Week 1 in Review: Pondering Tigers’ Fast Start

A fast start to any baseball season is infinitely better than the opposite. Impressed by the Tigers’ 6-0 start in the first week of the season? Heck yeah. Good, fun baseball is good, fun baseball — even better when it includes the general destruction of two divisional pests.

“Yeah, but it’s only the first week.”

True enough.

But it’s the first week of a season in which Detroit faces a lopsided intra-division schedule early, in which Justin VerlanderBruce Rondon and, unexpectedly, Joe Nathan are on the disabled list. It has disaster written all over it, people.

Instead, the Tigers ripped off six wins, four of them were by a margin of at least four runs, and at least announce to the 6-0 Royals that the Tigers won’t let them or anyone run away with the A.L. Central. At least not in April.

Thirty years ago the Tigers won their first six games … and finished a distant third in the A.L. East, and only a game ahead of the Yankees. Chances are that fast start kept the Tigers from plummeting from wire-to-wire champs to fourth place in one year. More recently, in 2008, they lost their first seven games and never recovered.

We have a long way to go before we can determine what impact the Tigers’ 6-0 (now 6-1) start meant to their 2015 destiny. And, oh yeah, they’ve yet to face the White Sox and Royals. One thing’s for sure: a fast start definitely doesn’t hurt.

Other thoughts after Week 1: I don’t understand and probably never will understand Major League Baseball’s early-season scheduling rationale. It’s not just the players that are miserable and risking injury in icebox conditions, the fans are stuck outside in what would likely be considered sub-optimal football weather. Of course, I sat through many a bone-chilling Opening Day and early season games at Tiger Stadium and Coors Field and didn’t really mind all that much. Now? I just feel bad watching fans freeze out there … Who knows if Yoenis Cespedes will be a Tiger for more than one season, but I certainly hope he signs an extension. He’s fun to watch. I dreaded him with the A’s but love him in Detroit … And finally, this is related to today’s loss to the Pirates: Josh Harrison’s first-pitch homer off Anibal Sanchez isn’t the first time an opposing player teed off on the first offering on Opening Day. On April 7, 1986, Opening Day, at Tiger Stadium, Dwight Evans hit a first-pitch, leadoff home run off Jack Morris. (I skipped school that day and sat in the centerfield bleachers, upper deck of course.)

Tigers Today: Opening Day 2013 | Tigers @ Twins 4:10 p.m ET

Leading Off: Today marks the 113th Opening Day in Tigers history. The Tigers are 52-59-1 in the previous 112 season openers.
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The Tigers are in first place. And so are the Twins. But the Rangers are not, and that’s always a good thing.

Today’s Game: Tigers @ Twins | 4:10 p.m. ET | On the air: FSD/AM 1270 and 97.1 FM

Justin Verlander vs. RHP Vance Worley

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This is the seventh time the Tigers have opened the against the Twins, the first time since March 31, 2003 at Comerica Park. Previous openers:

Last year on Opening Day the Tigers beat the Red Sox 3-2. You might recall that Jose Valverde began his season the way it would end six months later: with a blown save. Before that, though, Justin Verlander was tremendous: eight innings of two-hit, shutout baseball: with seven Ks. Austin Jackson delivered the winning run in the ninth with a single to left.

Around the Central:

Today

Royals (Shields) @ White Sox (Sale), 4:10 ET

Tuesday

Indians (Masterson) @ Blue Jays (Dickey), 7:07 ET

Minutiae

Happy Birthday, Will Rhymes, 30; Rusty Staub, 69; and Ron Perranoski, 77.

Finally, no matter what our expectations are for the Tigers this year – or any other – they will never be lower than what we fans experienced 10 years ago. And to help us keep that perspective, this year we will be charting the 2003 Tigers right alongside the ’13 club. And watch as they go in distinctly different directions.

Enjoy the game.

2012 Top 10 Stories: #2 – Tigers Win the Pennant

Given how the Tigers’ 2012 season went, months of frustration and a division title that came at the 11th hour, a trip to the World Series was far from assured. Far.

As dominoes fell late in the year, the Tigers ALDS opponent depended on which team, the A’s or Rangers, won the A.L. West. They might play the Orioles. Or the A’s. Or the Yankees. No matter which club they played in the first round, a bad match up could’ve been awaiting the Tigers.

In the end, it was the red-hot A’s which vanquished the Rangers in a stunning sweep to end the season. The good news was that the series, thanks to baseball’s new two-three scheduling, started at Comerica Park and not in Oakland where the A’s had mixed up an amazing collection of comeback wins in 2012. Even with Justin Verlander starting Game 1 against rookie Jarrod Parker, the A’s had a kind of juju that made Tigers fans (at least this one) nervous.

A leadoff  home run by Coco Crisp didn’t help. But the Tigers cobbled together enough offense to take the game 3-1. (And who knew we’d witnessed Jose Valverde‘s final save as Tigers closer. More on that in a moment.)

Game 2 featured shaky relief work by Joaquin Benoit and walkoff heroics by Don Kelly to secure a 5-4 win and a 2-0 series lead. Out in Oakland, the series tightened after the A’s won Game 3 and mounted a late comeback in Game 4 to force a winner-take-all Game 5. Thankfully, Verlander was locked in and the Tigers offense gave him plenty of support to send Detroit to the ALCS for the second consecutive year – but this time against the Yankees.

Was I alone in thinking the Tigers were due for the Yankees to exact revenge for New York’s 2006 and 2011 exits? No? Well, I prepared myself for that possibility.

The ALCS got off to a tremendous start in Game 1 with the Tigers leading 4-0 heading to the bottom of the ninth. That’s when Valverde brought to life the worst-case scenario – one like fans witnessed in Game 4 of the ALDS when he surrendered three runs to give the A’s a walkoff win. This time, Valverde gave up four runs on a pair of two-run shots, the first by Ichiro and then one by Raul Ibanez.

In the top of the 12th a Jhonny Peralta ground ball to Derek Jeter changed the series dramatically and for good. Jeter landed awkwardly and saw his season end with a broken ankle. The Tigers scored two in the inning and Drew Smyly shut down New York in the bottom half to earn Detroit an exhausting 1-0 series lead.

The rest of the series was filled with intriguing story lines: Phil Coke‘s emergence as closer, Anibal Sanchez‘s brilliant Game 2 shutout, the Yankees’ offensive drought.

Even though the series ended in a sweep,  it wasn’t completely dominant. Other than in the 8-1 Game 4 win, the Tigers didn’t pile on the runs. Sure, they scored six in Game 1 but only because Valverde didn’t allow the first four runs to stand up. In Games 2 and 3 they scored a combined five runs. But the Yankees scored six in the entire series – and who saw that coming?

The same people who predicted a Tigers sweep of the Yankees to with the American League pennant.

The Top 10 Stories of 2012

2012 Top 10 Stories: #3 – Max Scherzer Arrives

Three years ago, the Tigers acquired Max Scherzer in a megatrade and the club envisioned him as part of a high-octane one-two punch with Justin Verlander. Scherzer displayed flashes of his potential with the Diamondbacks in 2008 and ’09 and observers in the desert thought that Scherzer would be part of a lethal rotation combo, but with Brandon Webb.

He appeared in 16 games (seven starts) in his rookie season and though he didn’t earn a win, he posted a solid 3.05 ERA and 10.6 strikeouts per nine innings. In ’09, he made 30 starts on his way to a 9-11 record with a 4.12 ERA and fanned 9.2 batters per nine innings.

ScherzerHead.jpgScherzer was an unknown quantity for most Tigers fans when he came to Detroit with Austin Jackson, Phil Coke and Daniel Schlereth in the three-team trade with the D-backs and Yankees. But the promise – oh, the promise! – was tantalizing.

And before long it was baffling.

Here’s part of what I wrote on the SweetSpot blog about six weeks into the 2010 season:

After a dazzling debut on April 7 in which he held the Royals to one hit over six innings in a no-decision, Scherzer has been nothing but a question mark in Detroit’s rotation. He hasn’t won in nearly a month, he’s given up 48 hits in 37 innings so far, and in his last two starts alone he allowed 15 earned runs in 9.1 IP.

Scherzer enters his Friday start against the Red Sox with a 1-3 record and a bulky 6.81 ERA. He’s also been a major contributor to the number of innings the Tigers bullpen has pitched in the first six weeks of the season: Scherzer averages barely five innings of work.

After a dominant two-start demotion to Toledo, Scherzer returned to the Tigers for good on May 30 and finished the year at 12-11, 3.50 ERA in 195.2 innings.

He took a step forward in some areas during the 2011 season but still showed a frustrating inconsistency, often dazzling in one start, imploding in the next. In virtually the same number of innings pitched as in ’10 – 195.0 – Scherzer saw his ERA jump almost a full run, but his walks and strikeouts both decreased. And, he surrendered 20 more earned runs and 33 more hits from the year before.

Given how his regular season played out, it came as no surprise that Scherzer sparkled against the Yankees in the ALDS and, equally unsurprising, he collapsed in two ALCS starts against the Rangers.

The 2012 season was a entirely different story and an entirely different Max Scherzer. In his third season with the Tigers her set career highs with 16 wins and 231 strikeouts.

He led the league with 11.1 strikeouts per nine innings, finished second with 231 strikeouts and tied for sixth in wins.

Untouchable for stretches, he struck out nine-or-more batters in 13 of his starts during the season – tops in the majors. These marked the most by a Tigers pitcher since Mickey Lolich posted 15 games with nine-or-more strikeouts in 1971.

In his May 20 start against the Pirates, he struck out 15, all swinging.

Of course, Scherzer’s breakthrough season was all the more remarkable to watch after a devastating personal tragedy. As Jason Beck wrote this week:

Alex Scherzer wasn’t just Max’s little brother, he was his best friend and confidant. It was Alex’s skill with numbers that fostered Max’s fascination with statistics as he blossomed into a Major League pitcher. When Alex died without warning in June, Max contemplated the best way to honor his brother’s memory. In the end, the mound became a haven for the right-hander, and baseball was a way for him to put smiles on people’s faces. It was a new appreciation for life while he found the kind of on-field success that had driven Scherzer for years.

Scherzer led the Majors in strikeouts for most of the summer before a muscular issue in his right shoulder cost him a couple of starts. His postseason performances through that adversity earned Scherzer respect from teammates and opponents alike.

He made three postseason starts, one each in the ALDS, ALCS and World Series, allowing 12 hits and four earned runs in 17.1 innings pitched. Against the Yankees in the pennant-clinching LCS Game 4, carved up Joe Girardi‘s lineup: 5.2 IP, one earned run, two walks, a pair of hits and 10 strikeouts.

In Game 4 of the World Series, Scherzer dealt a quality start against the Giants – 6.1 IP, three runs, seven hits, and eight strikeouts. Given how the Giants offense constructed runs, and how punchless the Tigers’ lineup had become, he really had no chance to earn a win.

But that exemplifies the difference between Max Scherzer in 2102 from the one we watched in 2010 and ’11. In those first seasons in Detroit, he often failed to give his team a chance to win.

If we’re to believe what we saw this past season, those days just might be a thing of the past.

The Top 10 Stories of 2012

Tigers Leftovers, Thoughts and Reflections

Making up for lost time with a stream-of-consciousness post …

It’s been almost a month since Miguel Cabrera took a Sergio Romo 0-2 fastball down the middle for the final out of the World Series. In some ways it feels that long ago and in others, still too recent.

So much seems to have happened since the middle of September when the Tigers were a game back of the White Sox and we weren’t certain (well, at least I wasn’t) postseason baseball was in our future.

But it was. A grueling ALDS against the A’s, an exhilarating sweep of the Yankees and then, good God, that World Series.

By the end of Game 2, it became increasingly clear that the Giants were a team of destiny … and the Tigers had gone into another frustrating offensive slumber. As we saw all too vividly, that’s a toxic brew.

Even though the Series was over in a heartbeat, and the Tigers looked overmatched, I was stunned with how it played out. I never for a moment thought they’d lose to the Giants – a mindset that was equal parts homer-optimism and at-least-it-ain’t-the-Cardinals relief. (There was also my anti-Giants bias lingering from the Barry Bonds era.)

And now that I’ve had time to think about it, Bruce Bochy‘s club was perfectly constructed to take down the Tigers. I tweeted that my biggest fear going into Game 1 was that Barry Zito would impersonate Bruce Chen and stymie a rusty Tigers lineup. He did both and, as fate would have it, that was all she wrote.

If I’d created a list of possible World Series scenarios and endings, a sweep by the Giants, an ice-cold Prince Fielder and a caught-looking Cabrera to end it all wouldn’t be on it. None of them.

There was one thing that did not surprise me in the Series: Justin Verlander‘s Game 1 implosion. Who didn’t see that coming?

Listening to the national media leading up to the opener, you’d have thought Verlander had an unblemished postseason (or at least World Series) record. Except, you know, he totally didn’t: 0-2, 5.30 ERA, 1.545 WHIP. And now he’s 0-3/7.20/1.75.

I don’t know about you, but the Game 1 performance is what I feared in ALDS Game 5 … and in the ALCS.

Chances are I wasn’t alone in almost dreading a Game 4 win and what it might mean. Would it prolong the agony? Absolutely. Because at that point it was clear the Tigers weren’t going to beat Zito, Madison Bumgarner, Rick Reuschel, Mike LaCoss or any other starter the Giants rolled out to the mound.

This postseason was one wild ride. One I didn’t expect to come to a screeching halt with Miguel Cabrera* watching one blow by.

*Speaking of the MVP: watch for a post on that whole debate soon.

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Fare thee well, G-Money

When Gerald Laird arrived in Detroit ahead of the 2008 season, I was giddy. At last, a solid backup and successor-ish guy for Pudge Rodriguez. We’d watched Laird abuse Tigers pitching for long enough; time for him to do some damage in The D. Yeah, well, ahem.

I was equally giddy when Laird left Detroit after the 2010 season. He never produced at the level the Tigers had expected (or that fans had hoped) so, good riddance. Right?

When G-Money returned to Detroit for the 2012 campaign on a one-year deal my giddiness returned. He’s the perfect guy to backup Alex Avila and a great mentor for the new young arms coming up, I thought. And how big a lift was Laird this past season? Huge, I’d say.

He was exactly what the Tigers needed as Avila was assaulted game after game. And, Laird actually hit this year (.282) in his 63 games.

Good for G-Money landing a two-year deal with the Braves. Unlike in ’10, I’m sorry to see him go.

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Finally, here are some moldy leftovers. I found this (at best) half-baked post from last October that never saw the light of day:

After watching the Rangers bludgeon the Tigers in a terrifically played series, I just don’t have it in me to watch Nelson Cruz or Mike Napoli again until 2012. That doesn’t, of course, mean I’m not pulling for the Rangers in the World Series. I’d root for any team – even the White Sox – against a Tony LaRussa team.

As it turned out, I didn’t watch any of that Rangers-Cardinals World Series.

No regrets, either.

Okay, Now It Seems Real

With the Giants’ saturation of the Cardinals complete — and how delicious was that three-games-to-one comeback? — we can all wrap our heads around this still-confounding factoid: the Tigers are going to the World Series. This year’s World Series.

Since the Tigers broomed the Yankees Thursday evening in Detroit, I’ve found myself watching and re-watching the condensed game on my iPad just to verify that it really happened. And yeah, it happened.

A while ago.

And we had to wait through an NLCS that lingered on with the insufferable Cardinals and the constant shots of the Giants’ Brian Wilson playing the tired  “look at me; even though I’m injured I’m still bearded and desperate to make everyone believe I’m ironic” act.

Now, we can focus on the World Series, on Justin Verlander versus Barry Zito, on Miguel Cabrera and Marco Scutaro, on those wacky people in McCovey Cove, and on Delmon Young in the outfield.

I could list a lot of reasons why I didn’t want the Tigers to face the Cardinals this year. The biggest one for me was the uniqueness of the match up: in these clubs’ 242 years combined existence they’ve only squared off a dozen times in Interleague Play (Detroit is 5-7.)  It’s not unlike how I felt in 1984 when the Cubs and Padres battled in an epic five-game NLCS: I wanted San Diego, and not because I was afraid of the Tigers facing the Cubs. It was because I could imagine the Tigers and Cubs playing each other somewhere along the way. But the Padres? Under what cosmically generated circumstance would the Detroit Tigers and San Diego Padres possibly face each other? Back then, if an interleague match up didn’t happen in Spring Training it wasn’t happening until October.

As a friend and San Franciscan said in a Game 7 post-game text message: “Tigers and Giants in the World Series. Old school!” So true.

And now, so real.

Uncharted Territory

Ok, wait. Over the weekend I’m thinking, Catch a break or two and leave the Bronx even at a game a piece.

Then, after the Game 1 disaster turned miracle, I’m thinking, Don’t get greedy. But if another … something breaks the Tigers’ way, they could come home up two games to none. But get real.

Heading into Game 3, even with Justin Verlander going, my brain is saying, You can’t be surprised if things even out a bit. Even if they lose Game 3, the Tigers can win the A.L. pennant at home.

I didn’t even allow myself to consider – even for a moment – the notion of a three-games-to-none lead over the Yankees. But that’s where we are.

Seriously.

In 2006 the Tigers built a three-zip advantage over the A’s before sweeping them, so they have been here before. No offense to Ken Macha’s crew, but this feels different. Why? Because it’s the Yankees, of course. That’s why this all feels so new.

What are we supposed to think heading into Game 4, Max Scherzer versus CC Sabathia? We’re supposed to prepare ourselves for a little letdown, an inevitable Yankees win.

But I don’t think so. I expect the Tigers, a club that has done nothing easily this entire season, to go for the kill and end this series.

At least that’s what I think I think. I mean, who knows?

This all feels so new.