2012 Top 10 Stories: #5 – Victor Martinez Lost for Season

About four weeks before the Tigers convened in Lakeland for spring training, the club’s outlook instantly went from brimming with confidence and optimism to soaked in despair and gloom. That’s when Dave Dombrowski received word from Florida that Victor Martinez suffered a torn ACL in his left knee and would eventually be lost for the season.

The Tigers’ front-office boss put on a brave face when he talked to the media after hearing the news:

“After you feel sorry for yourself for a day or so, you move on,” general manager Dave Dombrowski said. “We have a good club. We’ve got a lot of players who will step up.”

But Tigers fans knew the impact this would have on the lineup and most likely the season. Martinez’s provided desperately needed protection for then-cleanup-hitter Miguel Cabrera. As good as Delmon Young was in the postseason, few expected him to be a reliable solution. And, Dombrowski certainly made it sound as if the Tigers would be making no major splash to shore up the sudden loss of Martinez.

Slugging first baseman Prince Fielder remains a free agent, but it’s unclear if the Tigers would want to make a major financial commitment to a long-term contract to replace the injured Martinez.

“Most likely, I would say it’s short term,” Dombrowski said. “But I don’t know that for sure. Depends on what position somebody plays and who they are.”

Dombrowski did seem to shoot down the possibility that Cabrera could move from first base to third, with another first baseman joining the team.

The Tigers signed Gerald Laird to serve as Alex Avila‘s backup, so that part of the equation was solved. The pressing issue was how to replace a guy who in 2011 batted .330 with 103 RBIs and a .855 OPS.

How could they possibly do it? Dave Schoenfield offered some borderline gruesome alternatives:

If there’s good news for the Tigers, there are at least several decent options out there in free agency. One-time Tigers first baseman Carlos Pena could provide a nice alternative, even improving the team’s defense if Jim Leyland is willing to shift Cabrera to DH. Pena needs a platoon partner, but did have a .388 OBP and .504 slugging percentage against righties in 2011. Johnny Damon, another ex-Tiger, would also fit in nicely at DH.

Thankfully, neither of these two options materialized.

And luckily Tigers fans didn’t have to wait long to find out who’d replace Martinez in the lineup.

The Top 10 Stories of 2012

2012 Top 10 Stories: #6 – Tigers Win American League Central

After the excruciating 2008 season, all 88 losses of it, one can forgive Tigers fans for being a bit paranoid. That club was destined for World Series glory (Remember the Sports Illustrated Baseball Preview from that year? “This is going to be one of the most dominant offenses that any team has fielded in 10 years.”)

This year’s Tigers club never seriously flirted with or took up residence in the A.L. Central basement like that ’08 team but, as the season dragged on, fans grew increasingly anxious over infuriating underachievement that stretched from late April into July, but lingered for much longer.

The Tigers opened the season at home with a three-game sweep of the Red Sox. Then, they took three of four from the Rays. Before we knew it, the Tigers were 9-3 and off to the races.

Except not at all.

After that strong start, they crawled to the end of April with a 2-8 stretch and finished the month 11-11. May was worse, with a series of win-one, lose-one-or-two stretches, and a 13-16 record, putting the Tigers three games under .500 and five games out of first place. In fact, the Tigers were an even 18-18 on May 15 but wouldn’t return to .500 until July 6 when they beat the Royals 4-2. At that point they were 42-42 and in the middle of a five-game winning streak that took them into the All-Star Break.

Meanwhile, Tigers fans waited for the White Sox to fade and make room for Detroit atop the division. But that didn’t happen … for a long time.

In July, the Tigers continued to pile up wins, finishing the month 16-10. But except for five days when they were anywhere from tied for the division lead to, art most, a game-and-a-half up on Chicago, they seemed to be treading water.

August featured some mystifying streaks and series losses. A sweep of the Indians, a split with the Yankees, winning five of six over the Blue Jays and Angels and then getting swept by the Royals. And not for a day in August did the Tigers move into first place. They finished the month 16-12.

Things changed in September. Detroit swept the White Sox in a three-game series that began on Aug. 31, and moved into a tie for first place. But the next day they lost to the Indians, falling a game back. The Tigers were as many as three games back on Sept. 10 and and again on Sept. 18, the latter after a crushing 5-4 loss to the White Sox in a makeup game.

About that same time, though, the White Sox began a swoon that allowed the Tigers to gain ground and eventually overtake Chicago on Sept. 26 – with just seven games to play. Detroit went 5-2 and built a three-game lead on Sept. 30. The next night, in Kansas City, the Tigers clinched the division title.

Reliving the 2012 season today is no more enjoyable than it was watching it unfold the first time: The inexplicable record against the Indians. The one-run losses. Delmon Young.

So, the Tigers winning the Central turned out to be less a coronation and more a war of attrition with the White Sox – and themselves. And the fans, well, if I may speak on their behalf, would much prefer the Tigers’ 2011 division title and its 15-game cushion to the 2012 ulcer-inducing variety.

The Top 10 Stories of 2012

What They’re Saying About Game 1

Cruising around the Web, here are some more notable points on the Tigers’ Game 1 win:

On Jose Valverde

“I don’t think so,” Valverde said early Sunday when asked if he thought he would lose his role. “I’ve been doing my job for a long time. I think I can do it. There’s nothing you can do. It’s in the past, it’s over. You have to get ready for tomorrow. – Valverde’s Struggles Continue With a Collapse in The New York Times

“If anybody is happy with Jose Valverde at this point, raise your hand. Anyone? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller? No, I didn’t think so.” – Jim Caple, Tigers must avoid using Valverde, ESPN.com

“Eight innings of shutout artistry against the Yankees was wiped away because of Valverde’s disintegration.

It leaves the Tigers in crisis at the very point they can taste a shot at the world championship. It leaves Leyland a target for second-guessers, which might include his bosses.

It leaves them in a collective mess. In essence, the Tigers have no closer.” – Lynn Henning, Jose Valverde’s implosion leaves Tigers bullpen a mess

“Valverde’s been so awful in his last two outings, first against the A’s and now against the Yankees, that Leyland might finally make a move. And it’s not like he doesn’t have any options. The obvious choice to replace Valverde as closer is Dotel. He’s old, but you might also say he’s experienced, and does have 109 career saves. More to the point, he’s pitched better than Valverde in each of the last two seasons. And if Leyland really wants to get radical, he could also dump Benoit as his eighth-inning guy, and let Coke and Al Alburquerque take some of those setup innings.” – Rob Neyer, After Game 1, Joe Girardi and Jim Leyland both face agonizing choices

On Derek Jeter’s Injury

“They still have a chance for a glorious final image from this season. But unless they win eight more games, the Yankees of 2012 will be defined by two portraits of pain, flashing neon reminders of the subtler message the game tells its fans every year. We are all getting older, even the players who seem eternally young. And the end often comes without warning.” – Tyler Kepner, The New York Times.

On Delmon Young‘s Game 1 heroics:

“I just went completely blind,” he said. “It kind of handcuffed me, but I didn’t see for the last 5 or 10 feet.” — Nick Swisher.

An Inexplicable Post about an Inexplicable Game

Ok. Let’s think about this.

Jim Leyland said in his post-game interview that he and his coaching staff will discuss the closer situation. Yeah, I’m sure they’ll discuss it and I’d love to hear someone say this: “Describe an ideal scenario for us to bring Jose Valverde into a game.” If we’re lucky, the answer is followed by a long, long, crickets-filled pause.

And then another.

I can’t imagine such a scenario. Maybe in a blow out – with the Tigers way behind. I guess.

But wait, the Tigers won this game, people – 6-4 in 12 innings.

Unlike Wednesday’s crushing Game 4 loss to the A’s, they escaped the opponent’s half of the ninth and were able to hang on with some stellar relief from Drew Smyly, whose first career win came at Yankee Stadium and now the same can be said his first post-season win.

That was a long sentence. But after a five-hour game, what else do you expect? This game was long on everything, from terrific pitching by Doug Fister to solid defense to the mystifying Delmon Young.

So, yeah. The Tigers won. But they lost a closer (we think/hope) and now have to think quickly about to do about the ninth inning in Game 2 … and every other game in which they need a closer*. For me the answer is Joaquin Benoit in the seventh, Al Alburquerque in the eighth and Octavio Dotel in the ninth. Or maybe you use Dotel in the eighth and Alburquerque in the ninth.

*Mitch Williams on MLB Network says he thinks Leyland will go with matchups from now on in the ninth inning. Coke and Smyly versus lefties, Dotel and Alburquerque versus righties.

Either way, I don’t see Valverde getting meaningful innings anymore with the Tigers. Like never.

For me this is the bottom line on Game 1: The Tigers toughed out a game that so easily could’ve slipped away in extra innings and would’ve made Game 2 more pressure-packed than it needed to be.

Now they can go into Sunday’s game with even more confidence they can win in New York and make a dream scenario of coming back to Detroit up two games to none a reality.

Verlander Shows How Closing is Done

On Tuesday night Jim Leyland said the A’s played a perfect game in the 2-0 Oakland Game 3 win.

I’d submit that the Tigers returned the favor Thursday night in a game the was perhaps the most emphatic decisive game we’ve seen since Game 4 of the 2006 ALCS.

Wow.

I wasn’t sure what version of Justin Verlander we’d see in Game 5. Ends up we saw the model we hoped for: all business, dominant, explosive. A complete-game, four-hit shutout with 11 strikeouts to boot.

How about Omar Infante with a two-for-three night and two runs scored — plus a stolen base. (!)

And Austin Jackson: two hits, two runs batted in and a pair of runs scored.

And wait, there’s more: Delmon Young showed up and drove in a run.

But the story of the night was Verlander. He threw 122 pitches, 88 for strikes and saw his ALDS ERA plummet to 0.56.

Awesome.

So now we wait for the winner of the Orioles and Yankees series.

I’m going to savor this win for a day or so. Then I’ll worry about the ALCS.

And if the Yankees and Orioles caught even a glimpse of the Tigers game, they’re no doubt worried about the prospect of facing Justin Verlander in the next week.

Tigers Wild Ride in ALCS Continues

And this evening I gleefully eat crow.

Justin Verlander or no, I didn’t expect the Tigers to win Game 5. After Wednesday night’s deflating extra-inning loss, my typically optimistic self thought the Tigers had run out of gas and that the Rangers were just too hot to lose.

Texas was making the most of their opportunities — lord knows they (and the Tigers with much less success) have had plenty this series — and how long could Detroit’s worn out pitching staff keep Michael Young and Adrian Beltre, the only Rangers not scorching the ball these days, in check? Not long, at least in the case of the former.

When Young doubled in the first inning, that queasy feeling of doom washed over me. Then I got angry: No way Verlander wilts in this situation. He didn’t.

Despite what some wrote, Verlander was terrific. Untouchable? No. But he had enough stuff, grit and determination to get the outs he needed at just the right time.

These same observers are saying the Tigers were lucky to win this game. Well, yeah — and it’s about time a bounce went Detroit’s way. And an ice-cold hitter hit a home run. And a starter went deep into the game. And someone other than Joaquin Benoit and Jose Valverde got the final outs. And a packed Comerica Park trembled one more time.

If the Tigers go on to win this series, imagine how we’ll remember a beaten down Alex Avila at last delivering a key hit with an opposite field home run, or how iconic Miguel Cabrera‘s sixth-inning double off the third-base bag will become in Detroit sports lore. Or Victor Martinez‘s triple when the man can hardly walk. Or Delmon Young‘s two rockets to left-center that put him in elite company in the Tigers’ postseason record book.

With Max Scherzer going in Game 6 — the first time the Tigers have been in a postseason Game 6 since 1968 — you have to feel good, don’t you? My guess is that he feels he has some unfinished business after Game 2 and will be on a mission Saturday night.

For now though, I’m going to savor this win and the crow I was forced to eat after not so much doubting the Tigers’ grit, but recognizing the offensive buzz saw that’s the Texas Rangers right now.

And you know what? Jim Leyland seems to be having the time of his life in this series. Perhaps it’s time I stop fretting every pitch and just enjoy the ride too.

Who’s with me?

The Game 5 Non Sequiturs

Here we are, a couple of hours from the most nerve-wracking Tigers game since Game 163 and the club’s first winner-take-all game since the 1972 ALCS, as Lee Panas pointed out after Game 4. Let’s see what happens. (Not unlike to my approach to this post.)

Jim Leyland this afternoon explained why we’ll see Max Scherzer and not Justin Verlander should the Tigers need a long-man:

“I don’t think it’s a wise decision. Like I said, those innings he pitched the other night, all the innings he’s piled up this year, all the strikeouts, all the adrenaline, and the fact that he’s throwing 100 miles an hour in the eighth inning [on Monday night], if he comes in this game tonight, there’s no telling what he would be throwing with the way this crowd is going to be and everything. I just don’t think it makes sense.”

Tonight’s game marks the seventh time in the Tigers post-season history they’ve had a series go the maximum number of games. Detroit has compiled a 2-4 record in the previous six series.

  • Wins: Game 7 of the 1945 and 1968 World Series
  • Losses: Game 7 of the 1909, 1934 and 1940 World Series; Game 5 of the 1972 ALCS

Jerry Crasnick focuses on Doug Fister and Delmon Young in this ESPN.com story. Here’s one scout’s view on Fister:

“The gun doesn’t tell the story on him,” the scout said. “He’s a movement guy with good location, and velocity doesn’t matter that much. He’s so tall [6-foot-8] and he’s straight over the top, so he gets great ‘down’ plane. When he’s down in the zone, it’s like hitting a bowling ball.”

By the by, Fister surrendered five home runs over his final 19 outings of the season dating back to June 14, a stretch of 129 innings pitched. He allowed 0.46 home runs per nine innings this season, lowest in the American League.

On this date in 1945, a goat and its owner make an appearance at Wrigley Field for Game 4 of the World Series between the Tigers and Cubs. The pair is told to leave before the game ends, angering the owner (and presumably the goat). The Cubs lost to the Tigers, 4-1. The Tigers go on to win the Series in seven and the Cubs won’t win another National League championship for the rest of the 20th century. And thus was born the Curse of the Billy Goat.

Young’s two home runs during this ALDS matches a Tigers record. Both Curtis Granderson and Craig Monroe hit two home runs for Detroit during the ALDS in 2006.

That’s all I’ve got. Except for this: Tigers 5 Yankees 2.

Enjoy the game.