The 2006 Detroit Tigers’ Dominant Weekend At Wrigley Field

Fans walk up to Wrigley Field before the Chicago Cubs game against the Detroit Tigers on June 17, 2006. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Fans walk up to Wrigley Field before the Chicago Cubs game against the Detroit Tigers on June 17, 2006. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images) /

The Detroit Tigers had an amazing year in 2006. One of the highlights of the regular season was a weekend visit to historic Wrigley Field in Chicago in June. A red-hot Tigers team dominated the three-game series against the Cubs.

In the Windy City, the ballpark at the corner of Clark and Addison is just as special to fans there as the ballpark at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull was to fans in the Motor City. Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs since 1916, was recently designated as a National Historical Landmark by the U.S. Department of the Interior.

Although the Tigers have been sporadic visitors, Wrigley Field does have an important place in Detroit baseball history. In seven World Series games there in 1935 and 1945, the Tigers beat the Cubs in five of them, including Game 7 in 1945. Since interleague play began, Detroit has a 9-4 record at Wrigley. The most memorable of their five regular-season visits to the stadium on Chicago’s North Side happened in 2006.

Friday, June 16

It was a hazy 88-degree afternoon with 16 mph winds blowing straight out for the series opener. The 43-24 Tigers arrived in Chicago with the best record in the American League. That was especially remarkable because it hadn’t been very long at all since the 2003 Tigers won a total of 43 games.

One of the biggest improvements the team had made since then was the addition of center fielder and leadoff hitter Curtis Granderson. He turned out to be quite a catalyst. Playing in his first full big-league season, Grandy hit .312/.381/.592 leading off the first inning for the Tigers in 2006. He got this game started with a bloop double into shallow left field, which snapped a brief 0-for-9 slump.

Placido Polanco lofted a fly ball to center that the wind carried to the warning track. Cubs center fielder Juan Pierre almost made the catch, but the ball dropped in for a double. The Tigers kept Pierre busy in the first. Ivan Rodriguez drove a ball to the warning track in center that Pierre caught. The sacrifice fly scored Granderson, and Polanco took third. Magglio Ordoñez gave the Tigers a 2-0 lead on a line drive single to center. The potential for a bigger inning was cut short by an ugly double play. Carlos Guillen struck out on a 3-2 pitch that looked a little outside, and Ordoñez, who was casually trotting to second, was an easy out.

Marcus Thames, a right-handed power hitter who had earned the nickname “Country Strong”, led off the second inning with a home run to right. It was his first opposite-field blast of the season and 13th overall. That tied him for the team lead with Ordoñez and Brandon Inge. Chris Shelton, who became known as “Red Pop” during his power surge earlier in the season, doubled off the right field wall. Two batters later, the Tigers turned the lineup over.

Granderson tripled to deep right-center, scoring Shelton. The Tigers were up 4-0. That knocked Cubs starter Glendon Rusch out of the game. It was a thrilling moment for Granderson, who led the team with nine triples in 2006. The Tigers’ budding star grew up in the Chicago suburbs and went to college at the University of Illinois-Chicago, which was just a few miles away from Wrigley Field. He had friends and family there rooting him on. Granderson said that he was excited to play at the ballpark for the first time.

Detroit Tigers
Curtis Granderson, circa 2006. (Photo by G. N. Lowrance/Getty Images) /

Cubs’ right fielder Jacques Jones, a future Tiger, led off the bottom of the second with his 200th career double. He later scored on a single by Henry Blanco, and the Cubs were on the board. In the top of the third, Jones made a nice catch in foul territory on a fly ball off the bat of Ordoñez. Jones’ momentum took him into the Tigers bullpen, where he almost collided with another Jones (Todd, the Tigers closer). Blanco homered off starter Nate Robertson in the bottom of the fourth to cut the Tigers’ lead to 4-2.

The Tigers got a run back in the fifth. Granderson drew a leadoff walk and went to second on a balk by Cubs reliever Angel Guzman. Polanco knocked him in with a single. Detroit had another good scoring opportunity in the sixth. Inge doubled, which brought up Robertson. He lined the ball into shallow center, but Pierre made a nice diving catch to steal what would’ve been the Tiger pitcher’s first big league hit. Had the ball gotten by Pierre, Inge might have scored.

It was the Tigers’ Polanco who made the best play of the game, according to John Lowe of the Detroit Free Press. In the bottom of the sixth, Matt Murton hit a high pop-up toward second base that the wind intercepted. By this point in the game, the wind had shifted. Polanco seemed to lose track of the ball for a moment as the breeze carried it into shallow left-center, but he kept after it and made the catch. Cubs fans may have argued that Jacques Jones made the best play of the day. In the top of the eighth, he made a leaping catch and crashed into the ivy-covered wall in right. That stole an extra-base hit away from Thames.

Tigers manager Jim Leyland went to his bullpen for the bottom of the eighth. Lefty specialist Jamie Walker came in to face the left-hand hitting Todd Walker. Detroit’s Walker got Chicago’s Walker to fly out to left. Then, fourteen years before the term became part of our collective vocabulary, Leyland made a Zoom call.

Detroit Tigers
Joel Zumaya, circa 2006. (Photo by A. Messerschmidt/Getty Images) /

Joel Zumaya, an exciting and hard-throwing rookie, took over. Aramis Ramirez greeted him by knocking a 96 mph down-and-in fastball into the seats in left-center. He was one of only six batters to go deep against Zumaya that season. It was now a 5-3 game in favor of the Tigers. “Zoom” needed just five pitches to retire the next two hitters, though. He ended the inning by getting Murton out on a called third strike. Zumaya led all Tigers pitchers with 10.5 strikeouts per nine innings in 2006 and led Tigers relievers with 3.2 WAR.

Closer Todd Jones pitched a 1-2-3 inning in the ninth to seal the 5-3 Tigers win. He notched his 18th save of the season. He went on to save 37 in the first year of his second stint pitching for the Tigers. Jones and starter Kenny Rogers were Detroit’s two big free agent signings the previous December.

There were 40,683 fans at the ballpark that day, but not everyone was rooting for the hometown Cubbies. There was a sizable contingent rooting for the Tigers (including your humble narrator and his friend Ron). Chants of “Let’s go, Tigers!” had started early on, but they got a lot louder as Jones was putting the Cubs down in the ninth. Thames said that the chants gave him goosebumps. Inge joked that it was more cheering than the Tigers had gotten in the entire 2003 season. He commented,

"“To have the crowd cheer for us more than for them, it felt like we were at home.”"

Saturday, June 17

It was another muggy and breezy day in Chicago’s North Side. The crowd of 41,459 would be the third-largest at Wrigley Field that summer. With the obvious exception of the pitcher, Leyland’s lineup card was the same as the series opener.

The Tigers picked up where they had left off. Granderson tripled into the right-field corner and just beat the throw as he slid into third. The “Let’s Go, Tigers!” chants that rang throughout the ballpark the day before started right up again. Detroit responded by giving their fans more reasons to cheer. Polanco singled Grandy in. Two batters later, Guillen hit a two-run home run to right. The Tigers led 3-0.

Tigers starter Justin Verlander took the mound in the bottom of the first to make his interleague debut. The rookie righthander said,

"“There is a lot of history at this ballpark, and it’s an honor for me to step onto this field. I’ll try not to think about the history here, and just focus on what I have to do.”"

Detroit Tigers
Justin Verlander, circa 2006. (Photo by A. Messerschmidt/Getty Images) /

Verlander gave up only a double to Aramis Ramirez in the first inning. In the top of the second, the Tigers’ young pitcher came up for his first major league at-bat. Inge, who had doubled, was on second base with one out. Verlander looked at a called strike from Cubs starter Carlos Marmol, swung at and missed the second pitch, and then he took a ball outside. On the fourth pitch of the at-bat, Verlander hit a fly ball deep to right field. Jacques Jones had to battle the sun to make the catch, but it was enough to send Inge to third.

The second inning got off to a shaky start for Verlander. He gave up a leadoff single to Jones, a double to John Mabry, and an RBI single to Ronny Cedeño. That made it a 3-1 game. Henry Blanco, who had three hits and two RBI the day before, was up with no outs and runners on the corners. On a 2-2 pitch, Blanco hit a fly ball down the left-field line into the corner. It was ruled a foul ball, but TV replays showed white paint flying up when the ball hit the ground. It should’ve been a fair ball. The Tigers caught a break on the ump’s missed call. Instead of an extra-base hit that would have driven in at least one run, the at-bat ended with Blanco lining out to Guillen at short. Verlander escaped further damage by getting Marmol to hit into an inning-ending double play.

The Tigers added a run in the third. Polanco led off with a double. Pudge Rodriguez laid down a sacrifice bunt, which he hardly ever did in a Hall of Fame career that spanned 21 seasons. That sent Polly to third. Ordoñez drove him in with a single. The Tigers led 4-1.

The Cubs put the leadoff runner on against Verlander in the third, fourth, and fifth innings, but he was able to keep Chicago from scoring any more runs. Meanwhile, Marmol settled into a groove and went on to retire the last nine Tigers he faced. He finished his day by striking Inge out to end the top of the sixth.

In the bottom of the sixth, Jones singled. It was the fifth straight inning in which the Cubs leadoff hitter reached base. Each time, incredibly enough, it was either Jacques Jones (two singles and a walk) or Juan Pierre (two singles). Verlander then lost a nine-pitch battle with Mabry and walked him. The Tigers’ future ace bounced back to strike out Blanco and get Cedeño to fly out to center. After walking pinch-hitter Tony Womack to load the bases, Verlander’s day was done.

With nine hits and three walks in 5.2 innings pitched, it wasn’t one of Verlander’s best starts of the season, but he battled his way through it. Verlander, the eventual American League Rookie of the Year, went on to win 17 games in 2006, which tied him with Kenny Rogers for the team lead. JV’s 125 ERA+ and 3.84 led all Tigers starters that season, and his 4.0 WAR was tops on the pitching staff.

Righty Wil Ledezma got the call after Verlander departed. Pierre fouled off one too many of Ledezma’s pitches in a nine-pitch at-bat and popped out to Inge in foul territory to end the Cubs’ threat. Each team went out 1-2-3 in the seventh, and the Tigers held their 4-1 lead.

The Tigers fans that invaded Wrigley Field (including your humble narrator and his friend) made their presence known again during the seventh inning stretch. Andy Pafko, who played for the Cubs in the 1945 World Series against the Tigers, was the special guest on hand to lead the crowd in the singing of “Take Me Out To The Ballgame”. Detroit fans who sang the line “…root, root, root for the Tigers…” drowned out the Chicago fans who sang “…root, root, root for the Cubbies…”, which was rather impressive.

With one out in the eighth, the Tigers’ offense got rolling again. Ordoñez and Guillen singled. Omar Infante pinch-hit for Ledezma and clubbed a fly ball to deep left-center. As two Cubs outfielders converged, the ball ricocheted off the wall above the ivy. It looked like it might have bounced out of a basket that ran along the top of the wall. Balls that land in the basket are home runs. Leyland came out to argue that it should be a three-run homer for Infante instead of the two-run triple that it was. The umpires conferred and ultimately disagreed with Leyland. He was hot, and although he amped up the intensity of his gesturing as he chewed out the home plate ump, he managed to not get ejected.

Shelton promptly singled Infante in, and the Tigers lead was 7-1. Detroit added on in the ninth. Polanco beat out an infield single when a throw from third baseman Aramis Ramirez pulled first baseman, Phil Nevin, off the bag. Ordoñez doubled to the wall in right to knock Polanco in. Guillen followed with a ground-rule double that got stuck in the ivy on the left-field wall. Each of those hits was the third of the game for Polanco, Ordoñez, and Guillen.

Ordoñez will always be remembered for the dramatic pennant-clinching home run that he hit that October at Comerica Park, but he gave opposing pitchers fits all throughout the season. Ordoñez led the Tigers with 177 hits, 104 RBI, and 283 total bases in 2006.

Detroit Tigers
Magglio Ordonez, circa 2006. (Photo by A. Messerschmidt/Getty Images) /

Up 9-1, the Tigers sent reliever Fernando Rodney back out for the ninth. He’d pitched a scoreless eighth. The last three outs would be a bit tougher for him. A walk, a double, and a single plated two Cubs runs. As Chicago threatened, the Detroit bullpen had to get busy. Rodney bore down, however, and got Jones to ground out to Polanco to end the game.

The Tigers won 9-3 to claim another victory on the Cubs’ classic field. They had clinched the series and were poised for a sweep. With the sounds of enthusiastic Tigers fans likely ringing in his ears, Pierre said afterward,

"“I knew when I was on the opposing team, everybody gets up to play in Wrigley. It’s the whole atmosphere.”"

Sunday, June 18

The weather in Chicago had changed for the series finale. It was only 75 degrees, and there was light rain early on as the crowd of 39,938 gathered to watch this Father’s Day matchup between the Tigers and Cubs. The holiday likely created a special setting for many fans, and it didn’t take long for Detroit to start making the afternoon even more memorable for their fans.

The Cubs may have felt hopeful with righty Mark Prior making his season debut after returning from an injury. At that point, he was undefeated in interleague play. Chicago’s optimism soon faded. Granderson tagged Prior for a leadoff home run to right field. It was his 10th of the season and the first leadoff homer of his career. Granderson went on to hit 47 leadoff homers in his 16-year career. The 24 that he hit in a Tigers uniform are still a franchise record. Polanco eagerly swung at the first pitch he saw and lined it to center for a single.

The 1-2 punch of Grandy and Polly atop the lineup was like a godsend for the Tigers, as each of them racked up first-inning hits in all three games of the series. Detroit’s dynamic duo combined for 11 hits and scored a combined 10 runs that weekend at Wrigley Field. Granderson led all Tigers with 13 total bases in the series.

Detroit Tigers
Placido Polanco, circa 2006. (Photo by Michael Zagaris/MLB Photos via Getty Images) /

That brought up catcher Vance Wilson, who got the start while Rodriguez took a day off. That was Leyland’s only lineup change from the previous two games. The 33-year old Wilson said that he hadn’t hit third in any lineup since his junior college days. His sacrifice bunt attempt bounced off the plate. Prior fielded it, but threw wildly. Wilson was safe, and Polanco moved to third. Ordoñez popped out to the first baseman for the first out of the inning.

Guillen followed with a three-run home run to left field that landed in the first row of seats, increasing the Tigers’ early lead to 4-0. It was his ninth of the season. He almost passed Wilson on the bases. Wilson had gone back to tag first base in case the ball had been a fly out and almost didn’t realize that he had a teammate hot on his trail.

in 2006, Guillen was arguably the Tigers’ best hitter. He led the team with a .320 batting average, .400 on-base percentage, 136 OPS+, 100 runs, 41 doubles, 71 walks, 20 stolen bases, and 6.0 WAR. After missing nearly half of the 2005 season with injuries, Guillen was able to play in a career-high 153 games in 2006.

Detroit Tigers
Carlos Guillen, circa 2006. (Photo by Michael Zagaris/MLB Photos via Getty Images) /

As the first inning continued, Thames drew a walk, and Shelton hit a two-run homer to center. That created a logjam on the Tigers’ leaders board. Shelton, Thames, Ordoñez, and Inge were all tied for the team lead with 13 home runs. By the end of the game, that situation had resolved itself.

When the smoke finally cleared after the third out was recorded, the Tigers had a 6-0 lead. The Detroit offense was quite potent in the first inning in 2006. The 107 runs they scored during an opening frame was a season-high (followed closely by 104 runs in the fourth, 103 runs in the second, and 100 in the sixth.) In five separate games, the 2006 Tigers put up at least five runs in the first inning.

The beneficiary of the Tigers’ onslaught was 41-year old lefty Kenny Rogers, who was in search of his 200th career win. His wife and two kids were in attendance to cheer him on. Rogers noted,

"“They might have been here even if I wasn’t going for 200. It’s Father’s Day, and that means more. They want to be here for that.”"

Rogers had no problems with the Cubs in the bottom of the first. He needed just eight pitches to record a 1-2-3 inning. In contrast, Prior threw 39 pitches in the top half of the inning. Rogers needed just eight more pitches to throw another 1-2-3 inning in the second. Henry Blanco’s solo homer in the third gave the Cubs their first run of the game.

A two-run homer from Wilson (#2) in the fourth boosted the Tigers’ lead to 8-1. That knocked Prior out of the game. Aramis Ramirez led off the bottom of the fourth with a homer that sailed way over the left-field bleachers and on to Waveland Avenue outside the ballpark to make it an 8-2 game. Phil Nevin followed with a single. Rogers then gave the Tigers a brief scare when he dove for a grounder off the bat of Matt Murton. He landed on his left shoulder but was ok. Shortstop Guillen fielded the ball to begin the 4-6-3 double play.

With one out in the top of the fifth, Thames homered off Cubs reliever Roberto Novoa. That momentarily gave him the team lead with 14. While he didn’t finish as the Tigers’ top home run hitter, he did lead the team with a .549 slugging percentage in 2006. Two batters later, Inge hit his 14th home run into the basket atop the right-field wall. The Tigers were up 10-2.

The Tigers struck again in the eighth. Shelton hit his 14th homer of the season to lead off the inning, which tied him with Thames and Inge. It was Shelton’s third multi-homer game of the season, but his first since April 6. Inge was up next. One pitch after he was brushed back by a high-and-inside pitch, he cranked a home run to left-center. It was his 15th, which allowed him to reclaim the team lead. Inge’s second homer was the Tigers’ eighth on the day, which tied a team record that was set on June 20, 2000. The record still stands.

Although the Tigers had a very comfortable lead 12-2 lead, Leyland let Rogers take one more at-bat. The veteran pitcher responded by hitting the only double of his big league career. He was erased in an inning-ending double play when shortstop Ronny Cedeño caught him off the bag after snaring Wilson’s line drive. Rogers stuck around to pitch a 1-2-3 bottom of the eighth.

Jason Grilli took over for the Tigers in the bottom of the ninth. The solo home run Nevin hit off him wasn’t a big deal. The Tigers wrapped up the sweep at Wrigley Field with a convincing 12-3 win. All 15 runs in the game were scored via home runs. It was a productive weekend for Tigers hitters, who scored 26 runs on 37 hits.

It was Rogers’ 10th win of the season and the 200th of his career. At the time, that made him the 10th active pitcher to win that many. Currently, Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke are the only two active pitchers with at least 200 wins. Tigers personnel were in awe of Rogers’ feat. His teammates saluted him with a champagne toast in the clubhouse and presented him with a special ‘200’ jersey that they all signed. Rogers’ wife and kids joined him for post-game photos.  Shelton said,

"“He reaches a milestone on Father’s Day in Wrigley Field. Come on. That’s almost storybook.”"

Leyland was a little more emotional talking about his ace, whose 1.260 WHIP led all Tigers starters that season. Before cutting his comments short because he was starting to cry, he uttered,

"“You can’t say enough about what he’s done for us.”"

Detroit Tigers
Kenny Rogers, circa 2006. (Photo by Michael Zagaris/MLB Photos via Getty Images) /

The Tigers left Wrigley Field with a 46-24 record, which was the best in baseball. June ended up being the team’s best month of the year. They went 20-7 with a season-high 157 runs scored. Although the Tigers only held a slim 1.5 game lead over Chicago’s other team, the White Sox, in the AL Central, the idea of playing past 162 games was looking realistic. Rogers now had 200 wins in the regular season, but he hadn’t yet won one in the postseason. He commented,

"“There aren’t a ton of things I still want do, but that’s one of them without a doubt. Winning in the postseason would help my team, so I’d love to do that one. Hopefully, we’ll keep doing what we’re doing, and I’ll get a good shot at it.”"

Rogers indeed got a good shot at it in October. He got three shots, actually, and made the most of them.