Every March our 49th state hosts the Iditarod Sled Race, which begins in Anchorage.
After running over 1,000 miles in about two weeks, through outposts with names such as Rainy Pass, Cripple, and Safety, the exhausted winning team arrives amidst the cosmopolitan charm of Nome, Alaska.
Though the sled is pulled by a team of 16 Alaskan huskies, you don’t win this famous race without superior lead dogs.
As the baseball season winds down and the team labors to nail down its division and proceed to postseason play, the same concept applies to the Detroit Tigers.
Whereas baseball is the consummate team game and throughout the course of a 162-game season requires a productive 25-man roster, the final week of a close divisional race and the playoffs that follow are different in nature.
Though contributions still come from many sources, the key games generally hinge on whether or not your stars produce.
This was clearly evident in last year’s grinding ALCS, in which the Boston Red Sox defeated the Tigers in six games.
It is easily forgotten their biggest dog of all, David Ortiz, had only two hits in the series.
What is less easy to forget is one of those hits was a dramatic grand slam in game two, which essentially won the series for Boston (by contrast, one of Detroit’s biggest stars, the now departed Prince Fielder, hit a feckless .182 in the series).
Ortiz went on to become the World Series MVP, where he hit .688 with two home runs.
Now that’s what I call a Colossal Canine!
So, at the time of year when reputations are made, for better or worse, who are the Tigers’ big dogs and what can be expected of them?
Cabrera has played in 10 postseason series with the Florida Marlins and Detroit Tigers:
Not unexpectedly, Cabrera’s postseason numbers fail to match his regular season production. No doubt they would look more appealing had he been healthy during the 42 AB’s he garnered in last year’s postseason.
Nonetheless, the big guy has proven to be a force in the playoffs and there’s no reason to believe that will change should the Tigers qualify this year.
The Tiger DH has played in seven playoff series with Cleveland, Boston, and Detroit. It should come as no surprise the focused one is a terror in the playoffs:
Martinez was the one Detroit Tiger who produced consistently in last year’s playoffs. As he concludes his best offensive year ever at the age of 35, the Tigers are hoping for a reprise in 2014 if they advance.
The slick-fielding second baseman arrived in Detroit in the off season with a reputation as a clutch postseason performer. That comes as no news to Tiger fans, who watched Kinsler hit .292 with six RBIs in the ALCS against Detroit in 2011.
In a total of seven postseason series with Texas, Kinsler’s totals are as follows:
The 39-year-old Hunter has quietly delighted Tiger fans with a strong second-half (.307/.355/.452), proving his lumber is not yet ready to slumber.
Though the right fielder had a quiet postseason last year (.200), overall in 10 postseason series with Minnesota, the Los Angeles Angels, and Detroit, he’s been a stalwart performer:
The right-hander has pitched in 10 postseason series for the Tigers, and has performed up to the expectations of a number one starter:
These numbers become substantially more impressive when you remove Verlander’s four postseason appearances in 2006, when he was a 23 year-old rookie. Since then Verlander has carved out the following statistics:
Verlander has had his struggles this year, but like last year appears to be regaining his old form at just the right time.
Tiger fans would settle for that, no questions asked.
Gathered over seven series as a Tiger, last year’s American League Cy Young winner has postseason numbers comparable to Verlander’s:
Scherzer’s decision to turn down a generous contract offer from the Tigers in March has paid off handsomely, as he will doubtless receive a stupendous long-term offer in the off season. A continuation of his postseason success in 2014 will serve to further enrich him and über agent Scott Boras.
Contrary to Verlander and Scherzer, the third top dog of the Tiger stable, David Price, has struggled in the postseason in five series with Tampa Bay:
It’s unclear how Price’s pedestrian playoff numbers will affect his order in the rotation, should the Tigers make the playoffs.
Nathan’s presence in the “Big Dog” registry has nothing to do with his disappointing 2014 performance. It has everything to do with his reputation, his large contract, and the critical position he holds as the team’s closer.
The numbers that follow were assembled in five series with San Francisco, Minnesota, and Texas.
As they stand, they’ll do nothing to lessen the angst Tiger fans have felt all year long when Nathan has entered the game:
The Bottom Line
Given their track record, the Detroit Tigers can be reasonably confident their top hitters will perform in the postseason.
On the pitching side, it’s a mixed bag.
While starters Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer have impressive postseason resumes, both David Price and Joe Nathan have wobbled under the playoff microscope.
There are certain truisms in baseball which apply to postseason play. Among them are:
“Anything can happen in a short series.”
“Expect the unexpected”, and,
“Beware the obscure”– (alright, I made that one up).
But you get the point.
In the mists of October, superstars can get lost while banjo hitters make sweet music.
But on the whole, a team’s stars usually determine its postseason destiny, just like the cold-blooded assassin David Ortiz did for Boston last year.
The 2014 Detroit Tigers, with rookie manager Brad Ausmus at the reins, hope to exhort their top dogs to lead the team across the finish line this year in a similar fashion.
Considering the difficult sledding ahead, let’s hope that’s not too “mush” to ask.