At the beginning of the season the Detroit Tigers figured to be runaway victors in the American League Central Division. They were viewed as one of the top teams in baseball. Then the Tigers struggled all season and became an afterthought. Up until the last couple of weeks of the season they seemed certain to be edged out of the playoffs by the Chicago White Sox and they were completely overshadowed by the excitement stirred up by the Baltimore Orioles and Oakland A’s.
The Tigers snuck into the playoffs by stifling the White Sox challenge in the last week of the regular season and although they came into the 10-team playoffs with the equal-lowest number of wins at 88, they are still playing. Thursday night the Tigers put an end to the unlikely pennant run of the A’s, capturing a fifth game in the AL Division Series 6-0. They are showing hints of a team peaking at the right time and one that really can be a World Series contender.
This is a season of baseball parity and there are going to be no easy roads to a Series crown. The difference makers are going to be the stars who rise to the occasion (with the likelihood of an unsung hero thrown in here and there). The A’s were a good-for-them team, a how-did-they-get-here team. The Tigers are a star power team. Third baseman Miguel Cabrera just won the first Triple Crown of batting in 45 years by leading the AL in home runs, RBIs and average. Prince Fielder hits home runs that orbit the earth. And Justin Verlander is the best pitcher around.
Verlander was the X factor Thursday. He shut out the A’s on four hits and actually pitched a complete game, something becoming about as rare as a no-hitter. One common denominator in baseball’s post-season, going back to Christy Mathewson, is that a dominating starter can take over a series. Verlander has that potential. Unlike in the old days, however, he will only be slated for two starts in a seven-game series, not three as used to be commonplace. The Tigers need as much Verlander as they can get. So do the fans. Give us as much Verlander as you can.
At the moment it’s unclear who the Tigers’ opponent will be in the American League Championship Series. The New York Yankees and the Orioles have been slugging it out for a month straight and they are tied 2-2 with a game to go Friday. The Orioles are fraternal twins of the A’s, the team nobody expected to do so well in the regular season, another cute little team come out of nowhere. Their roster is filled with no-names.
The Yankees have more star power than the Tigers with Derek Jeter, Ichiro Suzuki, Alex Rodriguez, Robinson Cano, and Mark Teixeira. Oh yeah, and CC Sabathia pitching the fifth game. These guys all make big bucks. They need to earn them Friday.