October Surprise: Tigers and Jays Battle for ’87 Division Title

ViewFromOutfieldXSmall.jpgOver the next week, we’ll watch the Tigers and Twins play head-to-head to decide the American League Central.

While this plays out, let’s look back at the final two weekends of the 1987 season when the Tigers and Blue Jays squared off for seven heart-pounding, one-run games that would ultimately decide the American League East title.

Today, Part 1.

“I’m telling you, everything is going to come down to our seven games with Toronto.” — Tigers Manager Sparky Anderson, Sept. 21, 1987

Entering the 1987 season, little was expected of the Detroit Tigers. Just three seasons removed from a wire-to-wire championship season, the Tigers were considered mere also-rans in a division filled with potent lineups, solid pitching and the defending League Champions, the Red Sox.

Adding to an already challenging divisional landscape, the Tigers faced life without their All Star catcher and cleanup hitter, Lance Parrish. The Big Wheel rejected the Tigers’ two-year, $2.4 million contract offer and instead signed a one-year $800,000 deal with the Philadelphia Phillies.

That’s why in the first weeks of the 1987 season the story in baseball was not the Detroit Tigers. Hardly. The Milwaukee Brewers’ 13-0 start captivated the baseball world. After 13 games the Tigers had a less-imposing 6-7 record. Twenty games into the season Milwaukee had stormed to 18-2, four games ahead of New York, followed by Toronto (12-8), Baltimore (9-11), Detroit (8-12) and Cleveland (6-14).

The Brewers, though, soon came back to earth. On May 1 the club sat atop the A.L. East with a 19-3 record. Fueled by a horrific stretch that saw the team lose 12 straight and 18 out of 20, Tom Trebelhorn‘s team limped into June at 24-21 and would eventually finish seven games off the pace.

By the middle of May the Tigers’ record was a lackluster 11-19. But whereas Milwaukee’s season had imploded by Memorial Day, the 24-24 Tigers began showing signs of life.

The Tigers Find Their Groove

In June, things started clicking for the Tigers. The loss of Parrish was buffered unexpectedly by slugging catcher Matt Nokes called up from Triple-A Nashville in May. Detroit found more punch on the waiver wire on June 4, when the team signed four-time National League batting champion Bill Madlock who had been released by the Dodgers. Madlock, a career .306 hitter, brought an experienced and still-dangerous bat to a Detroit lineup lacking in right-handed pop.

After acquiring Madlock, the Tigers rolled to a 73-40 record, a .646 winning percentage. Along with shortstop Alan Trammell, who was crafting an MVP-caliber season, Madlock helped catapult the team into contention in the A.L. East.

By July 1, Detroit posted a 41-32 record and on August 1 they were 58-41, good for third place, just a game and a half behind the second-place Blue Jays and three games behind the Yankees.

Over the final two months of the season it became clear that the Tigers were in a three-team race, though the Yankees would eventually fade. But to compete with the pitching-rich Blue Jays, the team needed a B-12 injection for the rotation.

On August 12, the Tigers acquired veteran right-handed pitcher Doyle Alexander from the Atlanta Braves in a trade for minor league prospect John Smoltz.

In Alexander the Tigers had found a complementary arm to a seasoned rotation of Morris, Frank Tanana and Walt Terrell. Alexander posted a perfect 9-0 record in his 11 starts with Detroit.

Heading into the next-to-last weekend of the season, the Tigers and Blue Jays were cruising. Detroit had taken two of three from Boston at Fenway Park and Toronto had swept three in Baltimore.

Then the baseball world turned its attention toward Toronto and a series that could decide the division champion.

Tomorrow: The First Showdown — the Tigers and Jays in Toronto

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