the lefty Rogers. Why?

Apparently because of Sheff's lack of success against Rogers, which is ironic because Rogers hadn't had any success against the Yankees until last night. But still, I was a little surprised to see Sheffield on the bench. It's tough to keep a bat like that out of the lineup, I say.

You were right: Pudge Rodriguez got a key run-scoring double last night.

Yes, I said that Pudge would do something positive in this series, sooner or later. But give credit to Leyland. The Tigers looked dead in that inning after Magglio Ordonez hit into a double play, but Carlos Guillen got a single, and Leyland called for a hit-and-run with two outs. Rodriguez, who came into the game 0-for-8, pulled a double down the left field line, scoring Guillen. Beautiful.

So is this series over? The Yankees looked beaten in the dugout.

Absolutely not. Those 15 shutout innings aren't going to last forever. They can score runs in bunches. And Jeremy Bonderman, Game 4's starter, has been known to surrender runs in bunches. To count the Yankees out and prepare their eulogy would be very unwise. On paper, the Bonderman/Jaret Wright pitching matchup would seem to benefit the Tigers, but look at Rogers vs. Yankees prior to last night. The lesson: anything can happen in playoff baseball. And usually does.

If the Tigers lose Game 4, then, are they dead?

Again, no. I wouldn't bet on them to win a Game 5 in New York, but that's just why they might. But I think the Tigers would be best served by letting it all hang out today. They do NOT want to go to New York for Game 5.

Where are the quotes after Game 3 that you promised?

My tape recorder ran out of battery power. No joke. But nothing I would have gathered could have possibly illuminated last night's game anymore than what occurred on the field. Game 3 will live forever in many fan's minds. Such an electric, incredible atmosphere in CoPa. Let's do it again this afternoon, shall we?

Friday, October 06, 2006

Burning Questions: ALDS Game 2

Burning Questions
ALDS Game 2

How big of a win was this, truthfully?

Can you say (or spell) gargantuan? Michael Rosenberg in today's Freep had it right: if the Tigers had lost and gone down 0-2, tonight's game wouldn't have felt like a playoff game. It would have had, in his words, the feel of a Fan Appreciation Day. Now the Tigers are guaranteed two home games in the playoffs, so it definitely "feels" like they're in the playoffs for real.

I thought you said the Tigers were overmatched and that this would be over in four games, at best?

Well, it can still be over in four, can't it?

The Tigers deserve a lot of credit, no doubt, but they are still the inferior team in this series. Last night's win was exactly like most of their 95 during the regular season: get about six innings from your starter, then turn things over to the bullpen, who quiets the opposition. Just like they draw it up on the blackboard, as they say. Now, whether the Tigers can do that twice more, or even once more, is very much up in the air.

So you're sticking with Yankees in four?

Sure, until the Tigers win a second game. Then Yankees in five. Sorry.

Did Curtis Granderson come of age yesterday when he slapped a triple in the seventh inning?

I think it's quite probably the biggest hit of his young career. It came on an 0-2 pitch off Mike Mussina, in a key situation. How many folks truly thought Grandy would put the ball in play, let alone swat a triple into the gap? That was a big time hit, and can only help him. I still don't think he's a leadoff hitter, but that's another can of worms.

How about "Zoom Zoom" Joel Zumaya?

It just goes to show you that even All- Stars and future Hall of Famers can be made to look silly in short spurts. Zumaya was absolutely dominant. He stared the fierce Yankees lineup in the face and brought the cheese and said, "Hit it, boys." They barely could. For those who wonder if the Tigers should ever make him a starter, shush. He's perfect where he is; I wouldn't even make him a closer. The outs Zumaya gets are often far more pressure-packed and important than the ones Todd Jones gets.

Where's Pudge Rodriguez? Is it time to put his face on a milk carton?

Naah. It's only two games and eight hitless at-bats. Although, if it was the "other" Rodriguez on the Yankees, he'd be hanged in effigy right about now. Pudge will be fine, and even though I still think the Yankees will win the series, I expect the Tigers catcher to get a big hit or two before this is done. He's too good a player not to.

OK, so what about tonight's Game 3 pitching matchup?

Classic. Two over-40 lefties, but with two completely different styles. Randy Johnson and Kenny Rogers could make this a real treat. It's like a slugger going up against a boxer. Should be fun.

Are you going to the game tonight?

Yep, and on Motor City Sports Magazine's dime. But I'll work, too. I'll have some quotes for you tomorrow from the lockerroom.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Burning Questions: ALDS Game 1

Tigers/Yankees ALDS
Game 1's Burning Questions

Did Jim Leyland over-manage in the second inning when he called for a hit and run with runners on first and second and nobody out and Pudge Rodriguez at bat?

Yes, yes, and yes. I agree with Big Al, who rightly points out that that situation didn't have "hit and run" written on it. I know Leyland likes to go against the grain, but you have to play to your strengths, as Big Al argues. Pudge is a hacker, and with a sinker ball pitcher on the mound, that can be a lethal combination -- for the pitcher. The Tigers had the makings of a big inning, and the failed move made things a lot easier for Yankees pitcher Wang.

What were the key moments, in your mind, aside from the failed hit and run?

I thought the Tigers were sitting pretty again in the third inning, when they had runners on the corners with one out and Placido Polanco at the plate. Polanco, normally very reliable in those situations, was sure to get at least a sacrifice fly, I thought. Or with a sinker baller, at least a grounder to the right side of the infield to drive in a run. But Polanco, shockingly, pulled a ground ball to Derek Jeter, who made a terrific throw to start an inning-ending, backbreaking double play.

The other key came, I believe, when Tigers pitcher Nate Robertson couldn't cleanly field Johnny Damon's swinging bunt to lead off the Yankees' third. That changed the complexion of the inning, as far as I'm concerned. There's a big difference between one out and nobody on, and having the leadoff man on base -- especially when that runner was totally preventable. It's like walking him, but only worse. The muff gave the Yankees, essentially, four outs, and that is another lethal thing.

Did the Tigers look scared or intimidated?

No, I don't think so. Curtis Granderson led off the game hacking, and the defense was reasonably sharp, save for Robertson's blunder. They rebounded well from the 5-0 hole, and produced some two-out hits in the fifth to make the score 5-3. The five-run Yankee third happens to everyone, because their lineup is ridiculously potent. I give the Tigers high marks for not packing it in or playing tentatively.

What did you think of Derek Jeter?

The guy is insane in the postseason. He doesn't get mentioned as much as Reggie Jackson when it comes to October histrionics, but Jeter is one of the all time greatest postseason players, period. He makes it look so easy out there -- with the bat and the glove -- that it's stupid.

Are the Tigers showing after effects of their season-ending slump?

Yes. They haven't played good baseball on a consistent basis since early August. That's two months ago, folks. This is an 85-win team that sold its soul to the devil from April 3 to August 7. Now even their starting pitching is beginning to abandon them, which is the final death knell. This will probably end in a Yankees sweep.

Is Game 2 the Tigers' best chance to win?

I'd say yes. Justin Verlander is rested, he feels strong, and maybe the Yankees will have a bit of a hangover, suffering from over confidence. I don't think it will happen, but if the Tigers have a decent chance of winning a game in this series, it's tonight.

Tell me some good news. What encouraged you?

Granderson's homerun off lefty Mike Myers was nice to see. So was Craig Monroe's homerun off Wang. Monroe was 19-for-105 (.181) to finish the season, so if he can get it going, the Tigers might have a shot. The other encouraging thing was the amount of hits the Tigers got off Wang, a 19-game winner. At least they didn't go down quietly.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

It's Here!! My Tigers/Yankees ALDS Preview

Well, it's here.

The Tigers' first postseason game since October 12, 1987 -- a mere 18 years, 11 months, and 356 days ago -- will be played tonight in the Bronx. It's the first time the Tigers and the Yankees have met in any game played beyond the regular season. It's a best-of-five affair, and the last time the Tigers were involved in one of those, they swept the Royals in the 1984 ALCS. But guess who got some redemption last weekend?

So, without further ado, here's my breakdown of this ALDS:

CATCHER: There are few players today, let alone catchers, who come through in big time games and situations like Pudge Rodriguez. He's almost impossible to steal bases against, and his relatively pedestrian power and RBI numbers aren't indicative of his success rate in the late innings. The Yankees' Jorge Posada isn't as strong defensively, but the Tigers aren't much of a running team. Posada's 93 RBI in the #8 spot in the lineup is yet another indication of the Yankees' prowess. Edge: Tigers.

FIRST BASE: An interesting matchup, because neither Sean Casey or Gary Sheffield were playing first base for their respective clubs when the season began. In fact, neither was their team's first baseman until July 31. That's when the Tigers traded for Casey. Sheffield is moving to first base after coming back from an injury. Casey was an RBI machine in his first couple weeks as a Tiger, then cooled off dramatically. Sheffield is still one of the game's best power hitters. Obviously, Casey holds the edge defensively, but overall I say Edge: Yankees.

SECOND BASE: I don't think anyone anticipated how much the Tigers would miss Placido Polanco when he went down with a shoulder injury in late August, except maybe for manager Jim Leyland. His bat handling skills and defense were huge holes that the team was never able to fill adequately. His being difficult to strikeout will come in handy against the Yankees' power pitchers. Robinson Cano challenged for the AL batting crown, and he hits #9. I give the Edge: Tigers only because of how much Polanco obviously means to his team, versus Cano.

THIRD BASE: A year ago, a Brandon Inge/Alex Rodriguez comparison would have been ridiculously tilted in A-Rod's favor. But Inge has willed himself into being one of the ten best third basemen in baseball, as far as I'm concerned. He'll still make the occasional wild throw, but his range and athleticism are immense at the hot corner. He clubbed 27 homeruns. But Rodriguez, despite an awful late summer slump, is still A-Rod. Edge: Yankees.

SHORTSTOP: Oh, the talent here. Carlos Guillen, pound-for-pound, might be the Tigers' MVP this season. He was incredibly consistent, and despite some hiccups defensively, he delivered time and again for the Tigers both on offense and defense. He's one of the Tigers who can deliver a homerun when needed. Derek Jeter had another great year, batting .343. There's no telling where the Yankees would be without him. At the risk of copping out, I call this matchup EVEN.

OUTFIELD: Defensively, the Tigers' trio of Craig Monroe, Curtis Granderson, and Magglio Ordonez are average. None of them has a rocket arm, and Ordonez's range seems to be not much more than Al Kaline's -- and #6 is 71 years old. Monroe had that game against Texas where he threw out three runners, but none of the Tigers outfielders strike fear in you. Granderson's range is decent. The Yankees' Hideki Matsui, Johnny Damon, and Bobby Abreu aren't much better, frankly. Damon's arm is a limp noodle. Abreu can throw a little bit. Offensively, the Yankees' outfield is stronger overall. Edge: Yankees.

DESIGNATED HITTER: In Game 1, at least, it'll be Marcus Thames vs. Jason Giambi. Thames has incredible power; he's the strongest man I've seen in Detroit since Cecil Fielder. But his RBI total (60) was unimpressive for someone who hit 26 HR. Strikes out too much, as do almost all of his teammates. Giambi cracked 37 HR and is still menacing at the plate. He's turned into a fine leader, too. Edge: Yankees.

STARTING PITCHING: The Tigers led the majors in team ERA virtually all season, and you don't do that as a fluke. It all starts with, fittingly, the starters. Game 1 starter Nate Robertson's 13-13 record is a joke; he pitched far better than that. Kenny Rogers silenced his critics who said he would fade in the second half. Justin Verlander and Jeremy Bonderman can alternately look dominating and enigmatic -- sometimes within the same inning. Chien-Ming Wang always gives the Tigers fits, and although Mike Mussina might not be the Mussina of old, he's still pretty damn good. Randy Johnson has lost something, but the October stage might fire him up. Jaret Wright is average. Edge: Tigers.

BULLPEN: Joel Zumaya gives Leyland an incredible postseason weapon: someone who can get you a strikeout, or two, when you badly need it. Fernando Rodney was inconsistent, especially with his control, but he still has a nasty changeup. LH Jamie Walker can be an "X" factor against the Yankees' impressive lefty bats. Closer Todd Jones isn't prototypical because he's not a strikeout guy, but he gets the job done by keeping the ball down. Old Tigers Kyle Farnsworth (RH) and Mike Myers (LH) are keys to the Yankees' pen as setup men, but the crown jewel is Mariano Rivera, one of the best closers in baseball history. I'm calling this EVEN, because Rivera's edge over Jones is neutralized by the Tigers' edge with setup men.

BENCH: Unfortunately, the Tigers' one strength here, catcher Vance Wilson, is neutralized because, how much will he play in the postseason? Infielder Omar Infante is a fine backup, and he's got a bit of a stick. The Tigers are carrying three extra infielders in this series, and just one outfielder, Alexis Gomez (although Thames can play outfield, of course). Yankees veteran Bernie Williams is reduced to a backup, but he still can play. Miguel Cairo and Andy Phillips are the extra infielders, and Phillips could start on other teams. A possible "X" factor is outfielder Melky Cabrera, who had 50 RBI. Sal Fasano (.143) is the backup catcher. EDGE: Yankees.

MANAGERS: A VERY interesting matchup. Jim Leyland has won a World Series, and appeared in several NLCS with the Pirates. He's old school and his October experience should do wonders for his mostly postseason-lacking roster. Joe Torre is the best manager in baseball, mainly because he's the best man on the planet to manage in New York. The Yankees, though, haven't won the whole enchilada since 2000, which is a drought in the Bronx. I hate to do it, but I give a slight EDGE to the Yankees.

OVERALL: On first glance, this appears to be a rout in the making, if only because of the Yankees' lineup and playoff experience, combined with the awful way the Tigers finished the season. But if the Tigers' pitching can perform like it did for most of the season, that gives them a shot in any game. Whomever hits better with RISP and two outs will win. The Tigers didn't do much of that in the last 50 games, when they went 19-31. Yankees in four games.

Monday, October 02, 2006


Tigers Season In A Nutshell: 112 Games of Greatness Followed By 50 Games of Mediocrity

(my weekly take on the Tigers)

Last Week: 1-5
This Week: (10/3,4: at NYY; 10/6: NYY; 10/7: NYY if nec; 10/8: at NYY if nec)

Here's what I don't care to hear this morning: "Oh, the Tigers had a great season, and they did better than anyone expected, and we should all be happy, blah, blah, blah..."

Shut up.

The Tigers choked. They gagged ingloriously. They had a 10 game divisional lead on August 7, and a 3-to-5 game lead for most of September, and all they had to do was win two games this week, at home, to clinch the division and score home field advantage in the ALDS.

Like I've said repeatedly, the Tigers apologists would be correct to be warm and fuzzy if the team's collapse had happened in May or June. But when you are 76-36 and have a 10 game lead, then you're supposed to win the thing. Not blow it and finish as the Wild Card. This is because you never know when you're going to have the chance to win it again. Nothing's guaranteed in sports, no matter how much young pitching talent you seem to have.

The Tigers were marvelous for those first 112 games, and just 19-31 the rest of the way. They struggled mightily to drive in runners from third base, played suspect defense, and their ability to win games in the late innings vanished. It was as if their pact with the devil expired, abruptly, on August 8.

It will take Jim Leyland's best clubhouse job to get his team ready to take on the vaunted Yankees after this terribly disappointing finish. He must burrow his way into his players' heads, convincing them that they can win the ALDS. If I was him, I'd play the underdog card to the max, because riffraff like me aren't giving them a chance in the Yankees series.

Speaking of the ALDS, come back tomorrow for my Tigers/Yankees preview. Bet you can't wait.