An interesting phenomenon took place in the wake of (and during) the Detroit Tigers’ 9-5 loss to Kansas City last night; wide spread panic. While the Tigers were busy watching Max Scherzer get torched by the Royals’ hitters, the Indians and White Sox were both winning their games. The result is that a division lead that rested comfortably at 6.5 games just two days ago has fallen to a mere five game this morning.
I guess Tiger fans were expecting the team would go undefeated the rest of the way.
Look, I understand the mindset. We have all been burned by comfortable leads of years gone by; leads that evaporated before the season ended. I don’t need to remind anyone reading this about the 2006 or 2007 teams that held first place at the all-star break, each time to finish second. Or about a 2008 team that fought back from a brutal start to get back into the race as the break neared, only to stub their toe again and finish last in the division. Or about 2009, when the Tigers built a seven game lead in early September, only to watch as the Twins just stopped losing games over the season’s last three weeks. I didn’t need to remind you, but I did anyway. I’m kind of mean that way.
So when the fans see a game and a half chopped from their cushion in the span of two days, there is a bit of panic that sets in. Could we be seeing history repeating itself again?
I’m not here to tell you that it can’t happen again, but I don’t think it will. At least I hope it won’t.
The Tigers showed us, over the last two games, what we already knew. They showed us that this offense can, and generally will, score enough runs to win games, but that their pitching can be suspect at times. Sunday’s loss to Minnesota was the same type of game the Tigers played frequently in the first half. The didn’t get great starting pitching, fell behind early, then watched as a middle reliever couldn’t prevent the opposition from adding on runs. It is this kind of game that lead to Detroit’s well-publicized negative run differential in the first place. This team has a tendency to win close games, they hold leads late, but when they get in a hole early, more often than not, the hole gets deeper before the game ends.
Yesterday’s game was similar in that the Tigers fell behind, but this time it was almost entirely on the starting pitcher. Scherzer had no command of his fastball and when he missed location, the Royals made him pay. As an aside, it’s remarkable to me to watch major league hitters. When the pitcher misses location, the ball is almost always hit hard. Rare is the hitter who can drive a “pitcher’s pitch”, which is part of what makes a guy like Miguel Cabrera so special. The Royals don’t have a guy of Cabrera’s ilk in their lineup (not yet at least), but Scherzer made sure they didn’t need one.
Frankly, while Duane Below wasn’t lights-out, he wasn’t bad. the problem is that the hole was simply too great to overcome last night. The Tigers scored five runs last night and four on Sunday; a lot of times, that’s more than enough to win two games. In this case, however, they didn’t get the pitching and they lost both contests. It happens that way sometimes.
Penny wasn’t sharp on Sunday, and he needs to be in order to win. He had pitched effectively in his previous two starts, so he was probably due for a clunker. Scherzer is prone to the kind of outing he suffered through last night and he’s been especially prone to the long ball this year. It just so happens that Detroit’s pitchers had bad games on back-to-back days while the White Sox have won four straight.
But this is what Chicago has done all year, it seems. If you go back to late June and look at the schedule, the White Sox have made a habit out of streaks, both good and bad. They won four in a row, only to lose five of their next six. Then they played a stretch of 10 or so games at .500, then lost six straight and everybody breathed easier. Until, of course, they won their next six and, all of a sudden, they’re back on a roll.
These past two games are no more representative of the season for the Tigers than the last four are for Chicago. Detroit built their lead thanks to having better talent offensively than any team in their division, by having the best pitcher on the planet take the ball every fifth day, and by closing out leads late. They also did it thanks to an inept group of rival clubs. The Tigers have made themselves better from a talent standpoint over the past month, while Cleveland has been riddled with injuries and Chicago largely stood pat.
If the White Sox are going to catch Detroit, they’ll have to see the Tigers absolutely collapse and they’ll have to put together a 2009 Twins-like run of their own. Even if Detroit does collapse (and they won’t), I don’t see any way Chicago can suddenly find enough offense to put together a serious run. As for Cleveland, well, they might have the pitching, but with so many regulars out of the lineup, it’s tough to see them getting back into the race, either.
As Annie Savoy said in Bull Durham, “It’s a long season and you’ve gotta trust it.” The Tigers are still the best team in this division and these last two games don’t change that at all.