The playoffs are coming, and the Tigers are hoping.
They need a few things to click if they hope to survive a couple of rounds against two grizzly-bear-nasty opponents in either the Red Sox or A’s, either of whom figure to be the opponents when the division series begins Oct. 4.
What has to go right? What can go wrong? And will the Tigers have enough health, depth, and overall talent to play in their third World Series in seven years and, if the dream hasn’t died, win their first world championship in 29 years?
A look at five areas that must go right for the Tigers to prevail.
Miguel Cabrera cannot determine the playoff fate of the Tigers
It’s an enormously diminished Cabrera who lopes from home plate to first base, and sometimes beyond, as he deals with a groin injury that appears to have worsened in the regular season’s waning weeks.
The Tigers and Cabrera are caught. He does not have sufficient time to heal. And doctors say he can play despite his groin strain to the extent he can handle the pain.
It is noble, even heroic, for Cabrera to bite the bullet and play with deep, unrelenting discomfort. But unless he heals quickly the Tigers will have forfeited much of his power and his always-limited running mobility as he fights through a nasty malady.
The Tigers will look to the 1988 Dodgers for inspiration. Kirk Gibson, that season’s MVP, fought a bad hamstring and knee all the way through the early rounds. He hit his for-the-ages home run that won Game 1 of the World Series and never took another at-bat because of the disabling pain. The Dodgers still won the title. History doesn’t always repeat itself. But in this instance the Tigers can take heart from 1988’s events.
The bullpen cannot give away leads
Fans complain about manager Jim Leyland’s pitching moves. The truth is, Leyland has never done a better job — in Detroit or at any previous stop — in nursing a relief corps that began the season with no closer and has had ongoing problems in the bullpen’s back end.
Joaquin Benoit has been the ninth-inning answer. But the degree to which the 36-year-old has been watched, and paced, by Leyland isn’t sufficiently appreciated.
Elsewhere, assigning Tigers relievers has been a season-long dice-roll now complicated by Bruce Rondon’s ominously sore right elbow. The Tigers desperately needed Rondon and his strikeout arsenal but appear to be in jeopardy of losing him for the year.
Al Alburquerque has been in and out and of late has been in. Phil Coke is gone with a bad elbow. Jose Veras has given up too many hits and walks. The one steadily reliable reliever has been Drew Smyly. He should get some invaluable help from Rick Porcello, who is almost certain to move from the rotation to the bullpen.
Those are meager reinforcements nonetheless for a starting rotation that needs to pitch as deeply into playoff games as their arms and skills will allow.
Opposing runners can’t turn the baseball diamond into Olympic track trials
The Tigers starters have at least improved of late in holding runners, which speaks to the power of suggestion — or raised voices — from Leyland and his staff. The new and improved focus on holding runners was essential given that most of the base thieves who have pilfered the Tigers in 2013 have been stealing, fundamentally, on pitchers who have either allowed leads to be extended or who have taken precious extra split-seconds in delivering the ball.
Alex Avila has enough arm to throw out runners — if the starters are doing their police work. The Tigers have to take it an extra half-notch in the playoffs. Teams will run. And every scoring-position advantage for an opposing runner risks bringing on an early off-season for Detroit
No slumps allowed during October
In their vintage weeks and months — before his tender groin turned Cabrera into half the hitter he is — the Tigers could get away with a low-voltage bat at even a couple of spots in Leyland’s lineup.
No more. Everyone will need to hit. This means you, Austin Jackson, who can be one streaky dude. Alex Avila? Better health and his September bounce-back could mean everything as the Tigers deal with the reality of a lesser Cabrera.
Torii Hunter has been a marvel at age 38. Victor Martinez, too, has hit good pitching with such authority since July as to invite disbelief. Prince Fielder is locked and loaded and picking up in gallant fashion as Cabrera struggles. Omar Infante is playing some of the best baseball of his career.
If the rest of Leyland’s lineup functions at anything close to optimum fashion, the Tigers can pull a Dodgers ’88 reprise. It’s all but their mandate if they hope to play deep into October.
Jhonny Peralta needs to pick up where he left off — and survive in left field
Not many would have seen this happening when Peralta disappeared seven weeks ago to begin his 50-game suspension for having a dalliance with the Biogenesis clinic and its orientation to performance-enhancing drugs.
Peralta, though, has paid his debt and is back with the Tigers. And his bat, which was scorching-hot ahead of his departure, could be a heavy weapon in Leyland’s platoon attack against left-handed pitching.
It is also possible, should Cabrera’s situation knock him from the lineup, that Peralta could be an option at third base, where he played prior to joining the Tigers in July 2010.
The Tigers aren’t asking for miracles as the playoffs draw closer. They are not asking for a roster transformation.
Rather, they are hoping only that they can play past Cabrera’s ills, keep a bullpen that has been largely effective from imploding, and maybe catch a break they haven’t drawn in a couple of previous World Series trips.
That’s a lot to ask. But world champions normally look back at a few blessings, some of them underserved, that preceded a final, glorious spray of playoff champagne.