This isn’t going to be the kind of series preview that plays on the hope and optimism of our Tigers fanbase. It’s the kind of fact-driven, gritty, down-to-earth realism that we here at MCB have been providing all season long.
We know that Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder and Justin Verlander are tremendous players. The Detroit Tigers have, by and large, lived and died along with their performances – as what we thought would be a deep offense-first team wound up something more like the “stars & scrubs” that the St. Louis Cardinals have been winning with for years. We assume these guys will produce, and they have so rarely come up short that it’s hard to call them keys: though if they struggle it could be short series indeed.
Our keys, the players the Tigers will need the most, are those guys who we know will be used and will come up in critical situations, who have not been – shall we say – the most reliable over the course of the 2012 season.
1. The back end of the Tigers bullpen. The Tigers rotation is good and it’s the one part of the team that has really started firing on all cylinders in September and October. The Yankees can’t quite match it, but they certainly don’t pitch badly enough to hope for 8-0 leads after 7. The Yankees also work counts well, so it’s hard to imagine even a Justin Verlander going the full 9 innings. If the Tigers are going to win, they are going to need Joaquin Benoit and Jose Valverde to get them through the 8th and 9th with slim leads and that is a tall order for two guys who just haven’t had the same effectiveness in 2012 as in 2011.
2. The Tigers right-on-left specialists. We know the Tigers will be facing Andy Pettitte twice and we figure they’ll probably face C.C. Sabathia twice if the series goes that long. Worse yet, Phil Hughes (for some unfathomable reason) has bigger L-R splits (righties hit him better) than just about any qualified left-hander in 2012. For as far back as I can remember, the Tigers had struggled to beat good right-handed pitchers, but generally roughed up lefties. Not this year. Brandon Inge and Magglio Ordonez – two of the chief lefty-killers – are gone but that’s not really the reason why. The only guy who ought to be beating up on left-handed pitching who actually has been is Delmon Young. Miguel Cabrera and Jhonny Peralta have actually hit righties better – as has Gerald Laird (whose primary role is to fill-in for Alex Avila against lefties, since Avila cannot hit them). Quintin Berry, Andy Dirks and Prince Fielder struggle predictably against lefties (in relative terms) but the only guy available to fill in is rookie Avisail Garcia. Know that if these guys do not come through against Pettitte and Sabathia we could be on the losing end of a five game set.
3. Phil Coke. Coke has just been knocked around this season, earning the ire of many a Tigers fan or Tigers writer. The problem is: the Yankees have a lot of good left-handed hitters and the only other lefty on the Tigers postseason roster is rookie Drew Smyly (who Jim Leyland didn’t trust enough to let him throw a single pitch against the A’s). Coke is going to be coming in to get key outs, we know this. Can he come through against his old team?
4. Jim Leyland. I’m talking here about Jim Leyland’s bullpen use, and this really incorporates keys 1 and 3. If Leyland does not use Drew Smyly (and Rick Porcello) and uses Coke in all 7 games and/or repeatedly brings in Octavio Dotel to getone lefty out with men in scoring position, we’re going to have trouble. They cannot BOTH be reserved for extra innings or short starts or they should not BOTH be on the playoff roster. Do what Ron Washington does with our nemesis Alexi Ogando.