| GREY PAPKE
Now we know exactly how the New York Yankees felt.
Really, we do. And it’s kind of eerie how much of a mirror image the Tigers’ World Series performance was with regards to the Yankees’ ALCS showing; the games were basically reversed. Our game four was their game one; extra innings, little offense, a key middle infielder suffers a postseason-ending injury (though make no mistake, Omar Infante is not Derek Jeter), and in the end, the Tigers just did not have enough. Our game three was their game two, minus the blown call: a home game with a completely dormant offense. Our game two was their game three; they, at least, got a solo home run in their effort. And our game one was their game four: the staff ace getting completely and unexpectedly rocked. They didn’t go in the same order, but in many ways, they were the same series.
And it just illustrates how fickle this game really is. One week the Tigers looked like they could beat anyone; the next, they looked helpless, lifeless, feeble, completely overmatched in every single facet of the game. The playoffs are a unique animal; all it takes is one week of bad hitting combined with quality pitching to make even the best lineups look like overpriced busts. Just ask the Yankees. Or the Tigers. Bats go cold. Sometimes you can work around it (with the exception of game four, the ALCS edition of the Tigers wasn’t exactly hitting the cover off the ball either). But more often than not, you can’t do it. And it’s such an incredibly helpless feeling. It’s not for lack of effort. If anything, they’re trying TOO hard to play the hero role, to hit a baseball 450 feet and spark the crowd and jumpstart a staggering offense. It’s the childhood dream, after all, to be the World Series hero. But these are good pitchers; even great pitchers. When you can bring a two-time Cy Young winner out of your bullpen, you know you’re facing one heck of a staff; it doesn’t matter how inconsistent he’s been.
And sometimes it’s just not meant to be. You can complain all you want about every break going against the Tigers – they certainly didn’t catch many in the World Series – but every single team that has ever won a title will tell you that you need the little things to go your way. A ground ball hitting a base; a bunt that somehow manages to stay fair. The Tigers can’t complain. They rode these breaks to the World Series themselves, be it Coco Crisp’s series-changing fumble in game two against Oakland, Nick Swisher’s botched dive in the ALCS opener to save the Tigers from a potentially devastating defeat, the blown call that went their way in game two, a few well-placed grounders and bloopers that managed to find space and get down – oh, and the entire New York Yankees lineup forgetting how to hit baseballs at the exact same time. The Tigers didn’t catch the breaks in the World Series, but they wouldn’t even have been in the World Series if they hadn’t caught the breaks in the first two rounds.
In the end, though, the Tigers have nobody to blame but themselves – be it Justin Verlander bombing in game one and their stagnant offense and inability to get the big hit in games two, three, and four. Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder have to shoulder a lot of the blame; Cabrera’s wind-aided game four homer aside, the Tigers’ dynamic duo simply did not contribute. It’s extremely hard to win when the guys you lean on are an offensive black hole in the middle of the lineup. Is it unfair to them after they had shouldered the load for virtually the entire season? Yes, probably. But such are the perils of short series and small sample sizes; every single failure is magnified. Pretty much the entire lineup did not hit when they needed to. A good amount of credit should go to the San Francisco pitching staff for that, but far too often, Tigers hitters got themselves out.
And it’s just so frustrating – because you don’t know how often you’re going to get opportunities like this. Ask the Yankees, perennial payroll champions, marquee player after marquee player, and they’ve won just one World Series since 2000 and only appeared in the Fall Classic three times in that twelve year span. Sure, that’s a lot – a whole lot more than most teams can say. But we’re talking about the Yankees here. They’ve had many good, some would say great teams during that span that didn’t even make it to the World Series. Baseball does not care how many All-Stars your lineup holds or how big your payroll is. Nothing is guaranteed. You can be in the conversation every single year but the opportunity to take advantage can be fleeting. And that’s what makes watching this team’s season end this way – flat, lifeless, with Octavio Dotel endlessly complaining about the clubhouse mentality – so hard to swallow.
Of course, it’s not like anyone’s going to break up the Tigers. Jim Leyland will return as manager whether you like it or not. Cabrera will be back; Fielder will be back; Jackson will be back; so too will Verlander, Scherzer, and Fister. Victor Martinez will be healthy and, if he can find his pre-injury form, be a huge DH upgrade over the hopefully departed Delmon Young. The holes are easily identifiable: another corner outfielder will probably do them very well, as it’s painfully apparent that Quintin Berry should not be playing regularly even in a platoon role and Avisail Garcia just is not ready for regular duty yet; they might think about looking for another starter, depending on their faith in Rick Porcello and whether Anibal Sanchez has priced himself out of the Tigers’ budget; they’ll probably want to look at bullpen pieces given Jose Valverde’s near-certain departure. An upgrade over Jhonny Peralta at shortstop would be nice, but that’s far, far easier said than done. Nothing can be ruled out, given Mike Ilitch’s hunger and checkbook, but it seems more likely that the changes will be more of the tinkering variety than a bombshell signing a la Fielder. I suppose it comes down to what you think the Real Tigers are: the group that struggled and scuffled to 88 victories in a weak division from April through September or the one that rolled up the rest of the American League in October. I suspect it’s somewhere between those two extremes.
The Tigers’ offseason needs and targets and plans and schemes will be discussed and debated at length in the next weeks and months; the basic thing is, the Tigers will likely be contending again next year, and all is not totally lost. And just as a reminder of where we’ve come from, ten years ago today we were reeling from a season with 106 losses, preparing to embark on the worst campaign in American League history. It’s a different kind of hurt when you’re terrible; you know you’re terrible, you expect nothing, but boy, does it suck. Everything is different now. We expect more. We can reasonably believe that we will be in the playoff hunt on an annual basis. It’s an odd feeling, I know. And it’s okay to hurt in moments like this; that different kind of hurt where you had such great expectations, only to see them shattered so dramatically. But this franchise is lightyears away from where it was ten years ago. Would I rather be hurting over losing a World Series than hurting over losing 100 games every single year? I sure would. Every single day of the week. And we’re very, very lucky to be in a position where we can reasonably believe that the Tigers will build a roster that is capable of finishing the job next year.