Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 17, 2013

The Clock Is Ticking For The Tigers

The Detroit Tigers offense finally came to life Wednesday night. While the Boston Red Sox actually outhit the Tigers twelve to nine, the blows from Detroit were far more concentrated and timely. Take good situational hitting, like going four for nine as a team with runners in scoring position; add an unusually erratic Boston starter Jake Peavy, who issued three walks in as many innings while averaging scarcely more than two per nine during the regular season, and the result is seven Tigers crossing home plate, one more than in the first three ALCS games combined.

The seven runs scored were the most for any team in all but four of the twenty-eight other postseason contests played so far this year. While that’s further proof, as if any were needed, that the prevailing story line of these playoffs is dominant pitching; the fact that it happened on Wednesday is also a reminder of the major impact that can result from a minor adjustment. Frustrated by the fact that a lineup that led the majors in batting average during the regular season was hitting more than forty points lower in the playoffs, Tigers manager Jim Leyland bounced leadoff man Austin Jackson all the way down to the eighth spot, moving everyone else up one place in the order. Jackson came into the game hitless in the ALCS and with a two-digit batting average for the postseason. He responded to the change with two of the nine Detroit hits plus a pair of walks, two RBIs and a run scored.

Center fielder Jackson wasn’t the only Detroit player to finally get some good swings. Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez both went two for four, with Martinez scoring a run and Cabrera driving in two. With a pair of runs driven in followed by scoring himself, right fielder Torii Hunter accounted for as many runs in the 2nd inning as he had in the rest of the postseason.

Leyland’s lineup tweak may have come in the nick of time for the Tigers and their fans. Despite having Anibal Sanchez, Max Scherzer, and Justin Verlander take no-hit bids into the 5th inning or later of Games One through Three, Detroit trailed two games to one in the series thanks to a collective failure at the plate. The Game Four offensive outburst pulled the Tigers even, but with two of the possible three remaining games scheduled for Fenway Park, Detroit still has a long ways to go to return to the World Series, where last year they were swept by the San Francisco Giants. If in the end the Fall Classic opens in Boston, or even if the Tigers prevail in the ALCS but lose again in the Series, this time to the Cardinals or Dodgers, in Detroit there will be more than the normal level of disappointment for a playoff team that falls short. For as much as any team in the majors and by far more than most, these Tigers appear built for a championship. But dominance must be proven on the field, and in the age of free agency no lineup lasts forever.

The Tigers have won the AL’s Central Division three years in a row, but with a steadily shrinking lead. In 2011 they were the only team in the division to finish above .500, and coasted home 15 games ahead of Cleveland. Last year Chicago finished 3 games back, but the next closest competitor was 16 games behind. This year both Cleveland and Kansas City remained competitive for most of the schedule. A late fade left the Royals 7 games back, but young and hungry; while Cleveland battled to the very end, finishing just a single game behind. An increasingly competitive division makes a spot in future postseasons no longer a sure thing.

The roster is stocked with award winners. Last year Cabrera became the first batter in 45 years to win the Triple Crown. His efforts earned him the American League MVP Award, and he may well become the first AL player to repeat as MVP since Frank Thomas in 1993-94. Should that happen it will be three straight MVP Awards for the Tigers, because right hander Verlander claimed both the MVP and AL Cy Young Award in 2011. This season Verlander’s fellow starter Scherzer, whose 21-3 record made him the only 20-game winner in the majors, is the Cy Young favorite. Playing alongside those award winners are Sanchez, who led the league in ERA this season, as well as Prince Fielder and Victor Martinez, each with five trips to the All-Star Game. It is a lineup of great accomplishment, but one where the whole has been less than the sum of its parts, at least so far.

It is also an expensive lineup. Detroit’s $148 million payroll ranked fifth in the majors this season. The nature of the collective bargaining agreement and free agency means that players are often rewarded with big contracts based on past performance, reaping huge paydays when their actual skills are eroding. The Tigers lured Fielder from Milwaukee before last season with a 9-year, $214 million deal. He made $23 million this year, but his OPS was the lowest for any full season of his career. He will cost Detroit $24 million each of the next five years.

While Verlander has rebounded in the postseason, he was an indifferent 13-12 during the regular season, when his strikeouts to walks ratio was the worst in five years. This after he signed a deal that gives him $20 million this year and next, followed by a whopping $28 million for each of the four years after that. Meanwhile Scherzer is eligible for free agency at the end of next season, with Cabrera due to follow one year later. If the Tigers’ current commitments prevent the team from rewarding its stars, other franchises will surely pounce.

Perhaps Detroit’s big night on Wednesday will launch the Tigers on a streak that will carry them past the Red Sox and right through the World Series. Perhaps there will be a parade in Motown in a few weeks. But if not, one can’t help but think back to the 1990s. That was the decade in which teams in Atlanta and Cleveland and Seattle had a few, or in the first case many, years of putting a powerhouse lineup and rotation out on the field; lineups that with but a single exception always watched some other team hoist the Commissioner’s Trophy. A team can seize the moment, or the moment can pass a team by. As Yogi said, in reference to the lengthening afternoon shadows in left field at the old Stadium, “It gets dark early out there.”

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