Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 28, 2012

Tigers About To Fall Victim To Their ALCS Success

One has to salute Detroit manager Jim Leyland. After the Tigers swept aside the Yankees in Game Four of the ALCS on October 18th, he was determined to avoid a repeat of 2006. That was the year Detroit advanced to the Series by sweeping the Oakland A’s in the ALCS, and then had to wait while the Cardinals and the Mets fought their way through seven tense games to determine the National League representative to the Fall Classic. By the time that series ended with New York’s Carlos Beltran looking at a called third strike in the bottom of the 9th of Game Seven, Detroit had been idle for days and further hampered by bad weather which forced them to practice indoors. Leyland’s squad had endured a full week of inactivity by the time they took the field for Game One of the Series. They came out flat, with rookie pitcher Justin Verlander taking the opening loss. While Detroit did rally to win Game Two at home, they never really got untracked and lost the Series to the Cardinals in five games, during which they scored a total of just eleven runs.

This year Leyland knew his team would have six days before the Series opened in either San Francisco or St. Louis. The Detroit weather was more cooperative than in 2006, allowing his team to practice on their home field at Comerica Park. But Leyland went beyond mere practice sessions, flying a group of minor leaguers up from the team’s training complex in Lakeland, Florida. They held intra-squad games on Sunday and Monday, giving hitters a chance to face live pitching and vice versa. Detroit’s manager did everything he could to make certain his team would be ready to go when the first call of “play ball” rang out last Wednesday evening.

It was an effort both determined and inspired; but three games into the World Series it also appears to be one that was doomed from the start. In a reprise of 2006 Verlander again took the Game One loss; the fact that he is no longer a rookie but instead the best pitcher on the planet apparently of no consequence. In the eighteen innings of play since Game One, the powerful Detroit lineup has been shut out. In Game Two they managed just two hits and a total of four base runners, only one of whom advanced into scoring position. That was in the 2nd inning, when Delmon Young doubled. That was also the moment when the Tigers came as close as they have come to scoring in the last two games and to taking a lead at all. Prince Fielder had been hit by a pitch to lead off the inning. When Young doubled to left, third base coach Gene Lamont made the unwise decision to wave the lumbering Fielder home. Left fielder Gregor Blanco’s throw sailed over the head of the shortstop, but right into the glove of second baseman Marco Scutaro, who relayed to catcher Buster Posey in time to cut down Fielder.

At home in Game Three they put eleven men on base, thanks to five hits, five walks, and a San Francisco error. But only four of those runners moved into scoring position, none after the 5th inning. For the second game in a row Fielder grounded into a double play, and Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera popped out with the bases loaded in the 5th to end Detroit’s best threat of the night. For the Series Cabrera is just 2 for 9, with a pair of singles. That’s only good when compared to Fielder. In ten trips to the plate through three games, the first baseman who hit .313 with 30 home runs during the regular season has a solitary single.

It’s not as if the Giants have been feasting on Detroit’s pitching. If one sets aside Pablo Sandoval’s historic three homer, four hit, four RBI night in Game One, then San Francisco is averaging less than three runs and just over six hits per game. Except for Verlander’s surprisingly indifferent performance, the Tigers’ pitching staff has done a credible job. The problem is that “credible” doesn’t do much to win a championship when the offense is hitting .165.

Casual fans who watched the Tigers’ batsmen average exactly four runs and nearly ten hits per game through the first two rounds of the playoffs might be surprised to witness their sudden futility at the plate. But close observers of the game know that the results so far have been quite predictable. Since the League Championship Series round of the playoffs went to seven games in 1985, the enforced layoff that comes with quick victory has more often than not proven to be a dead weight on a team once the World Series got underway. Never has that been truer than in the three previous years when the time off for one team exceeded that for the other by the greatest possible amount because one LCS was decided in a sweep while the other went seven games.

All too well aware of what happened to his Tigers in 2006; manager Leyland tried his best to change things. But Detroit should perhaps be considered to have done as well as could be expected in that series against St. Louis, since they at least won a game. In 1988 Oakland swept aside the Red Sox in the ALCS, while the Dodgers needed the full seven games to oust the Mets. When the two California teams met in the World Series it was all L.A., with the highly favored A’s managing but a single victory in five games against the Dodgers. Much like Sandoval’s big night in this Series, that matchup also featured a decidedly memorable moment in Game One; when the injured Kirk Gibson hobbled up to the plate in the last of the 9th and delivered his iconic walk-off two-run home run off Oakland closer Dennis Eckersley.

There was no particular magic moment and no solitary victory for the Series loser in 2007. The Colorado Rockies came in with eight straight postseason wins, having swept both Philadelphia in the NLDS and Arizona in the NLCS after beating San Diego in a Wild Card tiebreaker game. The Rockies didn’t win another game that season. Boston, who needed all seven games to put away the Cleveland Indians in the ALCS, crushed Colorado in four straight by a combined score of 29-10.

Now for the fourth time the World Series features a matchup between a LCS sweeper and a team forced to go seven games in the penultimate round of the playoffs. It’s not over yet as I write this on Sunday afternoon, though it may be by the time some readers get to this paragraph. Ballplayers are creatures of habit, the repetitive rhythms of the longest season with its play day after day after day is engrained into their psyches. Despite the ability to line up one’s rotation and recover from nagging injuries, history says that at the season’s most important time of all a team that has had that rhythm disrupted is at a distinct disadvantage playing against one that has had it continue. Jim Leyland did everything he could to change that during the Tigers’ off week, and his players will try to do so on the field beginning Sunday night. But trailing three games to none in the World Series, the only way they can do so now is by writing some highly unlikely history of their own.

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Responses

  1. Gibson home run one of my all time favorite moments


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