Eulogizing the 2011 Tigers

It’s a shame it had to end like that. The Detroit Tigers were dominated in every facet of the game Saturday night in a 15-5 loss at the hands of the Texas Rangers. I sincerely hope, however, that the lopsided scoreline won’t cause people to forget how far the Tigers got, as the immensely frustrating blow-out contest that eliminated them was game six of the American League Championship Series.

The Tigers truly had a fantastic season. A few players underperformed in their final playoff series–you’ll hear plenty about them–but their season ended at the hands of what most agree was the best, most balanced club in the American League. On top of that, a myriad of players were forced to fight through various injuries down the stretch for Detroit. The Tigers battled hard and clawed away at a tough Texas team, falling first in a one-run game one when Justin Verlander was forced to exit after a long rain delay, then twice in heartbreaking eleven-inning marathons. In the end, they fell just two victories short of a trip to the World Series.

This was a great year for the storied Tigers franchise, filled with some incredible moments and outstanding overall performances.

In September, the Tigers won 12 games in a row, something they hadn’t done since 1934, including four three-game series sweeps over division opponents. The win streak probably pushed Ozzie Guillen out the door as the Chicago White Sox’ manager, if his departure wasn’t set in stone already. The Tigers’ second half winning percentage of .657, which they earned with a 46-24 record, was the best the franchise has posted since 1944, when they went 52-24, good for a .684 winning percentage. Finally, we can be done fretting about a theoretical second-half curse. If this was the only good thing that happened this season, it would probably be enough for me, but this year’s team provided us with so much more to cheer about.

Verlander won the pitching triple crown by leading American League pitchers with 24 wins, a 2.40 ERA, and 250 strikeouts. He’s a mortal lock for the AL Cy Young Award, and may even win the vote unanimously. He vaulted himself to the forefront of MVP discussion and debate, and threw his second career no-hitter in the process. With his season, unrivaled by any pitcher in recent memory, he drew innumerable comparisons to all-time Tiger greats like Jack Morris, Mickey Lolich, Hal Newhouser, and Denny McLain–four men who are legends in the city of Detroit. Verlander, who became known as “Must See JV”, provided a ton of memorable moments this year, but the most significant for me came on a Sunday afternoon, July 31st, when he toed the rubber opposite Jered Weaver. At the time, the two aces were in a heated competition for the Cy Young. It was the first of two games I attended this year and it certainly didn’t disappoint. Verlander almost made it a really special day, as he carried a no-hitter into the eighth inning. Though he failed to complete his second no-hit game of the year, the fans in attendance, myself included, saw plenty of fireworks. The Tigers came out on top, and that game will always be one of my favorites. There’s so much to say about Verlander, but I’ll include just one more awesome moment. In the fifth inning of his gutty performance in game three of the division series against the Yankees, he struck out the side on ten filthy pitches that I’ll never forget. He was just the fifth pitcher to accomplish a similar inning in the playoffs since 1988, when pitch-by-pitch data started being tracked. Decades from now, we could look back on 2011 and remember it as the year that energized the career of a historic hurler, maybe even a Hall of Famer.

Tigers’ closer Jose Valverde had a historic season himself. He never blew a save all year (including during the playoffs), closed out 52 ballgames, and won the Delivery Man of the Year award as the “most outstanding relief pitcher of the regular season.” Though overshadowed by Verlander, his wild celebrations and overall eccentric personality earned him plenty of time in the spotlight. In another year, his clutch performance on the mound would have seen much more national attention and maybe even serious consideration for the AL Cy Young.

One of the most incredible moments all year came with Valverde on the mound in late August. He had then saved 36 games on the year, but had put runners on second and third with one out with the Tigers leading 8-7. Matt LaPorta came to the plate as a pinch hitter and hit a shallow fly ball to Austin Jackson in center field. Jackson caught it, and Kosuke Fukodome took off from third base. Jackson threw a laser to home plate to nail the runner and preserve not only a nail-biting victory and a series sweep, but also Valverde’s epic save streak. The play also produced a chilling call by Rod Allen.

In addition to Verlander, the Tigers had another MVP candidate on this year’s squad in slugger Miguel Cabrera. Cabrera won his first batting title after finishing as a runner-up in both 2010 and 2006; those years, he failed to surpass Josh Hamilton and Freddy Sanchez respectively. With his fantastic year, he put to rest any speculation that his off-season issues would affect his performance. On September 3rd, he hit the second of two home runs off of Sergio Santos, a walk-off blast that completed an incredible comeback from seven runs down against the White Sox, effectively ending their season.

Cabrera’s season was given a significant boost by the protection behind him in the batting order, that in the form of Victor Martinez, who had an absolutely stellar year himself. Many believe that his signing with the Tigers was the best move made by any club in the off-season. He hit .330 for the year, by far a career high. Even more impressively, he hit a league-best .394 with runners in scoring position. On a Friday night in July at Comerica Park. Martinez proved he could do more than come up with clutch hits, as he expertly danced around Oakland Athletics’ catcher Kurt Suzuki to score the night’s first run and produce one of the coolest plays of the year. Martinez son and namesake, known predominately as “Little Victor”, is also a welcome presence in the Tigers’ clubhouse and it’s been a joy to watch him cheer on his dad.

The Tigers’ other catcher, Alex Avila, had a breakout season and established himself firmly as one of the elite catchers in baseball. In late June to early July, Detroit fans voted Avila into the All-Star game, helping him to overcome a vote deficit of more than 400,000 to Russell Martin of the New York Yankees. Those of us who campaigned for Avila on Twitter and all over the web were immensely proud of this accomplishment. Later, after a bad knee prevented Martinez from catching, Avila caught in every single inning of 18 consecutive games and started 46 of the Tigers’ final 51 games. During one of those games, he was hit with a foul ball that produced a truly unique result, as sparks sprayed from his mask. Fans affectionately assigned him the nickname “Titanium Catcher” because of his incredible endurance.

In addition to the genius off-season acquisition of Martinez, Dave Dombrowski trading for Doug Fister was hands down the best mid-season acquisition by any major-league club this year. Though he was acquired in July with the assumption that he would be a third or fourth starter, he cemented himself as the Tigers’ second-best starter, and even pitched better than Verlander at the end of the season. He made 11 starts down the stretch for Detroit and posted an incredible 1.79 ERA. He walked just five batters in 70.1 innings. On Labor Day in Cleveland, Fister struck out 13 Indians en route to victory over the Tribe and their main deadline acquisition, Ubaldo Jimenez. He also held down the Yankees in game five of the division series in his first ever postseason start, handing the ball off to Max Scherzer in the sixth with a 3-1 lead.

Speaking of game five, it was an instant classic for fans of the Tigers and one to forget for New Yorkers; the game featured agonizing tension throughout, but that increased exponentially in the late innings. Joaquin Benoit walked a run in with the bases loaded in the seventh to make it a 3-2 game, then struck out Nick Swisher in dramatic fashion to end the threat. In the eighth, Derek Jeter hit a deep fly ball to right with a man on that looked like it would give the Yankees the lead. Instead, it fell just short and into the glove of Don Kelly. Flipping the script, Valverde came on and pitched a stress-free ninth inning, striking out Alex Rodriguez to end a thriller.

Benoit, who I mentioned above, allowed just one run in 7.2 innings of work in the playoffs, getting at least four outs in four out of five of his appearances. With his stellar pitching, he posted a 1.17 ERA with a 0.91 WHIP for the postseason. It was a great way to cap a nice turnaround to Benoit’s year, in which he had to earn the trust of the Tigers’ fan base after signing a huge three-year deal worth $16.5 million. After a weekend in Cleveland early in the season in which he allowed seven earned runs in one inning between two appearances (both losses), his signing looked regrettable. After his debacle against the Indians, however, Benoit posted a 1.80 ERA, allowing just ten earned runs in his last 50 innings of the regular season.

But if you’re looking for a redemption story, the best one by far is that of Brandon Inge. His early season struggles were well-documented; through July 19th, he was hitting just .177. He was then sent down to Toledo in a move which some thought signaled the end of his time with the major-league club. Inge was back on August 20th, just over a month later, and clubbed a home run in his first at bat back. The narrative doesn’t end there, however. He hit a very respectable .278 over his final 32 games, and his performance down the stretch earned him starts in seven of the Tigers’ 11 playoff games. He hit .318 in those games, but one hit was particularly enormous. With two outs in the seventh eighth inning and the Tigers down 3-2 in game four of the ALCS, Inge came to the plate to hit against Tiger killer Alexi Ogando, who had previously been untouchable. On an 0-2 pitch, he hit one of the most unlikely home runs I can remember out to left-center field to tie the game. I was in attendance, and though the Tigers eventually lost, that homer will always remain an amazing memory.

One of the Tigers’ other playoff heroes, Kelly, was a nice story as well. He spent the season a super-utility man, appearing in 112 games but starting only 62. Kelly played all nine positions at some point over the course of the season, including coming on to pitch in a blowout against the New York Mets; as the first position player to pitch for the Tigers since Shane Halter in 2000, he retired the only batter he faced and inspired an ingenious Twitter handle. Though Kelly had earned some respect from fans over the course of the season, his inclusion on the Tigers’ playoff roster raised some eyebrows. Then, his October performance dropped some jaws. The 25th man on the Tigers’ roster batted an even .300 in the playoffs and hit a crucial home run to kick-start the Tigers in their 3-2 game five victory over the Yankees.

Another pleasant surprise this year was Al Alburquerque, who joined the club as a free agent last November. His slider, especially in the first half of the season, was as good or better than that of any pitcher in baseball. He finished the year with a 1.87 ERA in 43.1 innings of work. When he was healthy, he was inserted into high-pressure situations and asked to strand runners in the late innings of close games. More often than not, he succeeded, and he became a fan favorite.

Though he was a disappointment in the time he spent in the starting rotation, Phil Coke was another member of the Tigers’ bullpen who impressed this year. Pitching in relief, he had a respectable 3.71 ERA. His most impressive outing by far was on August 23rd, when he threw two scoreless innings while striking out five to preserve a 2-1 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays.

Top prospect Jacob Turner made his season debut on July 30th and looked stellar. He was tagged with a loss, but pitched into the sixth inning and allowed just two runs on three hits and three walks while striking out six on the strength of a wicked curveball. We have much more of him to look forward to next year and for many extremely promising years to come.

Another special moment for the Tigers came in late June when the Arizona Diamondbacks, led by former Tigers Kirk Gibson and Alan Trammel, came to town for Sparky Anderson’s number retirement day. That day, Detroit came out on top 8-3 for Sparky.

A trip to the World Series, after all that, would have been a bonus. Besides, the Tigers gave us plenty of reasons to believe they could be playoff contenders for a while.

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Tags: 2011 Alex Avila Austin Jackson Detroit Tigers Jose Valverde Justin Verlander Miguel Cabrera New York Yankees Recap Texas Rangers Victor Martinez

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