Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Indians, Yanks Deserve Their Playoff Stripes

All hail the Cleveland Indians -- your 2007 AL Central champs. They deserve it -- every bit of it. They played like champions do, beginning in early August, when they came to Detroit, saw, and conquered the Tigers, 2-out-of-3. They turned it on when you most need to, while the Tigers sputtered, gasped, wheezed, and took forever to get their motor restarted. When they finally did, winning 10 of 12 recently, it was far too late.

The Indians are going to the playoffs with the same recipe as most playoff-bound teams use: comeback wins, a solid staff ace, and a decent bullpen. They also did it despite an off year from Travis Haffner, who some had penciled in as an MVP candidate back in April. They did it despite a wretched stretch of baseball in the first few weeks following the All-Star break, when it seemed neither they nor the Tigers wanted to win the division. They took the division from the Tigers, make no mistake. It wasn't handed to them. The Tigers may have did some extreme disservice to their cause with some bad July and August baseball, but the Indians took advantage of that and created separation from themselves and Detroit -- like a good NFL wide receiver does.

Congratulations, too, to the New York Yankees, your AL Wild Card representative. Nothing was handed to them, either. In fact, they just might win the East Division before all is said and done -- 1978 Redux. But the Red Sox will still make the playoffs, anyway -- thanks to the Wild Card, which has now taken all the starch out of this Yankee charge. How dramatic can it be, when the Red Sox will qualify for the October tournament whether they win the division or not? My case in point against the Wild Card -- Exhibit A, in fact.

The Yankees and the Indians are going to the playoffs and the Tigers are not, mainly because the Tigers had too much to overcome: injuries; an inconsistent bullpen; a vanishing act by Jeremy Bonderman; a complete lack of timely hitting in August. You know it's not your year when Gary Sheffield -- who rarely plays the field -- hurts himself badly, diving for a ball because he was playing the field. It's not your year when Kenny Rogers goes down for 80% of it. Not your year when Joel Zumaya misses May thru August. Not your year when last-at bat victories are as rare as moments of dead air during The View.

But mainly, the Tigers will be watching October baseball on Fox because they don't deserve to be playing it. Simple as that. They played their worst baseball of the year when their playoff competition was playing its best -- and that's pretty much the long and short of it. They let too many big leads get away. They had an apparent allergy to winning games in the late innings. Their starting pitchers played a frustrating game of "Guess which of us will show up today?" They didn't get anywhere near the production from the lower third of the batting order as they did in 2006 (Brandon Inge and Craig Monroe -- pre-banishment to the Cubs -- were quiet; Sean Casey lost his so-so power). Meanwhile, the Yankees went into turbo mode after the break, and the Indians found their mojo just in time, and refused to let go.

If this was the NHL, the Tigers would be in, as a fifth seed. They'd open up the first round at fourth-seeded New York. But this is baseball, where, despite the Wild Card, you still have to squarely earn your playoff stripes -- not merely survive the regular season to get in, as in hockey.

High marks to the Indians and the Yankees. They got it done when it mattered most. But there was one good thing: this is the first time the Tigers have had back-to-back winning seasons since 1987-88 -- nearly 20 years ago. So they were no one-year wonder. But they do have one year to wonder.


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