Tigers will be a force in the postseason
John is a die-hard Tigers fan, and he e-mails me from time to time in unwaveringly enthusiastic and optimistic tones about his team.His latest note had a particular air of urgency to it. The subject was: "The Tigers need you, and so do I." This sounded like an emergency. Was there a hostage situation at Comerica Park? Had Miguel Cabrera been kidnapped in the midst of the Triple Crown race? Why did I feel this e-mail somehow involved a request for a wire transfer?
Well, I was wrong. John had this decidedly less-urgent request: "The Tigers," he wrote, "need a writer to come forward and support this team." And John picked me. Lucky me. Well, John, consider this my response to your e-mail. Because in this space, I am going to state a case for the Tigers that, quite frankly, they haven't really stated for themselves this season. This has been a frustrating season for the Tigers. It took 160 games for them to clinch an American League Central title so many expected them to run away with, and this was a feat due at least as much to the stunning collapse of the White Sox in the final weeks as it was to the Tigers' resolve. Winning the AL Central, of course, has never been Detroit's end goal. The goal all along has been a World Series championship -- for 83-year-old owner Mike Ilitch, who committed $214 million to Prince Fielder when Victor Martinez hurt his knee; and for the city of Detroit, which has sent at least 2 million people to Comerica Park every season. Even in the midst of some harsh economic times, more than 3 million folks filled the seats this year. Yet the Tigers have given those fans some anxiety. They had a five-week stretch from mid-April to late-May in which they were unable to complete the seemingly simple task of winning two in a row, and consistency has not exactly been a strong suit at any point since. If you're not seriously concerned about their defense's ability to turn balls in play into outs, or the bullpen's ability to lock down late leads, well, you haven't been paying attention. But I'm not here to dwell on the negative with regard to these Tigers, because you can make a pretty convincing case against every team in the postseason field if you set your mind to it. I'm here to tell you why fans like John still have reason to believe in this team, despite the flaws and frustrations that made the 2012 regular season such an uphill climb. Do the Tigers have the worst record of any of the AL postseason entries? Indeed, they do. And in 2012, in particular, that doesn't matter one bit. Because they won a mediocre division, the Tigers avoided the dicey scenario that is the one-game Wild Card round. And because they clinched no better than the third seed in the AL in a season in which the Wild Card round was shoved into an already set schedule, they'll get to enjoy the cushy comforts of home for the first two games of the first round. That could be a huge advantage for the Tigers, and another huge advantage rests in the arms they'll be trotting out in October. Detroit's starting pitching has slowly evolved into a clear source of strength. Justin Verlander was never a question -- even if repeating his ridiculous 2011 season was never likely. But Doug Fister was hurt much of the first half, and Max Scherzer was his usual Jekyll-and-Hyde self early on, so the Tigers had a great deal of uncertainty in the spots behind Verlander. In the second half, however, the Tigers have turned in the second-best starters' ERA in the big leagues, trailing only the Rays. Verlander is Verlander, and Scherzer has morphed into Verlander, Version 2.0, compiling a 2.81 ERA, 1.15 WHIP and 107 strikeouts against just 25 walks in 86 1/3 innings since the All-Star break. Shoulder soreness forced him to exit early from a start last week, and then he injured his ankle during the Tigers' clinch celebration, but he is expected to be cleared to pitch in the postseason, and that's bad news for the Tigers' eventual October opponent(s). Fister has also been terrific post-All-Star break, posting an 8-4 record and 2.67 ERA, and trade-acquisition Anibal Sanchez looks to be a fantastic No. 4, having strung together a 2.15 ERA over his last eight starts. Essentially, it has been up to Austin Jackson, Cabrera and Fielder to generate the runs in support of that starting staff, because the other spots in the lineup have been notoriously inconsistent this season. As one member of a rival club noted earlier this year when referring to Cabrera and Fielder, "As long as you don't let the two fat guys beat you, you're all right." But Cabrera is about to put the finishing touches on the first Triple Crown since 1967, and Fielder has a .937 OPS, 30 homers and 108 RBIs, so obviously teams haven't had a great deal of success in avoiding "the two fat guys." They'll continue to cause some anxious moments for opposing pitchers in October, and then it's up to Delmon Young, Jhonny Peralta, Andy Dirks, et al. to rise to the occasion around them. One thing that works in the Tigers' favor, in that regard, is the heartbeat of this club. Even when this season looked to be going woefully off-track, this was a team that never showed any sense of panic, never found itself embroiled in public controversy or accusations of awful chemistry. All season -- and this, ultimately, is a credit to Jim Leyland and his staff -- this has been a team that has acted like it's been there before, even as those of us on the outside wondered aloud if they had the goods to get there again. Well, the Tigers are back in the postseason, and their experience in advancing to what was, remember, a hard-fought AL Championship Series against the Rangers a year ago will benefit them this time around. This 2012 season has been an unnerving experience for the Tigers and for fans like John. Certainly, the way the season unfolded will have some forecasting a short shelf life for the Tigers in the postseason, and there will be questions about whether this is the end of the line for Leyland if Detroit finishes anywhere short of a World Series title. Despite all those flaws and frustrations, I don't think this is a team you line up to face when it matters most. Because with at least three sterling starters on the mound and one of the game's best-ever 3-4 combos in the middle of the order, Detroit is still going to be a handful. And that goal that was laid out for them many months ago is still very much in sight.