The Tigers Will Hang On For Playoffs
by Trevor Whenham - 08/31/2006
The Detroit Tigers, easily the most surprising story of the season so far, are slipping. They still have the best record in the league (though the red-hot Mets are about to catch up to them), but they have lost eight of their last 12 games and 14 of the last 21. The saving grace for this team is that neither of the squads chasing them in the division - the White Sox or the Twins - are playing particularly well, either, and the Tigers have managed to only turn a 10 game lead into a still-secure five game edge despite their freefall.
A month ago it seemed inevitable that the Tigers would cruise to the playoffs. Now that isn't such a sure thing. It's not time to panic yet, however. With 29 games left they have 83 wins, putting 100 wins -- a pinnacle that would have seemed impossible at the beginning of the year -- within relatively easy reach.
There are lots of reasons that you could be negative about the fate of the Tigers - the surly Kenny Rogers is the only consistently solid starter of late, the offense is looking tired at times and they aren't getting many breaks - but I feel confident that they will win their division. I'd bet on it, in fact. Here are eight reasons why:
The young pitchers will be fine - Justin Verlander is being held up as an example of the problems the team is facing. Despite being 15-7 and having an ERA in the top five in the league, the 23-year-old has lost three of his last four and some are saying he is hitting a rookie wall. I don't buy it. Take his last start, an ugly showing against Cleveland. He gave up 10 hits and 8 runs in 5 innings. The thing is, however, that he had good stuff. He struck out Travis Hafner on four 98 mph fastballs followed by a killer at 100 mph. The radar gun read 102 mph in the first inning. He struck out two guys looking with his nasty breaking pitch. In other words, his arm isn't getting tired. He's just not getting his breaks. That's what happens in a major league season. He'll be fine. And so will the pitching staff.
Kenny Rogers is an animal - After weathering a rough patch for several games, Rogers has bounced back with wins in his last three outings, allowing just three runs in 19 innings, including a key shutout against the White Sox. That kind of performance is great at any time, but when this kind of streak comes when the rest of the team is slumping, it is especially valuable. Rogers, for once, is actually a stabilizing force on a team that can use his presence.
The bullpen is great, and growing - The bullpen is already among the best in the league. Todd Jones has 34 saves in 37 tries. Guys like Jamie Walker and Fernando Rodney are eating innings efficiently. Joel Zumaya has been a particular revelation. The 21-year-old is 6-2 with a microscopic ERA, he can throw 100 mph at will, and he was a starter in the minors so he can stretch out if he is needed. Reinforcements are on the way, too. Andrew Miller was the Tigers' first round selection in this year's draft. He tore up the minors, and was called up early this week to add yet another 100 mph fireballer to the pen. If that isn't enough, Humberto Sanchez, another very good young pitcher, is owning AAA and could come up in September. Tigers' fans have nothing to worry about in the pitching department now or for years to come.
Pudge - Ivan Rodriguez is not having the best statistical year of his career, but he is as much responsible for this team's success as anyone. The future Hall-of-Famer has won it all before with a young team, and he handles a pitching staff as well as anyone ever has. The fact that pitching is the team's strength isn't a coincidence. He's the kind of leader that a division winning team has to have.
Their schedule - The 29 remaining games include four key games against Minnesota and three against the White Sox, but it also has a whole lot of soft spots. Series against Seattle, Texas, Baltimore, Toronto and two against Kansas City are just what the doctor ordered for a team in a downward trend.
They love to travel - Here's a quiz - how many teams have won more games on the road than they have at home? Two - Atlanta and the Tigers. Atlanta hardly counts because they haven't won much anywhere. The Tigers have won more games on the road than all but three teams in the entire league have won at home. That will help with their 12 remaining home games. More importantly, however, it tells me that this is a tough team that doesn't fold under pressure, and they're clearly a team that plays well together. That's a blueprint for a strong stretch drive.
They have no stars - The Tigers are the best team in the majors, but they don't have anyone in the forefront of the MVP race. They don't even have anyone that you could make a case for. Magglio Ordonez is the best offensive force on the team, Carlos Guillen is putting up decent numbers and sophomore Curtis Granderson is leading off like a veteran. None of them are putting up superstar numbers, however. That is their biggest attribute. When a team's offense is focused on a player or two then the team is in trouble if those players slump. If anyone slumps for the Tigers then his contribution can be made up for, and the team can carry on. It also makes it harder for a team to focus their efforts on shutting down a single player.
Jim Leyland - Leyland is as sound a mind and as good a manager as there is in baseball. The fact that he has got this team to exceed all expectations is proof that he is the perfect guy to get them to the finish line.