Tigers manager Jim Leyland, right, sat Placido Polanco, center, for multiple games to rest him down the stretch in September 2009, a move some questioned. (Robin Buckson / Detroit News)
Detroit — When the Tigers wake up in their posh Kansas City suites Friday morning, they will find their American League Central lead right smack dab where it is today: 6.5 games in the clear of those pesky Cleveland Indians.
Just so happens that curiosity, as it usually does, got the best of me.
What was the Tigers’ lead the morning of Sept. 6, 2009?
Turns out, it was only slightly smaller, six games ahead of the Minnesota Twins, the baseball team that, until recently, held the copyright of the term “pesky.” So I posted that little nugget out on the Twitterverse for all Tigers fans to chew on late Wednesday night.”
No surprise, nobody’s forgotten how that story ended in 2009. The Tigers, certainly postseason bound after an impressive Labor Day weekend sweep — on the road! — of the Tampa Bay Rays, stalled down the stretch, and the Twins played out of their freaking minds, and in a doozy of a Game 163 (and in a dump of a ballpark), Detroit’s season came to a crushing end. (For the record, precisely three games before Minnesota’s.)
The Twins were AL Central champs, credited with one of the game’s great comebacks — while the Tigers were labeled one of the sport’s epic chokers.
Only half that was actually true, of course. The Tigers were 17-15 in Games 131 to 162, and 8-6 in the 14 games prior to the 12-inning thriller that was Game 163 at the Metrodome. Not exactly a flu-stricken Michael Jordan, but they weren’t Scott Hoch at the 1989 Masters, either.
Sure, there were questionable decisions by Jim Leyland down the stretch — the resting of Placido Polanco during multiple September games, and the starting of Alfredo Figaro in the potential playoff clincher are two that immediately come to mind.
Miguel Cabrera’s woes off the field and on certainly deserve blame, too. During the final home series, Cabrera was 0-for-12 — and had to be picked up by GM Dave Dombrowski at the police station after a late night on the town with his White Sox pals.
But much of the credit must go to those Twins, who won 16 of their last 20, including their last four games just to make it to a Game 163.
Question today: Do the Indians have it in them to pull off a similar stunt?
Answer today: A resounding no.
This isn’t to bag on the Indians, mind you. What they’ve been able to do this season under first-year manager Terry Francona is nothing shy of remarkable, given a truly mediocre-at-best starting rotation. They’ve gotten big contributions from guys like Ryan Raburn, and Jason Giambi, and Scott Kazmir; and they’ve gotten down years from the likes of Nick Swisher, and Asdrubal Cabrera, and Michael Bourn. Their closer, Chris Perez, was found guilty of pot possession, and that wasn’t even his most offensive performance of the year (see Aug. 5, against the Tigers).
Now, their ace, Justin Masterson’s hurting, and there’s no telling when he’ll be back.
Yet, here the Indians are, still within shouting distance of the Tigers.
Take a bow, Cleveland. This golf clap’s for you.
But it won’t be enough, certainly not in the AL Central — and probably not for one of the wild cards, either, unless the Red Sox help you big-time the next 17 days by pounding the snot of a slew of other wild-card hopefuls, the Yankees, Rays and Orioles. (Now, wouldn’t that be rich, the Red Sox helping to push Francona back into the playoffs?)
The AL Central, most definitely, belongs to the Tigers, 2009 comparisons be damned.
In fact, the closer you look, the comparisons aren’t all that comparable, after all.
For starters, Detroit has just 22 games left — compared to 27 at this point in 2009. Big difference. The Indians also get no more head-to-head cracks at the Tigers, which is bad news for them — even if it probably doesn’t appear that way, given the Tigers’ resounding 15-4 triumph in the season series. In 2009, the Twins had seven more games left with the Tigers, not including Game 163. They took slight advantage, winning four of them.
Both the Tigers and Indians have cupcake schedules remaining, the only above-.500 foe for both being the Royals (six games each, half home and away). So no advantage there. That said, if for some strange reason it does come down to the final series, the Tigers get the hapless Marlins — and won’t have to face phenom rookie pitcher Jose Fernandez, who will be shut down for the season before then. Fernandez allowed six hits in his 15 innings against the Indians and Royals, twice cooling off a red-hot team on the Tigers’ heels.
Then again, let’s be serious: This isn’t coming down to the Marlins, or the shelving of my pick for National League rookie of the year.
Mostly, this comes down to the eye test. And it doesn’t take 20/20 vision to see these Indians simply don’t have the will or the skill of the 2009 Twins — and these Tigers are far more talented than their 2009 counterparts, who in the final week of the regular season started pitchers named Figaro, and Bonine (Eddie) and Robertson (Nate).
Yikes. Looking back, maybe we should’ve all seen that “collapse” coming.
No need to cover yours eyes this time. No way that’s happening again.
Maybe Jhonny Peralta’s not the only one allergic to clam chowder. Or maybe the Tigers are just claustrophobic. Whatever the reason, the Tigers have been absolutely brutal in Boston and cramped Fenway Park since Leyland took over as skipper in 2006.
Adding Wednesday night’s 20-4 embarrassment to the woodpile — a real gem of a game in which the Tigers coughed up a franchise-record eight home runs, which totaled some 3,168 feet, or roughly the distance from Old Shillelagh to The Town Pump — the Tigers dropped to 9-20 in the shadows of Back Bay on Leyland’s watch.
In those 29 games, they’ve been outscored, 148-103.
The only year Leyland’s Tigers escaped Beantown with a series victory was 2006, when they won two during a three-game set. Since, they’ve lost three of four, two of three, three of four, two of three, two of two, five of seven and, this year, two of three.
It hasn’t been all disastrous efforts by the Tigers, mind you. There’ve been more good games than you’d be led to believe. In fact, this series actually was a very good one through the first two games, with dueling pitching duels — each team taking one.
But that overall record, it’s glaring — and it’s relevant, given that the Tigers and Red Sox probably are the two elite teams in the AL (they’re 1-2 in run differential, a telling stat), thus are the popular picks to face off in the playoffs for the first time, in the AL Championship Series. And, now, they are locked in a battle for home-field advantage.
With Wednesday’s win, the Red Sox took a 2.5-game lead on the Tigers, and are three games up on the AL West co-leaders, the A’s and Rangers.
The Tigers are in a pickle here. They won’t say it, but they’re pretty certain they’re going to the postseason for a third consecutive year, for just the second time in franchise history. They’re even more certain that to have success in the playoffs, and to bring the city its first World Series championship in 29 years, they need their heart and soul, Cabrera, in one piece in October. So they’re being very cautious with how much he plays while he battles his latest nagging injury, in the groin (which followed the abdomen, which followed the hip, which followed the back).
Rightly so, their playoff aspirations trump another Triple Crown bid. Cabrera sat again Wednesday night, for the fourth time in five games.
Meanwhile, the Red Sox improved to 47-25 at home, best in the league, and second-best in the majors, behind only the Braves’ absurd 51-20 mark.
So, there’s no question, the Tigers would much prefer to start and potentially finish an ALCS against the Red Sox at Comerica Park. And not just because of gate receipts.
But what the Tigers face is a Catch-22: Either play Cabrera down the stretch and secure home-field advantage, but likely have a hurting Cabrera for the playoffs; or sit Cabrera the bulk of September and concede home-field advantage, which, if you believe the recent history, a healthy Cabrera might not be able to help you overcome, any way.
Which road best leads the Tigers down the path to glory? That’s impossible to say for certain. But forced to choose, I’d argue the Tigers have no shot with no Cabrera.
For what it’s worth, the Tigers are 14-13 against the Red Sox at Comerica Park since the start of the 2006 season. The Tigers actually been outscored at home too, 141-129.
But at least they’ve put up a fight. The same can’t be said for what’s gone on at Fenway.
Over a beer or three Friday night on a hotel patio just North of Grand Rapids, I had a nice time listening to former Tigers pitcher Walt Terrell talk about his time in Detroit.
“What’s the hardest you ever threw?” I wanted to know.
“Eh, 87,” Terrell said, completely unimpressed with himself. “Maybe 88.”
And to think, he played 11 seasons in the major leagues — and wasn’t even left-handed!
Terrell, still sporting the mustache, was your average, around-.500 big-league pitcher from 1982-92, except when it came to Tiger Stadium, where he was a ridiculous 52-24. That’s why many more Tigers fans remember him than he'll ever believe.
Terrell, 55, who lives in Kentucky these days, and his wife Karen had a blast catching up with some old Michigan friends last week, including a couple state-trooper pals, their favorite Casey’s bartender, and a good friend from their time living in Grosse Pointe.
They were back in the state as part of a neat promotion by the West Michigan Whitecaps, the Tigers’ Single A affiliate that every Friday home game brings in a former Tiger to sign autographs, pose for pictures, and mingle with the fans.
It’s proven to be a big hit at Fifth Third Ballpark. Terrell closed out this year’s schedule, which included the likes of Charlie “Paw Paw” Maxwell, Lou Whitaker, Darrell Evans, Bill Gullickson, Don Wert and Enos Cabell. Last year, the Whitecaps welcomed Willie Horton, ElRoy Face, Jon Warden, Howard Johnson, Lance Parrish and Bill Madlock. Some big names, some not so. Doesn’t really matter; diehard Tigers fans have fond memories of so many, from the Pat Sheridans to the Alan Trammells.
The Tigers actually could learn a thing or two from the Whitecaps, and welcome back more faces from yesteryear on a more consistent basis. Sure, they have the pertinent 1968 and 1984 reunions; Juan Burenguer this year was invited to participate in Fiesta Tigres; Mickey Lolich recently handed Anibal Sanchez a game ball, the franchise’s former single-game strikeout king paying tribute to the new record-holder.
Tigers greats usually get to throw out ceremonial first pitches in the postseason. Then there’s always Fantasy Camp, for Tigers fans with 4,000 bucks to spare.
But the Tigers can do better than they do, and start opening their arms — and maybe even the occasional suite — to more former players. (You’d be surprised how many former Tigers have never been invited to Comerica Park, or one fewer time than SpongeBob SquarePants). And an Old-Timers Game would be the absolute best. They actually used to have one. I remember being in the bleachers at Tiger Stadium one day when Jim Northrup, then more gray than ever and a snarky analyst on PASS, almost hit a home run.
Like Northrup that day, the Whitecaps, too, like to swing for the fences — with their own blasts from the past.
Your move, Tigers.