The 1987 Detroit Tigers: A Look Back Part 2

KANSAS CITY - 1987: Frank Tanana of the Detroit Tigers pitches during an MLB game versus the Kansas City Royals at Kaufmann Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri during the 1987 season. (Photo by Ron Vesely/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
KANSAS CITY - 1987: Frank Tanana of the Detroit Tigers pitches during an MLB game versus the Kansas City Royals at Kaufmann Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri during the 1987 season. (Photo by Ron Vesely/MLB Photos via Getty Images) /

The 1987 Detroit Tigers were a team that is often overlooked among Tigers teams that made it to the post-season. They overcame a loss of a major cog in their machine and thanks to a monster season by Alan Trammell and some new faces, Detroit would win their last American League East title. This is part 2 as we focus on the summer months into the final day of the regular season.

Alan Trammell was having the best summer of his career. He started June on a high note with a 21-game hitting streak that lasted until June 17th. By then, he was hitting .355/.406/.542 but they were still trailing the Blue Jays by 5.5 games, even after taking two out of three from them in Toronto.

His partner on the left side of the infield, Darnel Coles was struggling. After coming over from Seattle in the winter of 1985, Coles had a great year in 1986, hitting .286 with 20 home runs and 86 RBIs. However, heading into June, Coles was sent to the bench after starting the season batting .188 on May 24th. Coles would not make another start until June 28th and in August, he was traded to the Pirates for a veteran, Jim Morrison. 

Anderson would go back to Tom Brookens and throw in the mix farmhand Jim Walewander and Morrison at third base the rest of the season.  Bill Lajoie knew they needed another bat to keep up with Toronto and New York, who was in second place in June. Enter Bill “Maddog” Madlock. 

The Dodgers cut him after a poor start to the season, recovering from shoulder surgery and Tigers would sign him as a free agent on June 4th, 1987.  Madlock came with a pedigree. He won four National League batting crowns and was a three-time All-Star. He played with Darrell Evans when Evans was with the Giants from 1977 until Madlock was traded to Pittsburgh in ’79. Both would platoon at DH and first base for the rest of the season.

Madlock provided a “welcome to Detroit” moment on June 28th where he hit three home runs at Tiger Stadium against the Baltimore Orioles. He was the first Tiger to hit three home runs in one game since Larry Herndon did in 1982.

The Tigers would have a 17-8 month of July that would help them stay in the hunt of now first-place New York heading into their three-game series that started on July 31st. During their first showdown in New York, the Yankees took two out of three. In game one,  Willie Hernandez walked pinch-hitter Henry Cotto in the 9th inning. Then, a sacrifice moved Cotto over to second. Sparky would send in Mike Henneman to face future Tiger Gary Ward. He would blast a two-run home run to help the Yankees win the first game of the series, 6-5. At that point, the Yankees were 6-1 against Detroit.

On the next meet up on August 7th at home, the Tigers would fare much better. The bats would come alive for 12 runs in a 12-5 win and on Saturday night, Jeff Robinson would throw a complete game shutout with 9 strikeouts in the 8-0 win. The win would pull the Tigers within 1.5 games of New York and just a game back of Toronto, who was in second a half-game back.  Still, despite the strong start from the rookie, Bill Lajoie wanted a veteran down the stretch that had the experience that could help the rotation. Enter Doyle Alexander.

The trade you are tired of hearing about

In a recent podcast with pitcher Charlie McHugh, John Smoltz said he would not become the pitcher he was until he got to Atlanta.  What Bill Lajoie did on August 12th, 1987, made the most sense. You are trying to win now. Smoltz’s numbers at Glen Falls on the surface to any fan, no one possibly could know what he was to become. There, with that out of the way, we move the narrative along.

Alexander was exactly what the Tigers needed. While in his first start against Kansas City wasn’t “ace” material, it didn’t matter. His past experience with the Blue Jays is what helped them win their first division crown in 1985 when he was 5-2 with an ERA of 1.88 from August 25th until the end of the season. His post-season experience..well, another matter entirely.

September Showdown

On September 1st, the Tigers were in first place with the Blue Jays a game back at 78-52. The Yankees fell back to third to five games back. The “Showdown Series” as it was labeled, would start with the two teams facing each other for a four-game series starting on Thursday, September 24th at Exhibition Stadium. The Tigers and Blue Jays would be the first two teams to have a division title clinched on the last day of the regular season since 1982 when the Brewers clinched the AL East title over Baltimore.

The Jays won six in a row to start the month and by Monday, September 7th, they were up over Detroit. Between September 11th until the 24th, the Tigers were either tied or up to no more than 1.5 games up. So the importance of this series heading to Toronto was a pivotal moment for Detroit.

The first game had Jack Morris take on recently acquired Mike Flannigan. The lefty Flannigan was a staple for the Orioles since the mid-’70s, winning a Cy Young award in 1979. He outpitched Morris that day, allowing the Jays to come back when Morris could not hold down a two-run lead. Rookie David Wells and Tom Henke held the Tigers to just one hit over 2 and 1/3 innings pitched.

There was a huge play in this inning that perhaps changed the course for Toronto. Tony Fernandez broke his right elbow. For any Tigers fans who can remember, Fernandez was one of the first Tiger killers I can remember. He was great defensively and did the little things well.

It didnt stop from Toronto from taking 3 out of 4 in the series. The one game they were able to win was one that stood out. Doyle Alexander pitched 10.2 innings however, Sparky would leave him a bit too long as he would allow a two-out to tie the game. Kirk Gibson would hit an RBI-single in the 13th to win it.

Detroit would come home to face Baltimore while Toronto hosted the Brewers, who had a 20-4 start until they lost 12 in a row in May. After a sluggish two months, Milwaukee, like Detroit and Toronto, was red-hot. They did the Tigers a solid, sweeping the Jays.

Detroit split their four-game series with Baltimore, setting up for the final series of the season. Jack Morris, Doyle Alexander, and Frank Tanana would start. What people may forget is Tanana, the six starts prior to his win against Baltimore, he had not won a game since August 11th.

Alexander would square off against Jim Clancy. The Tigers would chase off Clancy with home runs from farmhand left fielder Scott Lusader and Alan Trammell. Lusader would go 2-4 with both of his RBI’s coming off the home run. Mike Henneman would go 2 innings for his seventh save of the season. The Tigers were tied heading to Morris vs Flanngian part 2 on Saturday.

Both starters pitched brilliantly but it was up to the bullpen. Once again, Mike Henneman came up clutch, pitching 3 innings of no-hit relief. Trammell would win the game in the 12th inning with an RBI single.  The Tigers took a one-game into Sunday as Tanana took on Jimmy Key. Key would be a runner up to the Cy Young award that year but he lead the AL with an ERA of 2.76. An interesting stat about Key against Detroit in 1987. In three starts, he was 0-2 with an ERA of 1.42.

He made one mistake that day that would lead to his second loss on the season to Detroit.

That was all Tanana needed as he would shutout the Jays for the 1-0 victory.

The Aftermath

The Tigers would not taste the post-season until 2006 but a lot of things that stood out to me as a Tigers fan after that. Lloyd Moseby, Cecil Fielder, David Wells, and John Cerutti would all become Tigers in the next six seasons.

Matt Nokes would never have another season as he did in a Detroit uniform as he was traded to the Yankees in 1990. Mike Henneman would be the all-time saves leader until Todd Jones took over that mantle. Trammell’s best season did not get him MVP honors. That honor went to Toronto’s George Bell who in the final series of the season, went 1-11. Trammell was voted into The Baseball Hall of Fame. I think that is a better compromise, don’t you?