The job is a simple one for the Detroit Tigers as they embark on the final two weeks of the season: Finish what you started.
The Tigers began their journey some five-and-a-half months ago. Amidst the cries from the pundits and talking heads that said this team could not, would not compete with the likes of the Indians, White Sox, and Twins.
They had a lame-duck manager that no player would respect. Their pitching staff was shaky, at best. They had no proven closer in the bullpen, they were relying too heavily on older, broken down players. There would be no re-inforcements, either, said the knowers-all, as the poor economy of Detroit was sure to keep the fans away, and force the Tigers to sell off any and all valuable assets.
But a funny thing happened on the way to another last-place finish; the Tigers began winning.
After a rough opening series that saw them drop three of four in Toronto, the Tigers started their home schedule by spanking the Rangers in three games. The Tigers have not been under .500 since that series.
The pitching staff that was to be so worrysome has been at times, but certainly not as often or in the way that was expected.
After leading the staff in wins a season ago, Armando Galarraga was seen as the one guy they might be able to count on, even if he regressed a bit from his stellar rookie campaign. Galarraga shined in his first month, but since May 1, he has gone just 3-10, while offering a 6.44 ERA and losing his rotation spot.
Justin Verlander had lead the league in losses in 2008, Edwin Jackson was viewed as a kid that would probably never “get it”, and Rick Porcello had never thrown even a single pitch above A-ball. Previous stalwarts Nate Robertson and Jeremy Bonderman had fallen to injury and ineffectiveness.
But Verlander has rebounded from his dismal ’08 season to lead the league in strike outs, while being discussed as a Cy Young candidate. Jackson has showed signs of tiring lately, but has been among the leaders in quality starts and ERA for most of the season. Porcello leads all rookies with 13 wins, and he still isn’t old enough to drink.
The bullpen has been a huge and pleasant surprise for even the most optimistic among fans. After a very rough start, Brandon Lyon has turned into an invaluable setup man, along with left hander Bobby Seay, who is enjoying the best season of his career. Rookies Ryan Perry and Fu-Te Ni have done admirable work for much of the year, and closer Fernando Rodney has blown just one save all season, though he never seems to make it easy.
When the 2009 Tigers were assembled, the emphasis was placed on building a solid defensive unit. Gone were Gary Sheffield, Edgar Renteria, and Pudge Rodriguez. Instead, Brandon Inge was re-installed at third base, Adam Everett signed to play shortstop, and Gerald Laird would be the new catcher. The idea was that the defense would help to improve the pitching, and the Tigers figured to score enough runs to carry a few weaker bats.
Again proving the experts wrong, the Tigers biggest problem this season has been the lack of offense. Former batting champ Magglio Ordonez disappeared in the first half, and while his average is now nearing .300, he still has just seven home runs on the year. Carlos Guillen missed three months with a bad shoulder that still won’t allow him to bat right handed with any regularity, and apart from an increase in power, Curtis Granderson has suffered through a season long slump.
If not for a tremendous first half from Inge and a customarily strong effort from Miguel Cabrera, this team surely would have fallen behind. But the strong play continued all season from the pitchers, and the defense. Eventually, Magglio and Guillen began to round into form, and Placido Polanco began to hit like he used to as well.
When the July trade deadline arrived, the Tigers lead the Central by a scant 1.5 games. Instead of adding a bat, they went after a pitcher, Jarrod Washburn. They did get their bat two weeks later when they took on more salary to get Aubrey Huff from Baltimore. These moves were made possible by the deep pockets of Mike Illitch, and by the support of the fans, who despite the failing Detroit economy, have shown up in droves, and have kept the Tigers in the top four in attendance all year.
The 2009 Tigers were supposed to struggle. The would do well just to stay out of the cellar in the division. But they have occupied first place for the past 151 days, ever since May 10. The pitching staff has seen stellar efforts from Verlander, Jackson, and Porcello all season, and now they are getting a lift from Nate Robertson as well. The bats have scored enough runs to win on most nights, but still are prone to prolonged struggles, especially with runners on base.
With now just 13 games remaining on the schedule, the Tigers play the next six on the road, where they have won just 41% of the time. They finish the season with seven home tilts and own a .649 winning percentage at Comerica Park.
The facts are that the Tigers have mortgaged a bit of their future for a chance to win this season. The trades of three pitching prospects and the extra $15 million they have committed to next season’s payroll by waiting for Ordonez to hit will make next season more difficult. But they cannot worry about such things now.
The only thing left to do for these Tigers is to win enough games to play in the post-season, to win the first divisional title since 1987, to prove the naysayers wrong one more time.
The Minnesota Twins are not going away, friends. The Tigers will not back into a trip to the playoffs. Detroit must seize the moment, and take care of business starting tonight in Cleveland. Their mountain is waiting, all they have to do is move it, just as they have done all year long.