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Paul: Tigers' best bet for playoffs is playing wild card

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Detroit — For a team that's been so darn manic, as the Tigers most assuredly have been in 2016, perhaps a race for one of the aptly named "wild" cards is most appropriate.

Sure, the Tigers would love to regain their American League Central Division crown, which was theirs from 2011-14 until slipping to a last-place finish in 2015.

But the reality is, they're 4.5 games back of the front-running Cleveland Indians, with 29 games remaining — and, after sweeping the Chicago White Sox on Wednesday, they're tied with the Baltimore Orioles for the second of two AL wild cards.

The Boston Red Sox are two games in front for the first wild-card spot.

Math seems to dictate the wild card is the Tigers' best bet to get back into the October dance, even if the wild-card race is crowded, with seven teams waking up Sept. 1 within four games or closer of one of the extra playoff spots.

"All of the above," said Tigers ace Justin Verlander, asked whether the team pays closer attention to one race over the other. "All of the above. Listen, we're in a position to do both. Obviously, you'd rather win the division.

"I think the focus is just winning games and if we can reel off a bunch and find the way to the top of the division, that's great. If not, hopefully we can still win a bunch and get in the wild card."

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The Tigers know something about winning a bunch. They also know something about losing a bunch. This is a ballclub that, after all, has recorded 12 sweeps, but been swept six times; they've been 12 games over .500, and six games under; they've been 8.5 games out of first place, and a game in front; they've been shut out nine times, and scored 10 or more runs 13 times; they've won 10 of 11 in one stretch, lost 11 of 12 in another; heck, they once suffered two walk-off losses in a single day, then responded by sweeping the next two series, against fellow wild-card contenders Boston and Houston.

If you can make sense of all that, congrats. You've just been accepted to Mensa.

It's been a roller coaster so wild, so high and so low, so fast-moving, if they recreated it down the road in Sandusky, Ohio, the expected wait time to ride the gut-busting thriller would be five hours.

Stephen King, even, would cry "uncle" over this 2016 Tigers season — always twisted, and at times unbelievably cruel and grotesque.

And here's the kicker: It's about to get even more intense, with the dog days of August finally over, and the stretch run of September set to start Friday night, with a three-game series against another wild-card foe, the Kansas City Royals.

The scoreboard watching, in other words, is about to kick into overdrive.

"I'm not gonna look at them (the standings) more than once a day," said Tigers manager Brad Ausmus, "but I'll look at them more frequently as we get into the month."

Foot in the door

In baseball, more than many other sports, just getting into the playoffs gives you a legitimate chance to be the last team standing, hoisting the world-championship trophy.

The Tigers know this painfully well.

In 2006, as a wild-card entrant, they surprisingly beat the New York Yankees in Round 1, then swept the Oakland A's to be the heavy favorites to win the World Series — only to lose in five games to the St. Louis Cardinals, who won 83 regular-season games.

In 2012, this time a division winner, the Tigers survived a tough Division Series against the Oakland A's before sweeping the Yankees in the Championship Series, again making them the favorites to win it all, this time against a San Francisco Giants that had to win six elimination games in a row to get to the Fall Classic. The Giants swept the Tigers.

So, you can see where the players and coaches like the motto, "Just Get In, Baby!"

But it's not that simple, anymore. Baseball's landscape has changed over the last four years, with the addition of a second wild card to each league — and, in turn, a one-game, sudden-death, wild-card playoff game to kick off each league's postseason.

Folks in the game still debate whether this was a good move.

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No question, it's been a boon for the game, with more cities in the playoff race deeper into September. For instance, Thursday morning, 18 of 30 teams were within four games from a postseason berth.

The wild-card games also are a boon for TV and ad dollars. The two wild-card games have the vibes of a Game 7, and Game 7s are good for business.

Others wonder if a one-game playoff, after a long, 162-game season is completely fair. Some have suggested a best-of-three series, instead.

Tigers manager Brad Ausmus likes the current format, though.

"I don't have a problem with it," he said in his office Wednesday morning, before the Tigers beat the White Sox, 3-2, in walk-off fashion.

An Orioles loss later in the day would pull the Tigers even for the second wild card.

"There should be some penalty to being the wild card."

This, of course, is a fair point. In the old days of the single wild card for each league, the only penalty was the wild card having to face the top seed in the first-round Division Series — but only if that top seed wasn't from the same division as the wild-card winner. And, again, it's baseball. Even the best teams in the league will only defeat the worst teams in the league with a 60-percent consistency.

The 2006 Tigers let the division title slip away late in the season, setting up a first-round date with the mighty Yankees. Big disadvantage, right? Not necessarily. In fact, on the eve of the playoffs, during a VIP kickoff party at Comerica Park, the late Ernie Harwell wondered if the Tigers hadn't actually caught a break.

His rationale: They'd only have to beat the Yankees three of five games, instead of four of seven if they met in the next round.

Harwell proved prophetic, as the Tigers knocked off the Yankees in four games.

In the 17-year era of the single wild card, from 1995-2011, five of 17 World Series champions were wild cards, including three straight from 2002-04. (The Miami Marlins, interestingly, have never won a division championship, but have won two World Series.) Also, five of the World Series losers were wild cards.

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In the four years since each league has had two wild cards — and the one-game playoff — two of the eight wild cards have made the World Series, in the same year, 2014, when the Giants beat the Royals in an epic, seven-game series.

The percentages are close: Just less than 30 percent of wild-card winners made a World Series during the single wild-card era, and 25 percent in the four years since. The latter, of course, is a smaller sample, and figures to lessen over time.

The wild card was viewed as so little a disadvantage in the older era, that teams in position to win a division would prioritize aligning their rotation even if meant slipping to a wild card.

That's not doable anymore, not with the significant risk that comes with a one-game showdown.

Today's system provides a huge disadvantage to the wild-card winners. After all, there's a good chance the wild-card winners have to throw their ace pitcher in the one-game playoff, if they didn't already have to throw them in Game 162 — or even, gasp, a one-game playoff just to get into the one-game, wild-card playoff — while division champs can sit back and wait and get their aces rested for Game 1 of the Division Series.

A hypothetical: The Tigers win one of the wild cards, and have to throw potential 2016 AL Cy Young winner Justin Verlander to win that playoff game. They then win that game. But Verlander might then not be available until as late as Game 3 of a Division Series.

That's some awfully tough stuff, to be sure, no disrespect to Michael Fulmer or Jordan Zimmermann, who, in that scenario, could be tasked with starting Games 1 of 2 of a little-margin-for-error, five-game Division Series.

"The old way with the wild card, once the season ended, it was the same as the division winner," Ausmus said. "I don't think they should be.

"The goal is to win the division.

"Especially with a division-strong schedule, you've gotta burn your best pitcher to win that one game. I think that's the penalty."

Toppling the leader

The good news for the Tigers, the division isn't out of reach, despite a daunting 4.5-game deficit behind the Indians.

Things can change in a hurry, especially when you can control your own destiny, as the Tigers can, with seven head-to-head meetings against the Indians in late September.

The 1987 Tigers famously made up a 3.5-game deficit on the Toronto Blue Jays in the old AL East, in just eight days, thanks to four wins in head-to-head meetings, including a season-ending sweep at old Tiger Stadium.

Even earlier this year, in May, the Tigers trailed first place by 8.5 games. Two weeks later, the deficit was down to two games.

"The division, it's not out of our hands," Verlander said. "But, I mean, if the Indians reel off 20 out of 30, it's probably gonna be pretty tough for us to catch them. Or 25 out of 30, that probably makes it impossible.

"But this is baseball. I've seen a lot of things happen. You've seen teams down 8.5, nine games come back in the last month of the season."

The Tigers have nine games left against wild-card contenders, including six with the rallying Royals and their "Rally Mantis" — three on the road this week, then three at home — and three with the Orioles. The Tigers also have 13 games left against bad teams, including seven against a Minnesota Twins the Tigers have absolutely owned this season, and three at the end of the season against the woeful Atlanta Braves.

The other seven games are against the Indians, with three at Cleveland from Sept. 16-18, and four at Comerica Park from Sept. 26-29.
The Indians, of course, have won 11 of 12 in the season series. That's seriously out of whack, only adding to the weirdness that has defined this season for the Tigers.

The Indians' September schedule also starts Friday, with seven straight games against wild-card contenders, three against the Marlins and four against the Astros.

Cleveland was 28-26 its last two months, after a spectacular 22-6 June.

Detroit was 31-23 in July and August, after a solid 17-11 June of its own.

The Tigers also appear to be getting healthier, with Cameron Maybin (thumb) and Miguel Cabrera (ankle) due back in the lineup Friday, and Zimmermann possibly back in the rotation within a week. Nick Castellanos could be back for that final Indians series. Rookie JaCoby Jones, also, has provided the lineup a spark the last two games, with four hits, including three doubles, in his first two major-league games. Daniel Norris and Matt Boyd have helped stabilized a rotation that's actually been a strength for months.

The Indians' young and talented rotation, meanwhile, has shown cracks the last several weeks, most notably Carlos Carrasco and Josh Tomlin,  whose next start is being skipped. Michael Brantley (shoulder) isn't coming back this season, but the addition of playoff veteran Coco Crisp should help stabilize things in the outfield.

How will things shake out? Given the trajectory of 2016, who the heck knows?

We can only assume it's going to be a wild finish to the regular season for the Tigers, even if the end result isn't a wild card, but rather a fifth division title in six years — or, none of the above.

"I like the group we have here," Verlander said. "We've got a lot of veterans that have played the grind of 162 games for a long time — and know how to have success in that last month, when it's most important."




A look at the teams that woke up Sept. 1 within four games or closer of a playoff spot:


Division leaders: Blue Jays, Indians, Rangers
Wild-card contenders: Red Sox, Orioles, Tigers, Astros, Yankees, Royals, Mariners


Division leaders: Nationals, Cubs, Dodgers
Wild-card contenders: Giants, Cardinals, Mets, Pirates, Marlins