They’re hurting, and not yet hitting. They don’t run very fast, and in the late innings, they sometimes make you quiver.
For all their star power, the Tigers don’t saunter easily through anything. At least that gives them experience because for a team that often does it the hard way, it’s about to get harder — or as they say in Boston, wicked hahhhder.
The Tigers earned their way to a third straight American League Championship Series, and earned an unfamiliar underdog label. The Red Sox, arguably, are the best in baseball. They have home-field advantage, a scorching lineup and a fine rotation. They steal bases, wear scraggly beards and have the most-intimidating inanimate object in the game — the Green Monster in left.
It’s a good thing the Tigers don’t scare easily. It’s a better thing their swagger is on the pitching mound because if they engage in slugfests with the Red Sox, they won’t win. Their hitting has been too sporadic, from Miguel Cabrera’s injuries to Austin Jackson’s strikeout woes to Prince Fielder’s power purge.
This series can’t be about what they don’t do. It definitely can be about what they do — unleash as powerful a rotation as there is. Anibal Sanchez, Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander will line up for the first three starts, followed by Doug Fister. The Red Sox counter with Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, John Lackey and Jake Peavy — impressive, but not as daunting.
The Red Sox should be favored in this first playoff matchup against the Tigers because of a lineup that includes Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz, Jacoby Ellsbury and Shane Victorino. They’re versatile enough to win a variety of ways, and Fenway Park is borderline haunted. Although it means squat in this series, that 20-4 pummeling Sept. 4 must stir unpleasant memories for the Tigers.
But it’s as if they’ve mastered the art of forgetting. Whatever happens in the regular season — getting no-hit on the final day by the Marlins — stays in the regular season.
Not many teams have won as many tough games the past few years as the Tigers. Yes, I’m aware they haven’t won the biggest, in the World Series, but they’ve clinched three straight Division Series on the road — New York and Oakland twice.
Verlander’s eight-inning shutout performance against the A’s was sheer dominance. He’s back, vintage and vindicated, just like he said he’d be. I assumed he’d figure out his mechanical issues, but until you saw it, you couldn’t necessarily count on it. Now Jim Leyland is counting on it as much as ever, which is why the Tigers remain a scary team.
“I’m pitching the way I’m supposed to,” Verlander said after blanking the A’s. “I worked my butt off all year to try to get myself where I needed to be. I feel like it finally paid off at the end of the year.”
In his last four starts, Verlander’s numbers: 27 innings, no runs, six walks, 43 strikeouts. He’s back to menacing, and back in ace competition with Scherzer, not that he strayed for long.
That’s huge because the Tigers may have the hitters to match the Red Sox, but they don’t have the hitting to match them right now. During the regular season, these were the two best offenses — Boston led in runs and Detroit led in average. But while the Red Sox were outscoring the Rays, 26-12, the Tigers were staggering through a 20-inning scoreless streak against the A’s. With this talented team, it’s a small step from stagger to swagger, and some of their best need to take it.
Raising a ruckus
Jackson was 2-for-20 with 13 strikeouts against the A’s. Fielder was 5-for-18 without an extra-base hit or RBI. Torii Hunter was 3-for-19. Cabrera is dealing with abdominal and groin strains, so the only swing that mattered was his two-run homer that won Game 5.
Perhaps the Tigers’ difficulties make it easier to handle adversity. After missing a full season, Victor Martinez has been a difference-maker, from his fiery disposition to his 9-for-20 hitting in the ALDS. The Tigers have adopted a feisty mentality with Hunter, Martinez, Cabrera and Fielder, a potentially fearsome foursome indeed. Hunter started a noisy postgame ritual they call “Turn Up,” a thigh-slapping, hands-raising routine that’s hard to decipher, but easy to understand.
For a team under constant scrutiny, alleviating pressure is almost as important as applying it. Remember, the Tigers spent a couple of months without a set closer, before Joaquin Benoit stepped in.
He still rattles a few nerves, and nobody is as unhittable as Red Sox closer Koji Uehara, who posted this stunning line in the regular season: 1.09 ERA, nine walks, 101 strikeouts.
This is a heavyweight clash of stars and styles, Boston Strong versus Detroit Defiance. I wouldn’t be surprised if it goes to Game 7 with Verlander on the mound in Fenway. If the Tigers get that far, they’ll go even farther.