Placido Polanco was the Detroit Tigers’ first Dominican-born impact player (Part 2)

The Detroit Tigers’ recent visit to Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic for an exhibition game brought back memories of the city’s greatest contribution to Tigers baseball, Placido Polanco. Polanco, a key member of the 2006 American League champions, was the first Dominican-born player to make an impact as a Tiger. His third season in Detroit, 2007, was his most successful.

(Click here for part one, which covered Polanco’s first two seasons in Detroit.)

Following a surprisingly hitless World Series in 2006, Polanco was determined to bounce back once spring training begun in 2007. Down in Lakeland in March, he stated,

“I’ve got to be honest with you, it was in my head a little bit. I’ve got to prove to myself that I can still hit. I’m just trying to put good swings on the ball. I’m just trying to hit strikes.”

Thankfully, the disappointment of the previous October didn’t carry over into the new season. Polanco got off to a good start in 2007, notching hits in each of the Tigers’ first seven games (including four multi-hit games).

He was a catalyst in more ways than one in that seventh game on April 10 in Baltimore. The Tigers had runners on first and second with nobody out in a 0-0 tie when Polanco came up to bat in the sixth. He hustled a sacrifice bunt attempt into an infield single to load the bases. Gary Sheffield then struck out.

The next batter, Magglio Ordonez, hit a routine grounder to Orioles’ shortstop Miguel Tejada. Polanco was forced out at second, but his hard slide into second baseman Brian Roberts disrupted what should’ve been an inning ending double play. Roberts’ wild throw allowed two runs to score. The Tigers added a third run in the eighth on Polanco’s sacrifice fly.

The Tigers took a 3-1 lead into the bottom of the ninth. With two out, Polanco made a terrific diving stop on Nick Markakis’ hard hit ball up the middle and threw him out to end the game. Afterward, manager Jim Leyland credited Polanco’s sixth inning slide for winning the ballgame, but Polly seemed to be more excited about robbing Markakis of a base hit that would’ve brought the potential tying run to the plate.

Polanco was once again a key cog for the Tigers when they hosted the Royals on April 17. He led off the fifth with his first home run of the year, which put the Tigers up 5-2. The Royals rallied in the sixth to claim a 6-5 lead. In the seventh, Polanco smacked a triple to the wall in center, his first of the season, and then scored the tying run. He came to the rescue in the eighth with a tie-breaking RBI single. The Tigers held on for a 7-6 win.

In true fashion, the modest Polanco downplayed his achievements and his solid start to the season. Instead, he credited his approach. He said,

“I try not to give any at-bat away. I want to get a base hit every time I’m up there. I work very hard at my job. I try to learn every day. I try to make something happen every time. I don’t really follow stats much. There are times that you feel good and times that you feel bad. I feel good right now.”

That season, Tigers closer Todd Jones was writing columns for the Detroit Free Press. Polanco was the subject of a piece published on April 22. Jones summed up his teammates’ admiration for Polly, citing his commitment to preparation (which apparently included “slamming coffee” before games) and his versatile skillset. Jones wrote,

“He can move the runner. He can hit the hole for a big late hit. He can stay in there when a guy twice his size is barreling down his throat to take him out as the turns the double play to help preserve the win.

Now we expect big things out of him. We expect him to be an All-Star for the first time this year. We expect about 200 hits, but we also expect his smiling face every day to cheer us up.”

Polanco helped get the Tigers rolling that afternoon as the Tigers hosted the White Sox. He contributed an RBI single and scored a run in the Tigers’ three-run first inning rally. The Sox tied the game in the fifth and took a 5-3 lead in the eighth. Marcus Thames’ two run homer tied it back up in the bottom of the ninth. With a runner on second in the tenth, Polanco drew an intentional walk, but was stranded. The game continued on.

Polly got another chance to be the hero in the bottom of the twelfth. With two on and one out, he laced a single into left field to drive Pudge Rodriguez in with winning run. Rodriguez, whose leadoff walk helped set the table for Polanco, said,

“He’s a tremendous hitter, man. He’s a great, great player. I knew, in that situation, that he was going to come through for us. He’s been so good the whole year.”

Other Tigers were also willing to rave about Polanco. Brandon Inge called him “amazing”, and Marcus Thames called him “a special hitter”. Polly humbly took it all in stride, replying that he felt the same way about his teammates.

Coming into the season, Polanco’s career batting average was percentage points shy of the .300 mark. By the end of April, he was hitting .356, and he bumped that up to .376 after a four-hit game in a 5-4 win against the Orioles on May 1. Although it was still early in the season, some observers started to wonder if Polanco could become the Tigers’ first batting champ since Norm Cash hit .361 in 1961. He cooled slightly in May, however, hitting only .299 for the month.

Polanco and the Tigers got some revenge against their 2006 World Series opponents when they swept the Cardinals in a three-game series at Comerica Park in May. In the Friday night series opener on May 18, Polly doubled and scored on a Sheffield home run in the first. He added another double, which drove in a run, in the fourth. In a nine-run fifth inning explosion, Polanco doubled in two more runs and also scored. The final score was 14-4.

History was made on June 12 when Justin Verlander threw the first ever no-hitter at Comerica Park. Polanco was involved in the biggest play in the game. After a one out walk in the top of the eighth, the Brewers’ Gabe Gross hit a hard smash at shortstop Neifi Perez, who was spun around as he went low to field it. He was somehow able to make a nice backhanded flip to Polanco, his fellow Dominican, in time for the force at second on a hard-charging Bill Hall. Polanco then made what was described as a “wondrous relay” to narrowly complete the inning-ending double play.

In early July, the Tigers and Indians were in a tight race in the AL Central. The first place Tribe came to town for an important three-game series on July 3, up by two games in the standings. They bumped their lead to three with a 5-4 win in eleven innings in the series opener. The Tigers struck back on July 4 with a 6-4 win. Polanco’s RBI single capped a three-run rally in the fourth.

The real fireworks happened the next day. After the Indians’ Victor Martinez homered off Verlander in the top of the first, Polanco evened the score in the bottom half with a longball of his own off Cleveland ace C.C. Sabathia. The Indians snatched the lead back in the second. Polanco doubled and scored in a four-run third inning rally. Neither he nor the Tigers were done. Polly singled and scored in a five-run sixth inning rally. The Tigers won 12-3 to take the series.

The Indians left Detroit holding on to a one-game lead. A 9-2 Tigers win against the Red Sox on June 6 (featuring a three-hit, two-run performance from Polanco), coupled with an Indians loss in Toronto gave the Tigers the division lead by percentage points. They went into the All-Star break as the first place team in the AL Central and would hold the division lead through the rest of July.

Polanco was hitting .335 at the break, second on the Tigers behind Ordonez, whose .367 was leading the league. Fans throughout the baseball world had recognized that Polly was, as his mid-season report card indicated, a player who was “relentless at the plate and reliable in the field”, one whose “mastery of the game’s subtleties is extraordinary”. Polanco was voted into the All-Star starting lineup by the fans, successfully living up to Todd Jones’ expectation from April.

He defeated Robinson Cano of the Yankees, a fellow Dominican, by over a million votes. Polly joked that he’d have to thank his wife for voting for him a million times. He was joined in the AL starting lineup by fellow Tigers Magglio Ordonez and Pudge Rodriguez. Teammates Carlos Guillen and Justin Verlander were also added to the All-Star squad that would be managed by Jim Leyland. Polanco hit eighth in a stacked lineup. He grounded out in his only at-bat in the third.

Perhaps there was nobody happier about Polanco making the All-Star team than Leyland. Earlier in the season, he had talked about what Polly meant to the Tigers. He exclaimed,

“He’s just a smart, good, everyday baseball player. He’s a guy you’d like working for you in whatever business you were in. He’s a tough out. He puts the ball in play. He knows how to do his job. He is probably the perfect example of what I’m talking about when I say, ‘I want a baseball player’. He’s a baseball player.”

July ended on a record breaking note for Polanco. In the first inning on July 31 in Oakland, he was the middleman in a 5-4-3 inning-ending double play. With two successful chances on the play (the putout at second and the throw to first), he tied and broke Luis Castillo’s major league record of 646 consecutive errorless fielding chances by a second baseman. The last error that Polanco had made happened on July 1, 2006.

Polanco broke another of Castillo’s defensive records on August 13. It was an easy night on the home diamond, as Polly had a third inning assist and no other chances. He got the assist by picking up a ball that ricocheted off shortstop Carlos Guillen and alertly throwing to third baseman Brandon Inge to nab an incoming runner. It was Polanco’s 144th straight errorless game at second, a new major league record.

He admitted that he’d been thinking about the record during the ninth inning. Defense was something that was very important to Polanco. He said,

“I take a lot of pride in that. I do believe we can win a lot of games just by having good defense. The defense can be there every day. You might be a great hitting team, but you’re not going to hit every day.”

What made it possible for Polanco to break two big league fielding records in the span of a couple weeks? He chalked it up to concentration and his pre-game routine of taking 40-50 grounders. By trying to make the plays in practice, whether they were balls hit right at him, hit to his left, or hit to his right, he knew he’d be ready to make them in the game.

An 11-18 August dropped the Tigers into second place in the AL Central. The Indians, meanwhile, went 17-11 to retake the division lead. The Tigers’ best shot at a playoff berth was starting to look like it’d be a second straight wild card, but they were third in that race behind the Yankees and Mariners.

On September 6, they hosted the White Sox. The Tigers took a 1-0 lead into the eighth, but Fernando Rodney couldn’t hold it. Trailing 2-1 in the bottom of the ninth, the Tigers clawed back to tie the game. With the potential winning run on second, Sox closer Bobby Jenks was a pitch away from sending the game to extra innings, but he hit Curtis Granderson with a two-strike pitch.

That brought up Polanco. On the first pitch he saw, he sent a dribbler past the third baseman and into left field. Omar Infante scored the winning run. The victory put the Tigers in a tie with the Mariners for second place in the wild card race. The Mariners would be the Tigers’ next opponent.

Polanco set the pace in the series opener with Seattle at Comerica Park on September 7. His first inning double scored Granderson to put the Tigers up 1-0. They coasted to a 5-1 win.

Polly was also instrumental the next day in a game in which the Mariners tied the score three times after the Tigers took a lead. In the first, he singled and scored during a three-run rally that gave the Tigers their first lead. In the fourth, his sacrifice fly broke a 4-4 tie. In the sixth, he singled and scored during a three-run, tie-breaking rally that gave the Tigers an 8-5 lead.

The Mariners had closed the gap to 8-6 in the top of the seventh. In the bottom half, Polanco came up with the bases loaded and two out. He shot incoming reliever Sean White’s first pitch into left field for a double that cleared the bases and gave the Tigers an 11-6 lead. They went on to win 12-6. The game was also Polanco’s 162nd in a row without an error, the equivalent of a full season. Fittingly, he made the game-ending play on a routine grounder.

Neither the Tigers nor the Mariners would catch the Yankees in the wild card race. The Yanks clinched their wild card berth on September 27, with three games left to go in the regular season for the Tigers. From that point, Polanco needed four more hits to reach 200 and join teammate Magglio Ordonez (who’d gotten his 200th hit on September 17). Polly had already topped his previous career high of 173 hits (set in 2001 when he was with the Cardinals).

As 2007 wound its way down to one last game, Polanco needed just one more hit. In the season finale in Chicago on September 30, Leyland had him lead off. In his first at-bat, Polly was retired on a foul popfly on the first base side. He led off the third inning by lining a 2-2 pitch from Jose Contreras into left field for a base hit. For the first time since 1937, the Tigers had more than one player reach 200 hits.

Two batters later, Polanco scored on a Carlos Guillen home run. With that, his work was done for the season. Leyland sent Omar Infante out to take over at second. Thus, Polanco also completed an error-free season, becoming the first everyday second baseman in major league history to achieve that amazing feat. He said that the reception he got in the dugout from his teammates brought him to tears.

(It was a fun milestone-filled game for the Tigers, who won 13-3. Guillen’s home run gave him 100 RBI for the year. Curtis Granderson’s three hits gave him his first .300 season. Rookie catcher Mike Rabelo his first big league home run. Ordonez clinched the AL batting title with a .363 mark.)

In addition to a new career high in hits, Polanco also set career highs in 2007 in batting average (.341), on-base percentage (.388), slugging percentage (.458), OPS (.846), plate appearances (641), runs (105), doubles (36), RBI (67), total bases (269), and WAR (6.1).

Polanco only struck out 30 times all season and led the major leagues in at-bats per strikeout (19.6). He finished third in the majors in batting average. In the AL, he finished third in singles (152), fifth in hits, seventh in WAR for position players, and tenth in overall WAR.

For his achievements both at the plate and in the field, Polanco won his first Gold Glove and his first Silver Slugger award. Although winning a Gold Glove was a goal of Polanco’s, the idea was one that he handled with his usual class and modesty. He remarked,

“People don’t understand me when I say I don’t pay attention to stuff like that. It’s because I have no control over it. I don’t want to be disappointed if it doesn’t happen. To get a Gold Glove or to win a batting title or make the All-Star team, all of those things mean a lot to you if you like this game.

I try not to think about them because that just puts extra pressure on you and there’s enough pressure playing this game. But 10 years from now, when someone comes to my home and sees a Gold Glove on my wall, they’ll say, ‘Hey, you really did something in your career.'”

He really did. While the 2007 Detroit Tigers season may be remembered more for the batting title that Magglio Ordonez won or the no-hitter that Justin Verlander threw, the excellent work that Placido Polanco, the lovable and dependable second baseman from the Dominican Republic, did that season will always be worth remembering.

 

 

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