Outfielder Andy Dirks, as evidenced by the dirt on the front of his uniform, brings a grittiness that's not always reflected in statistics. (Robin Buckson/Detroit News)
The turning point for the Tigers' 2012 campaign may not have come until the 155th game of the year.
That fact in itself seems improbable; how could a team that eventually played in the World Series go so deep into the year without a true turning point in the year?
But that's just the way it went for the Tigers: frustrating, slow and grudging until the end.
On Sept. 26, the Tigers moved into sole possession of first place for the first time in more than two months, and they never gave up the lead again.
You can, without a doubt, point to a specific moment in that game as key.
With the score tied at 4 and the Tigers batting in the eighth inning, runners were on the corners and there was one out for Jhonny Peralta at the plate.
He grounded to third, apparently for another in a long line of double plays and another "threatened but did not score" moment.
That's when Andy Dirks slid hard into second, sending Royals second baseman Irving Falu tumbling to the ground, ball still in hand.
Don Kelly scored, the Tigers took a lead they would not relinquish, and they closed the season winning six of their final eight games.
It was the kind of "scrappy" play that announcers love to talk about.
Play of the year
Dirks' teammates recognized the moment immediately, and Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder were two of the first to greet him on the dugout steps.
For all the talk about stats — traditional, saber , whatever — and the historic seasons of his teammates, Dirks' baseball play at second should properly be remembered as the play of the year for the club.
But when it's time to think about the 2013 season, that play must be scrubbed from memory. Whether Dirks is an outfield starter, a platoon partner or a player who only occasionally comes off the bench can only be decided by a wider image that includes a career's worth of stats.
In his rookie season, he hit just .251, had a below-average on-base percentage of .296 and slugged a dismal .406. His defense was adequate but unremarkable. There was a place for him on the team following that year, but he'd have to keep earning it day after day to keep it.
Dirks' 2012 season — at least the 88 games he played in — has to be seen as a successful one. Batting .322 with .370 OBP and .487 slugging is a pretty phenomenal year for a player many thought of as a fourth or fifth outfielder at the start of the season.
More spending unnecessary
The Tigers' front office and scouting staff must now decide if Dirks is more likely to continue that 2012 success or revert to a form closer to his rookie year.
Dirks' splits are little help here. In 2011 he had a reverse split, hitting left-handed pitching better as a left-handed batter. The following season, things straightened out, and he batted much better against right-handed pitching.
That's probably why there's been a lot of speculation about finding a platoon partner.
It seems unnecessary to make a big deal of that, however.
Dirks had shown an upward trajectory in his later minor league years. He hit for average at higher levels, he found a way to get on base, and he had some extra-base power even if the ball wasn't always leaving the park.
While his stats will almost certainly fall back from 2012 levels, he ought to be able to play well enough to take the field most days.
If not, Avisail Garcia should soon be waiting in the wings to take over.
And if he doesn't work out either, that's what the trade deadline is for, right?
The Tigers have put a lot of money into 2013's roster already. Thanks to the play of Dirks, they really don't need to pour any more into the outfield.
Kurt Mensching is the editor of Bless You Boys, a Tigers blog (blessyouboys.com). He can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.