It seems that every year one team in the majors comes from out of nowhere to have a special season. This year, it appears that Kirk Gibson’s Arizona Diamondbacks are the 2011 version that nobody expected to be a winner. Close behind however, are the Detroit Tigers. While some of us knew the Tigers had potential, most believed they would be taking a backseat to the Chicago White Sox and/or Minnesota Twins. I, for one, am guilty of that thought, thinking the White Sox were the class of the division before the season started. Now, with two weeks to go, the Tigers are in the driver seat on their way to the post-season….and there are a multitude of reasons why they are on top.
Judging by the lack of media attention the Tigers get when there is talk of elite teams, it still seems the Tigers have a lot to prove, though they don’t have anything to prove to this writer. While the national media continues to wax poetically about the Red Sox, Yankees and Phillies, the Tigers extended their win streak to 12 games earlier today. Today’s game was just another shining example of why the Tigers will be a formidable opponent for anybody when the playoffs start. Despite a rough outing early on by Brad Penny, the Tigers fought back and won in extra innings 6-5. It took two things; one, a pitcher who battled through a rough start, and two, an offense and team that never feels like its out of a game kept battling.
The Tigers all season, especially in the 2nd half, have shown the components of a successful playoff team. First, they have a dominant starter in Justin Verlander. Verlander is going to be the runaway Cy Young award winner in the American League, and every time he steps on the mound, the Tigers have the confidence he is going to shut the opponent down. His 23 wins, and ability to go deep into games are two major reasons the Tigers are in first place right now, and have placed him into the MVP discussion. Add to that the psychological factor of an opposing pitcher knowing they have to be near perfect to win that day, Justin Verlander gives the Tigers an edge that no other team in the playoff picture has.
One pitcher can’t win it all on his own though, which isn’t a problem for the Tigers either. The Tigers 2nd and 3rd starters in a playoff rotation will include Max Scherzer and Doug Fister, who have proven quite capable of winning games as well. The order of which they will pitch is yet to be decided, though it matters little as they both have been effective as of late. Fister is arguably the best trade deadline acquisition in all of baseball going 5-1 with a 2.28 ERA for the Tigers. In the 2nd half, Max Scherzer has cut his ERA down by over a run from 4.69 in the first half to 3.57 in the second. Also, in recent starts, Rick Porcello looks to be finding his way as well again, giving the Tigers a solid fourth starting option.
Offensively, the Tigers have shown late inning heroics and big time run producing capability, getting contributions from everyone on the team. Most noticeably, guys like Alex Avila, Jhonny Peralta, and Victor Martinez to go along with star Miguel Cabrera. Playoff teams have to get contributions from players they don’t necessarily expect, or tremendous seasons from guys who may be good, but are playing a level above their norm. Take a quick glance at the 2010 World Champion San Francicso Giants, and you will struggle to find an offensive player of much significance. They were led by a rookie in Buster Posey, and an overachieving veteran trio in Aubrey Huff, Edgar Renteria, and Andres Torres. And when it came to the World Series, Cody Ross stepped up and had some big hits. The Tigers have had this same formula all season, and have gotten better than expected contributions from many of their players. I mean, how many games has Ramon Santiago won lately?
Along with the late game heroics and surprise contributions, the Tigers have had an ability to win close games. This season, the Tigers are 27-15 in one run games, due in large part to a bullpen that is shutting teams down in the late innings with a lead. Closer Jose Valverde and set-up man Joaquin Benoit haven’t allowed teams to come all the way from behind when the Tigers lead after 7 innings. Basically, if the Tigers get through the 7th with a lead, they are winning. Benoit’s 1.52 2nd half ERA, and Valverde’s zero blown saves are a testament to that.
Lastly, the Tigers are just flat out hot. No team going into the post-season has had the type of September the Tigers are having at 12-1. Nobody should want to face them, and that even goes for the Phillies.
So, in summary, a playoff readiness check. Three starting pitchers? An explosive offense? Guys having better than normal years? Unexpected contributions? Ability to win close games? Hot going into the playoffs? Put a check in the yes column for all of those questions.
National media members, keep forgetting about the Tigers when talking about the playoffs. I don’t care. I just know this is a season to remember.