Friday, October 27, 2006

Game 4: The Horror

Last night’s game was a crushing, crushing loss and it was the first time in this series I really believed the Tigers were not going to win the World Series. I’m not saying they can’t, but last night was the first time I didn’t think they would. When Curtis Granderson fell down and couldn’t field Eckstein’s fly to center, I said out loud (watching by myself), “Oh shit.” I felt like the game, and probably the series, was lost at that point. Little did I know there was much worse ahead with Rodney’s error and the ball that glanced off Monroe’s glove. My shoulders droop at the thought of these plays. For the first time this season, I didn’t shake off my Tiger-induced insomnia (we won't discuss the frequency of this) by convincing myself, “They’ll be alright.” I shook it off by convincing myself that these games and their outcomes - even this whole sport - have no real impact on my life. To get my five hours of fitful sleep I couldn’t tell myself all would be well in the world of baseball; I had to wipe away the existence of baseball. So yeah, I took the loss pretty hard.

Yet, I haven’t given up hope. The Tigers beat the Yankees and A’s three and four straight, respectively, so I see no reason they can’t do the same to the Cardinals. So despite seeing nothing from these first four games to suggest they will, I just have to believe the Tigers can do this. Jeff Weaver and Anthony Reyes are beatable pitchers and even though beating Chris Carpenter will be tough to do, the guy’s not perfect. I also take heart in the fact that I can’t think of one bad break the Cardinals have had to this point. That has to change eventually, doesn’t it?

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

World Series Game 3: Quit Kidding Around Guys

Yesterday was a tough game to watch. I can’t remember too many games this season where there was less to cheer about as a Tiger fan. When your best offensive weapon appears to be passed balls by the other team, you can be pretty sure things aren’t going to go well for the good guys. If you weren’t watching, what I mean by that is the Tigers managed only three hits, and I don’t think they ever got the leadoff man on base. Their best chance at scoring came when Inge hit a one out single, was sacrificed over to second by Nate Robertson, and then moved to third on a passed ball. The very next pitch bounced in the dirt, glanced off Yadier Molina’s shoulder, but went forward rather than behind him and Inge wisely chose to stay at third. Granderson then grounded out to end the inning. That describes their best offensive inning.

Speaking of Granderson, his struggles coupled with Polanco’s really seem to be strangling the team’s offense. Neither has a hit in this series, and that has allowed the Cardinals to pitch tough against both Maggs and Guillen. That’s because they both always seem to be either leading innings off or coming up with two outs. When you throw in the o-fer by Pudge, you get a pretty impotent offense. The worse news is that of the three (Pudge, Curtis and Placido), I can only remember Polanco having any good swings yesterday. That came in his last at bat when he smoked a line drive that was snagged by Pujols at first.

On the mound, Robertson did his usual high wire act. He threw five innings, allowed the same number of hits and walked three batters. In the fourth inning, he faced a bases loaded situation with nobody out again, just like in the Oakland opener. He retired Ronnie Belliard, and got to two strikes against Jim Edmonds, but left a pitch out over the plate and Edmonds ripped it down the line for a two run double. It still seemed like a victory at the time when Robertson wriggled out of the inning with no more damage than that, but as things went that was all the Cardinals needed.

The most sickening moment of the game came when Joel Zumaya, pitching for the first time in two weeks, walked two batters to lead off the seventh. Walking Eckstein and Wilson was bad enough, but worse was that Pujols was coming up. Well, Zumaya got him to hit a comebacker and for some reason decided to cut down the lead runner rather than turn what probably would have been an easy 1-6-3 double play. His throw to third was wide and behind Inge and allowed both baserunners to score. This was bad enough, but Tim McCarver dwelled on this decision ad nauseum for almost the rest of the night. Here's where it seems most appropriate to say how much I hate Tim McCarver. I'm so sick of him getting a woodrow every time he gets to mention the Cardinals' World Series in the 60s. In case you didn't know, he played for the Cardinals back when he was a crappy catcher. Anyway, with Zumaya's crucial mistake – that wasn’t so crucial since they never scored – and McCarver blathering on and digging to find the last time a pitcher tried to start a 1-5-3 double play, it was very difficult not to just cut my losses and go to bed.

But as gloomy as the loss was, Tiger fans should know by now that there is no such thing as momentum in baseball. I think the Tigers have the better pitcher on the mound tonight in the matchup between Bonderman and Jeff Suppan. I’m also going to just take it on faith that the lineup will start hitting the ball to spots on the field where there are no Cardinals. Looking back over the pitch-by-pitch for the game, their approaches at the plate didn’t seem too bad. They took the first pitch quite a bit, and seemed to be trying to work the counts, but Carpenter was throwing strikes and they just couldn’t hit the ball hard when they were forced to swing. My final hope is that everybody has knocked off the rust and shaken the jitters, because it’s now the time to step up and start putting this thing away. Just think like this. If the Tigers win this series, tonight is likely to be the night their fortunes turned.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

The Smudge and Preseason Picks

By now, you’ve probably heard about the smudge Kenny Rogers had on his hand in Game 2 of the World Series. My view on this mimics others I’ve heard and it is simple. It was there. It was probably pine tar or something equally illegal and if the Cardinals had wanted, they probably could have had Rogers tossed. They chose not to make a big fuss about it. Some have said that LaRussa made a huge mistake and should have made a big stink about it, because he could have had the Tigers’ best pitcher in the playoffs tossed.

I say you have to ask yourself why didn’t LaRussa have Kenny Rogers inspected, and potentially tossed? It wasn’t because he didn’t want to embarrass him; I can almost guarantee you that. There is a reason, though, and you can be sure that reason has something to do with LaRussa figuring the positives and negatives of taking that action were uncertain. Two examples I will put out there as to why he may have been hesitant to make a big stink are 1) he didn’t figure the pine tar made much of a difference, and 2) he didn’t want Leyland looking too hard at his pitchers for similar substances. I heard that Keith Olberman brought up this point on the Dan Patrick Show. Leyland was in the Cardinals organization as late as last year. He very well may know who to point out, and maybe he figures losing one of his starters would hurt more than losing Rogers would have hurt the Tigers at that point. My final point on this matter is that while all these media members are going off on the significance of this, do you know what important group I haven’t heard complain? The players.

That’s all I want to say about it because I think too much has been said already. The only reason I even brought it up is because I figured if you’ve been reading this blog all season, you might want to read what I think of it.

Since I can’t think of anything else to talk about after the off day (the real reason I talked about the smudge), I will revisit my preseason predictions.

In the AL, I said the East would go: Yankees, Red Sox, Blue Jays, Devil Rays, Orioles.
The Central: Indians, White Sox, Twins, Tigers, Royals.
The West: A’s, Angels, Rangers, Mariners.

In the NL, I said the East would go: Braves, Mets, Phillies, Nationals, Marlins.
The Central: Cardinals, Brewers, Astros, Pirates, Cubs, Reds.
The West: Dodgers, Giants, Padres, Diamondbacks, Rockies.

The actual results were AL East: Yankees, Blue Jays, Red Sox, Orioles, Devil Rays.
The Central: Twins, Tigers, White Sox, Indians, Royals.
The West: A’s, Angels, Rangers, Mariners.

NL East: Mets, Phillies, Braves, Marlins, Nationals.
The Central: Cardinals, Astros, Reds, Brewers, Pirates, Cubs.
The West: Padres, Dodger, Giants, Diamondbacks, Rockies.

So in the American League, I placed only the Yankees, Royals and the entire West in the correct position. In the National League, I picked only the Cardinals, Diamondbacks and Rockies in the correct positions. That’s nine teams out of thirty and three of the six division winners. I hope you’re not reading this blog for its prognostication skills, because mine pretty much suck.

Monday, October 23, 2006

World Series Weekend Review

It’s a bit odd that I have been so busy right at the time the World Series is going on. I wasn’t at work at all on Friday, and didn’t really have a shot at sitting down before the computer until about an hour before the World Series started on Saturday. At that point, I figured nobody would have a chance to read what I had to say before the game anyway, so I didn’t do the much anticipated (by me) World Series Preview.

Amazingly enough, the games went on without my thoughts or input. Game 1 started out well enough when Carlos Guillen singled to knock in the game’s first run after Verlander had set the Cardinals down in order in the top of the inning. That was about the end of the good news for the Tigers in this one, though. Rolen yanked a fastball over the wall in left in the second to tie it up. In the third, Chris Duncan and Albert Pujols doubled and homered to make it a three run game and I believe everybody who was watching was probably a little surprised when they didn’t walk Pujols with first base open and two outs. To make the home run hurt worse, Verlander gathered himself and struck out Edmonds to end the inning after Pujols went yard.

There was more trouble in the sixth, but the way the Tigers were hitting, it didn’t really matter. In the second, they saw seven pitches. In the fourth, it was six pitches. In the sixth, it was eight pitches. In the seventh, it was ten pitches. In the eighth, it was eight pitches again. In the innings mentioned, the outs were all pop outs or fly outs except for one ground out, one line out and one single. Don’t think I’m cherry-picking either, because the third and fifth innings weren’t offensive displays either. They were retired in order both innings; they just didn’t do it in so few pitches (13 in the 3rd; 19 in the 5th).

I really didn’t think the Tigers would be hurt too much by the week off, but it seemed like it may have had an effect on their approach at the plate. Maybe they were so keyed up to get this World Series won they forgot the approach that brought them. On the mound, the Tigers looked better than the box score would indicate. Verlander struck out eight, and at times looked dominant. Other times, it seemed he may have lost some focus and just figured they weren’t going to hit him. Well, when they hit him, they hit him hard. Of the six hits he allowed, four were for extra bases. Of the eight batters who reached base against him, seven of them scored. Verlander was good this season at keeping runners from scoring, and this is what happens when that “skill” goes away.

Game 2 was much better news for the Tigers. They dropped two runs on Jeff Weaver in the first when Monroe went deep on the first pitch he saw. They scored their second run when Guillen doubled in Maggs from first. For a while, it looked like we might be in for a repeat of the night before in that the Tigers had good success in the first but then fell off the map offensively. In the fourth, it seemed like this trend may really come back to haunt them when the bottom of the order loaded the bases with no outs and the top of the order struck out (Granderson), popped out (Monroe) and grounded out (Polanco) to harmlessly end the inning. We seemed to be in for more in the fifth when it looked like they may wasted a Guillen triple, but Sean Casey came through with a big single that made it 3-0.

The story of this game wasn’t the offense, though. Kenny Rogers turned in eight beautiful innings to run his scoreless streak in the playoffs to twenty three innings. I don’t know what the guy is doing, but it sure is a lot of fun to watch. For three games now, it seems like the batters are guessing wrong eighty percent of the time and hitting it right at Tiger fielders when they guess right. It’s almost enough to make you want to see a game six just so Rogers can try to throw another gem. Of course, in the ninth inning it looked very much like it may all have been for naught.

In the ninth, the Tigers brought in Todd Jones to close things out and he did – eventually. Spiezio and Pujols hit the ball hard, but right at Ordonez and Inge respectively, and the Tigers had two quick outs. Then Rolen hit an 0-2 pitch to right for a single, and we all probably thought the same thing. “Of course we won’t have a 1-2-3 inning.” Then Encarnacion hit a come-backer to Jones that bounced away and put the tying run, Edmonds at the plate. This was no longer funny or cute. Edmonds doubled, scoring a run and putting the tying run at second. My inner dialogue went something like this:

Breathe. Breathe. He’ll get out of it. I HATE YOU, TODD JONES! FIELD THE DAMN BALL, YOU TUB OF CRAP! Breathe. Breathe.

Then he hit Preston Wilson with a pitch to load the bases, and bring up Yadier Molina, the hero of Game 7 of the NLCS. This dog had already had his day, right? RIGHT? Right. He grounded out to Santiago who flipped the ball to Polanco for the 27th out. Whew.

Today is a travel day so the teams get a breather before the series resumes tomorrow at eight. In that one, it will be Chris Carpenter against Nate Robertson. Carpenter is a Cy Young candidate, but he’s been sketchy in the postseason and the Tigers had good success against him when they faced him earlier in the season. Polanco and Granderson have yet to pick up a hit in this series, so I’d look for them to add a little more to the mix in St. Louis. They can’t really do much less, right? As for Robertson, we’ll just have to hope we get the Nate that pitched just well enough against the A’s rather than the Nate that ran into some bad luck in New York.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Mets and Cards Scratch and Claw for Series Bid; Tigers Scratch and Claw for Clubhouse Remote

My wish came true. The Mets beat the Cardinals in Game 6 of the NLCS yesterday, 4-2. Jose Reyes and John Maine were the key contributors for the Mets. Some will say Chris Carpenter didn’t get the job done when the Cards needed him, but the guy only gave up two runs and left the game trailing 2-0.

For the Cardinals, this means they will be sending Jeff Suppan out to the mound for Game 7. As I mentioned yesterday, this will make things interesting if and when they face the Tigers on Saturday since Carpenter and Suppan won’t be available and Weaver would have to go on short rest to take the hill. For the Mets, it turns out picking the starter for Game 7 wasn’t as cut-and-dry as I thought. Steve Trachsel is not getting the call, as Willie Randolph is opting to go with Oliver Perez on three days’ rest. Guy gets slapped around for five runs with more than his usual break between starts, and you turn around and go to him on short rest? Wow.

Of course, Trachsel had what two different radio guys are calling the worst postseason start ever. So either option probably would not have walked off the mound to a raucous standing ovation tonight. The nice thing for the Tigers is that they will probably get Trachsel for Game 1 of the World Series if the Mets win, and that Mets bullpen has been called on to make a lot of pitches in this series. One possible wrinkle to the Mets’ potential World Series rotation is I’ve heard El Duque (Orlando Hernandez) may pitch if they make the World Series. I just haven’t yet heard when that may take place.

Seeing the problems a long series poses for the Mets and Cardinals going into the World Series, is anybody still wondering if the negatives of the long layoff for the Tigers outweigh the positives? The Tigers can literally throw any of the starters for the first four games of the Series, and will probably have Casey and Zumaya game ready. Either the Cardinals or the Mets Game 1 starter will be like choosing between a bullet in the gut and a bullet in the knee. They will also have just about their entire World Series rotation dictated by the starters' usage in the NLCS. Their only flexibility would likely come later in the series when they may have to choose between trusting a back of the rotation guy in a big game and throwing a more reliable starter on short rest. I should stop talking about these National League teams, because pretty soon I’m going to start sounding like the Yankee fans before the ALDS.

I’m not rooting for either team tonight, so I guess I’ll root for a 19 inning marathon that forces the Mets or Cardinals to throw their bullpen catcher in Game 1 of the World Series.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Here’s a funny little story for those of you who may roll your eyes at all the baseball content. I was listening to the radio on the way into work yesterday, and heard a commercial for a book by some spy novel author. The commercial goes something like this:

When a presidential candidate’s poll ratings skyrocket after an attempt on his life, CIA agent (something something) must determine if it was an act of terrorism…or an act of treason.

From there, they go to some reviews and then say, “…the new novel by (somebody), Act of Treason”. So, it would appear all that the CIA agent would have to do to decide “whether it’s an act of terrorism or an act of treason” is read the title. I’m not an ad exec, but putting a spoiler in the commercial doesn’t seem real bright to me.

But maybe this could be a new trend for movie trailers:

(Narrator voice) When Jenny Wilson woke up this morning, she never could have imagined that her baby would be missing. (Phone rings. Jenny looks at it, terrified.) Menacing voice on phone says, “Your daughter won’t eat her peas.” (Jenny screams and starts crying) (Narrator) Now, she has just three days to find out who has her child or she will have to do the unthinkable. (Menacing voice) Blow up the US Embassy or your daughter will never blow out her first birthday candle. (Narrator) It’s the guy who delivered the baby’s formula to the house in the movie’s first scene. Julianne Moore. Christopher Walken. From Director Pedro Almodovar, Peas Don’t Kill My Baby. Opens Friday Everywhere.
Future Opponents for World Series

Things do not look good for the Mets right now. Before the NLCS, I would have said that’s a good thing, but the Cardinals are beating the Mets so I’m not sure anybody should get excited to play the Cardinals instead of the Mets. Last night, the Cardinals beat them 4-2 to take a three games to two lead in the series. It’s certainly not over, but the Cardinals are sending their best pitcher to the mound tonight against the Mets’ John Maine. If the Mets are able to pull out the win tonight, nobody seems to know who would be their Game 7 starter.

So what does all this mean for the Tigers? The Cardinals winning tonight would mean Jeff Suppan would be available for Game 1 of the World Series on Saturday. Jeff Weaver would probably go on Sunday, and Chris Carpenter would take the mound for Game 3. Those are assumptions on my part, but I don’t wear the genius goggles Tony LaRussa does, so there could be something I’m missing. If the Mets pull off the win tonight and the Cardinals win Game 7, that would throw a monkey wrench into things for the Cards’ Game 1 plans. Suppan and Carpenter would be off-limits and if they gave the ball to Weaver, he’d be going on three days’ rest and they still have to figure out who’s going to go in Game 2. Of course, they could go with Carpenter on three days’ rest as well. As a Tiger fan, I like the idea of their lineup getting to face two straight starters going on three days’ rest.

The more logical course for Game 1 would seem to be something like what the Cardinals did for Game 4 of this series, which was start with Anthony Reyes and go to the bullpen early. Then they would be able to go to Weaver, Carpenter and Suppan all on their normal rest or longer. They could go with Weaver on short rest for Game 1 and then look to Reyes and the bullpen for Game 2, but that would be very risky. If Weaver was chased early in Game 1, they’d be kind of screwed either leaving Reyes in longer than they would like or going to a haggard bullpen. When you look at things this way, it’s pretty amazing how big tonight’s game becomes for the Cardinals. That’s on top of the fact that if they don’t win tonight, they’re on the road for a Game 7 and will face a very real possibility of their starters all getting four months rest before their next start.

I don’t really know why there seems to be so many questions about who would pitch a Game 7 for the Mets. It would be Trachsel’s turn in the rotation, and the fact that they have him in their rotation at all suggests to me that they don’t really have a whole lot better option behind him. You certainly wouldn’t want to put your World Series ticket on Oliver Perez on short rest, would you?

If the Mets do pull this series out, they will be hard pressed for starters in the first two games of the World Series. They could pitch Glavine in Game 1, but it would be on three days’ rest and assuming Trachsel starts tomorrow, that would leave Oliver Perez as their only other option. Again, if I were Willie Randolph, I’d risk Perez in Game 1 to go to my best pitcher, Glavine, on normal rest for Game 2.

I don’t know if this little exercise in possibilities clears things up for you, but it certainly cleared up two things for me. First, I don’t really care who wins this series, but I am definitely rooting for the Mets tonight. If a Game 7 is forced, whoever wins that game will have to scramble to get anything close to good pitching on the mound for Game 1 against the Tigers. Secondly, I am going to be pissed if the Tigers get beat by either of these teams’ rotations.

Go Mets (in Game 6).

Monday, October 16, 2006

2006 American League Champions

I think a lot of people are struggling for the right words to talk about this Tiger team because it has snuck up on them. In 2001, after having seen the team get a whiff of .500 the previous season, I foolishly bet my friend they could reach 85 wins. He said I was crazy; they had only reached 79 the previous season and now they didn’t even have Juan Gonzalez. Big deal, I said. You don’t think they can get 22 home runs from whoever fills that four spot? The next season I was a little wiser and reduced the over/under on the same bet to 75 wins. I lost again and they were even worse. In 2003, we didn’t do the bet because there was no number I felt comfortable picking and there was no way I was going to cheer when the Tigers scratched to the number that I feared may be accurate - 50 wins. As everyone knows by now, even that pathetic goal was out of their reach.

I love this Tiger team, but I loved those Tiger teams, too. Back then, I had to latch on to the smallest successes and it seemed like each one would get smothered in the hope. I was Lenny squishing rabbits and the rabbits were guys like Nate Cornejo, Robert Fick and Eric Munson. In desperation, I would scour the minors and see promising numbers only to find out that player was 31 years old or a “crafty” pitcher who would later be completely undressed and demoralized when he was called up – more like sentenced – to the majors. The efforts the Tigers made toward respectability were mocked widely and, it usually turned out, presciently. It became almost a cruel joke when dud free agent signings were dressed up like a cousin to take to the prom. Craig Paquette? We gave up a draft pick for this guy? I winced to read what the national media was saying about the Tigers. In 2002 and 2003 they were written off after the first week.

With many franchises, this consistent ineptitude at the major league level could be hiding a growing and deepening pool of minor league talent, but even this wasn’t true of the Tigers. Each year, scouts would look through the system and wave away the whole system. A closer with a number one overall pick? (Anderson) The only award those guys are going to win is Most Likely to Break Down. (Baugh and Sleeth) Even when a move in the Tigers’ draft was applauded, such as when they “stole” Michael Woods with a supplemental first round pick, he turned out to lack the promise the accolades suggested. I had turned to the minor leagues to take solace from a major league team that seemed poisoned. Well, the poison in the fruit was starting in the soil.

In 2004, they made some steps back toward respectability, but it felt like the team had to pull a Yankee move just to get to those 72 wins. We had seen these mock charges before and a lot of us were skeptical that this bear was just trying to get a rise out of us. We fans who thought of ourselves as savvy knew that this organization’s only hope was to be patient, and build this franchise back up from within. That takes a lot of time when you're starting with almost nothing. Pudge, Rondell and Urbina were all just bandages that would be long gone by the time the Tigers were ready to make a real charge. Therefore, we weren’t surprised when they regressed a little and dipped back to 71 wins in 2005. Signing Maggs and Percival and trading for Farnsworth were just more of the same. They were empty calories for the greedy fans who needed progress in the form of names they knew. We figured – we hoped – that Dombrowski was just pulling these strings while the depths of the system were mended and made stronger. You know, guys like this Curtis Granderson kid.

In fact, I cringed when 2006 was near its beginning and I heard reports of Dombrowski saying that if progress wasn’t made this year, people would be held accountable. That was strategically leaked, right? They’re not going to do anything stupid like trade Justin Verlander and Curtis Granderson for Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell, right? I don’t know how good those two are going to be, but please tell me the rumor about trading them for Javier Vasquez isn’t true either. I’m already worried about how Leyland is going to do; didn’t he kill young pitchers like Wilson Alvarez in Florida and Jon Smiley in Pittsburgh? Please don’t make me fret that we just gave away another John Smoltz besides.

So the losing culture in the locker room was nothing compared to the years of calluses and scars we had built up as fans. Brandon Inge had been on the team the longest and we remembered when he was supposed to be an athletic young catcher who had not yet disappointed us. We saw them shoot out to 5-0 and nodded knowingly when they were just as quickly 5-4 and then 7-7. Sure, they could slap around Texas and Kansas City, but Chicago and Cleveland sure showed them where they stood in the division’s pecking order. Well, you know the story from there. They got up to ten games over after 28 games. Twenty games up after 48 games. Thirty games up after 80 games. By this time, even the crustiest fan would have to acknowledge their first winning season since 1993 was in the bag. You didn’t even have to be too much of an optimist to start talking playoffs at that point, but deep down I think we all expected the last game of the Tigers’ season to be a loss if they made the playoffs. Surely, they couldn’t have come this far this quickly? It took forty games above .500 with fifty games left to play to open our eyes.

Our Tigers were really good. They were smoking the rest of the division and they looked for all the world like they might just be the best team in baseball. Some fans even got overzealous and mentioned playoff rotations. But even on a pace to win 110 games, the wounds from past seasons were still too fresh to talk too much about what all this could mean. There was still a lot of time left, and there was still a lot that could go wrong. Well, as everybody who’s watched a game of the playoffs knows, it did. This team was by no means as bad as teams from a few years ago, but like a few years ago, I hated to turn on the radio. They were just going to talk about the Tigers and their historic choke. They blew the division despite a cupcake schedule the last couple weeks, and it was a good thing they did celebrate clinching the playoffs because that was likely the only celebration there would be.

So do you see? Do you see why I almost lost my voice when they beat the Yankees? Do you get why my nose starts to burn and my scalps tingles when I hear the call of Maggs’ home run? This was a franchise that had a team on ESPN’s Worst Teams of the Past 25 Years before the 2003 Tigers. This was a team that was a consensus fourth place team this season. I braced myself for disappointment when I predicted they would flirt with .500. Not break it. Flirt with it. This is the team that turned phone conversations with family from “Can you believe the Tigers?” to “Can you believe the Tigers!” They made us believe. Then they took that away. Now they have given it back. Now the Tigers are going to the World Series. I can only think of one thing in sports that could be better than that.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Athletics v. Tigers: Weekend Preview

Well, as I mentioned yesterday, the Tigers are in about as good of shape as possible in a seven game series. They have a 2-0 lead heading into a three game home stand, which I’m sure they’re hoping will lead to them not having to return to Oakland and its ugly, concrete, glare soaked stadium. This thing is definitely not a done deal, though. In both of the first two games, the A’s were a well-placed hit away from busting things open. In the second game, they appeared to be about a centimeter away from a walkoff grand slam. I’m not familiar enough with the A’s to know if the close calls mean I have underestimated their lineup or if the close calls and the inability to get baserunners home is what makes their lineup okay rather than good. Either way, they seem to be flirting with busting out and it’s up to Kenny Rogers and Jeremy Bonderman to make sure at the end of this series they’re saying “We missed our best chances in Games 1 and 2”.

The Tigers could really use another special effort from each of those two because so far the bullpen has been called on to pitch 7 2/3 innings in two games. Joel Zumaya is having some trouble with his wrist again, and if he can’t go, the inning or two he would usually give them has to come from somebody. Regardless of who that is, it's a step down from Zumaya. For that reason, it would be nice if the bullpen only had to cover his absence for a couple innings rather than three or four.

For the A’s it is scheduled to be Rich Harden today and Danny Haren tomorrow. After spending over three months on the DL, Rich Harden came back in September for the A’s and made three starts. He is said to have the best stuff on their staff when he's healthy, but he's had mixed results in his short time back. In his three starts, he pitched 11 2/3 innings, gave up 8 hits, 7 runs, struck out 15 and walked 8. The first two games, he did well enough but appeared to be on pitch count limits because he was taken out after three innings (55 pitches) in the first game despite striking out seven and allowing only one run. In the second game, he went five innings (76 pitches) and didn’t give up any runs, while striking out five. It was his third start that was cringe-inducing as he threw 91 pitches in 3 2/3 innings, giving up 6 runs and 6 walks in the short outing. That game was on the first of this month and he hasn’t faced major leaguers since. He did throw in the A’s instructional league a few days ago, and evidently the results gave them confidence he was their best option today. With his tender condition, the long layoff, and the weather man calling for high 40s at game time, I’m guessing the Tigers will be seeing a lot of that A’s bullpen again. I’m hoping they have the patient approach they brought to Game 1 to ensure that scenario. Not only is Harden is likely to have a pitch limit, but he obviously had trouble finding the strike zone in his last start and it would be a shame to give him easy outs if that's the case again today.

As for Haren, I’d be curious to hear why the A’s are shoving him to the back of the rotation. He pitched on October 6th against the Twins, so he could have pitched in Game 2 or 3 with either normal rest or an extra day. He led the team in strikeouts, has a fantastic walk rate and his ERA is only higher than Zito’s by a pretty negligible amount (4.12 to 3.83). The A’s said they know what they get from Loaiza; I’m wondering why they seem to suspect it’s better than what Haren can give them. Whatever the reasoning, don’t be surprised if the Tigers have their toughest challenge tomorrow afternoon.

So hopefully you now feel comfortably informed of what the Tigers will be facing the next two games, but I also hope you’ll remember the playoffs are known for being the time when the announcers say, “Who could have seen this coming?” So it's probably just as likely as not that this little preview will just be an exercise in frustrated expectations. The game is at 4:30 today. I’m skipping lunch to get out of work at 3:30. I recommend you take similar steps if you can.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

I guess I will start today by mentioning that Yankees pitcher Cory Lidle died in a plane crash in New York City’s Upper East Side, according to the reports I heard. His instructor, who was in the plane (the plane was a small four-seater owned by Lidle) with him, died and the last report I read said two others who were in the apartment building they crashed into died as well. This is clearly a very sad thing, and I feel terrible for the people and the families involved, but I have to say I feel worse for the people who were in the building. Lidle and his instructor were in a plane, and therefore kind of assumed the risks that go with that. These people were sitting in their 20th story condo and a plane crashed into the building. It is almost as bizarre to think of as it is tragic. It’s also kind of weird to think that I saw Lidle’s last professional pitch when he threw a bit for the Yankees on Saturday. Update: Lidle and the instructor were the only ones who died in the crash. Others were only injured.

Moving on to the Tiger game, the Tigers didn’t look as sharp as they did when they were dismantling the Yankees, but they put together another win. This puts them ahead 2-0 in the series as they head back to Detroit for three games over the weekend, starting tomorrow. So essentially, they have to win a three game home series and they will be returning to the World Series for the first time since 1984.

As a fan of the team, this one didn’t start out well. It wasn't so much anything that happened in the game itself, but they showed the lineup and not only was Neifi Perez starting – I kind of expected that – but he was for some reason batting second. While I sat down and breathed into the paper bag, I happened to trail down the rest of the lineup and my eyes got very big when I saw that Alexis Gomez was batting eighth and he was the designated hitter. I promised my wife I wasn’t going to get angry, but boy this was pushing it. Here’s why. First, this meant Thames was sitting the bench again. You know I hate how little they value Thames. Second, Gomez is supposed to be their fourth outfielder. Should anything have happened to Maggs, you would have to slide Monroe over to right and put Thames in left. That is a pretty badly compromised outfield defense. If Gomez absolutely has to play, at least throw him in the outfield and let either Maggs or Monroe DH.

The results of this lunacy were kind of shocking, but it didn’t really surprise me. Neifi was his predictable self and was essentially an automatic out in the second spot in the order. Alexis Gomez was the one whose performance was shocking, but I mentioned earlier in the season that it seemed like whenever I complained about Leyland overvaluing Gomez, he came through and made me look stupid. That’s why I wasn’t surprised by what he did. Last night, I was even cheering for him by saying, “Come on, Alexis. Prove me wrong.” So how did he prove me wrong? Well, in the fourth, he came up with bases loaded and hit a grounder to Eric Chavez’s left. It looked like Chavez would eat it up and while a double play seemed unlikely, the second out of the inning didn’t. Well, the ball bounced off his glove and slowly rolled into shallow left allowing two runs to score. This gave the Tigers a 4-3 lead the inning after Milton Bradley had just given the A’s a 3-1 lead with a two run shot off Verlander. In the sixth, he hit a two run homer to put the Tigers up 7-3. What can I say? Leyland has the Midas touch right now. I will say that just because decisions work out well doesn’t mean they were the right decision, but at this point I’m not going to pick nits as long as the Tigers keep winning.

Gomez was the driving force of the offense, but the pitching was definitely more of a team effort. Verlander didn’t look bad despite giving up seven hits and four runs in just over five innings of work. He did strike out six batters, after all. It was just that when the bats found the ball, the A’s seemed to find the bases as a result. The first run he allowed was a bit of bad luck as Kotsay doubled, took third when Pudge didn’t make much of an effort to block a pitch in the dirt, and then scored on a broken bat single to right by Milton Bradley that would have been an easy out had the infield not been pulled in. The rest of his runs came from home runs by Bradley and Eric Chavez. Justin didn’t get into a lot of trouble other than those situations, but the A’s also made him work and he ended up throwing 106 pitches in a short night of work.

The bullpen did a great job of bailing him out, though. Ledezma finished the sixth for him and got two outs in the seventh before he succumbed to another no-doubter from Milton Bradley that pulled the game back to 7-5. He was relieved by Grilli, who faced only the Big Hurt and struck him out. Rodney was brought in for the eighth and he turned in what had to be one of his more impressive showings of the season. With a two run lead, and Chavez, Payton and Swisher coming up, Rodney struck out the side with none of those guys so much as fouling a ball off. That’s right. He threw thirteen pitches. Four were balls. Five were strikes looking. Four were strikes swinging, including each of the strike three pitches. Clearly, he’s another Tiger who has stepped up for the playoffs to this point.

Granderson provided a little breathing room in the ninth with a solo home run and heading into the bottom of the ninth with a three run lead, everybody knew that meant Johnny Cakes was coming in. I liked the Tigers’ odds because the three batters he had to face were the 8-9-1 batters, Scutaro, Jimenez and Kendall. He struck out Scutaro, and then Melhuse was brought in to pinch hit for Jimenez. He struck out on three pitches, but it wasn’t a bizarre decision only because he failed so miserably at this assignment. Melhuse is the backup catcher and Jimenez was only playing second because Mark Ellis went down with a broken finger in the Twins series. That meant even if the A’s tied this one up, they would now be without a backup catcher for extra innings and Mark Kiger – who has never played in the majors – would have to staff second base. Weird. Anyway, with two outs, Jason Kendall was coming up and he was so far 0 for 4 on the night. See how that works? Pitch to him and he gets himself out. I was pointing this out just about when he hit a single that Polanco just couldn’t quite turn into an out. Crap. Kotsay then singled and that brought up Milton Bradley as the tying run who had already hit two home runs. Double crap. I was almost relieved to see him get only an infield single that Neifi couldn’t field and throw quick enough to get the out. I’m not saying Neifi did anything wrong. I doubt anybody could have done any more.

The problem with Bradley getting the single was that it brought up Frank Thomas with bases loaded. A home run would mean an ultimate grand slam for Thomas. That’s a walk off grand slam that comes when your team had been down by three runs. Frank Thomas in this situation with Todd Jones on the mound is absolutely terrifying. First pitch: strike looking. Great, he’s sizing up Jones’ fastball. Next pitch: ball. Final pitch: fastball up in the zone. Thomas makes contact. I wet myself and sob openly at the same time. (Not really.) I compose myself to rejoice when I see Thomas grimace because he just missed Jones’ meatball and Jones point at the popup. Granderson calls everyone off and takes it for the final out. Woo! Like I said, it wasn’t pretty, but we’ll take it. I will definitely take the Tiger staff combining for thirteen strikeouts. If they want to do that every game, I’m fine with that.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Warning: Post Not Related to Baseball. It is, however, related to commercials that play during baseball games, if that makes you feel better.

There is some commercial for some company that has a gorilla talking to a couple about something. At the end, he says with a feigned modest tone that he is “just the 800-lb gorilla in the room”. The first time I saw this I mentioned to my wife that the ad team has created an amalgam of two common sayings. It was my impression that you had one saying where things were “an 800 pound gorilla”. Actually, I thought it was 500-lb, but I’m willing to acquiesce on this detail. It was my understanding that the implication of something being this proverbial gorilla was that it could do whatever it wanted. It was also my understanding that this saying was an allusion to the grade school level joke, “What does a 500 pound gorilla do?... (wait for it)… Whatever it wants.” Ha.

Then, there was a completely different saying that something could be “the elephant in the back of the room.” Again, I’m going with my personal understanding, but I thought this was supposed to be something you were hesitant to talk about, but you may as well, because it’s what’s on everyone’s mind.

Well, now all the sudden there’s the 800-lb gorilla in the room. I have no freakin’ idea what this is supposed to mean. Evidently, it’s a know-it-all simian who gives good advice on insurance or stocks or something. Can anybody lend any thoughts on this? Am I the only one who has noticed this? I’m pretty sure I’m the only one who cares, but this is an effort to extend that distinction beyond myself.

Your question to me may be, “why do you care?” Here’s why. Misinformation spreads quickly and if this thing isn’t nipped in the bud, not one, but two clever little colloquialisms will be lost forever and they will be replaced by a murkier, clumsier one that is less than the sum of its parts.

More importantly, I will not have a repeat of a fifth grade experience that nearly drove me insane at a young age. It happened when Pete Rose broke the hit record. The teacher asked the class how many hits he had to get to break the record. I shot my hand in the air and had to listen to idiotic guess after guess that was WAY off. “Six thousand hits? Really? So he gets, what, three hundred hits a year for twenty years? What’s that make his career batting average? .500? Idiot. You don’t deserve to be in the fifth grade.” I’ve always been very serious about baseball, you see. When she finally called on me I said with certainty: 4,192. This exercise was over, because that was it. I knew because it was Ty Cobb’s record he was breaking and Ty Cobb is the greatest and perhaps most famous Tiger of all time.

But, to my great distress, the teacher treated this as a democratic endeavor and proceeded to have the class VOTE on what they believed to be the correct answer. When they “voted for” the wrong answer, I was inexplicably mocked for being wrong. Here’s the kicker: she didn’t bring in a newspaper article to validate my correct response. This wasn’t some trick experiment to teach us a lesson about bad information. It was evidently a direct attempt to drive anybody with the correct answer insane. In twenty-five kids’ uninformed brains, Pete Rose broke the hits record with some number of hits beside 4,192. It was like something out of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. That’s Mark Twain, I think. Unless my fifth grade class voted on it being Dickens and history was re-written to accommodate them.

To bring that little anecdote back to the point, I’m right on this giant ape/elephant thing. If I don’t get the word out quickly, people are going to be looking at me like I’ve lost my mind when it is clearly they who have had a schism from reality. After all, this is some big high-priced ad firm – clearly they are the ones who have it right, and not me. It’s already starting because when I stated my case to my wife, she looked concerned for my well-being and the state of my mental health. Dammit, they may have already won.
ALCS Game 1: Zito Gets Zinged

The Tigers have been incredibly impressive in the playoffs so far. Last night, they were facing Barry Zito, who had shut down the Twins in his previous postseason start and was equally impressive against the Tigers when he faced them earlier in the season. He is supposed to be a pitcher who thrives on inducing harmless contact from batters, and with the Tigers’ free-swinging ways everyone seemed to think this was a good matchup for the A’s. Well, these Tigers don’t seem all that interested in what is supposed to happen.

Zito retired the first eight batters he saw, but after that the Tigers pummeled him. With two outs in the third, Inge hit a line drive over the left field wall just inside the foul pole. Granderson then yanked a 2-0 pitch into right field for a double, and Polanco followed that up with a walk. Casey walked on seven pitches, loading the bases, and that brought up the cleanup hitter, Magglio Ordonez. He hit a hard grounder to the left of Chavez, who got his glove on the ball but was unable to field it cleanly and was unable to get an out. Zito finally got his third out when Guillen grounded out to short but not before the Tigers worked him over for two runs on thirty eight pitches in the inning.

Even before they started getting to Zito, they were taking pretty good approaches at the plate. Granderson led off the game by flying out on a 2-1 pitch, but he made contact on the first pitch he swung at. Polanco then grounded out on another 2-1, and he didn’t swing until the count was 1-0 (he fouled that pitch off). Casey ended the inning in the first when he hit a grounder back to Zito on a 2-2 pitch, but he looked at the first two strikes he saw as well. In the second, the Tigers went 1-2-3, but Maggs and Pudge both worked the count full before getting out and Guillen made an out on a 2-1 pitch. In fact, if you look at the Tigers’ approaches against Zito, only three batters swung at the first pitch and almost everyone did their damage from either a full count or a hitter’s count.

It wasn’t just their approach that did Zito in, though. They had their mojo working. According to’s pitch-by-pitch, they swung and missed exactly three times. Inge was one of those hitters who missed a pitch, but followed it up in the same at bat with a home run. The Tigers pretty much put on a clinic as to how they can beat Barry Zito. It’s unfortunate that they didn’t seem to take that same disciplined approach the rest of the game, as they picked up only four hits and zero runs off non-Zito pitchers.

Luckily, the pitchers made sure the early runs stood up. Robertson didn’t look all that sharp (he walked Jason Kendall twice, after all), but he made his pitches when he had to. He was in trouble early in the first with runners on first and second with one out, but he got Big Hurt to hit to the big part of the park for a fly out and Jay Payton grounded into a fielder’s choice to end the inning. In fact, he got into some degree of trouble in each of his five innings but nothing ever came of it. His most impressive escape act came in the fourth when he walked Frank Thomas and gave up double to Jay Payton to start the inning. As you may have heard, Leyland came out at this point, said his magic words, and Nate struck out the next three batters to get out of the pickle. It was still early in the game, but you had the feeling the A’s would not get a better chance to make things interesting.

They didn’t. They put two runners on again in the fifth, but a double play grounder by Kotsay and a fly out from Bradley ended the threat pretty quickly, and that was it for Robertson. Rodney pitched two innings, and while the A’s scored a run off Zumaya in the eighth, they scored it on a ground out that left the bases empty with two outs. That’s not exactly prime ground for scoring four comeback runs. When Jones came in to wrap things up, I said that at least we wouldn’t have to sit through the damn walks any more. He proceeded to walk the first batter on four pitches. He made up for it though, by getting a harmless popup and grounder to Polanco for the first two outs and finally retired the immortal Jason Kendall (this is sarcasm, but he had reached base in all his other appearances) to end the game.

This was another game where the Tigers took advantage of both their strengths and the opportunities the other team gave them. It was another great team effort, between the gritty pitching, the undressing of Zito and the timely double plays. Let’s not get to cocky, though. The A’s put a lot of runners on the bases, and sooner or later the walks and hits will come in an order that produces runs if you don’t start keeping guys off the bases. The Tigers also need to keep the same discipline they take into their first couple at bats throughout the game. They worked over Zito pretty badly, but they didn’t seem to have an answer for any of the A’s relievers and the A's didn’t even throw Duchsherer or Street. They’ll need to improve there because I doubt they’ll score five runs too many more times off the A’s starters.

The other bad news was Sean Casey hurting his calf coming out of the batter’s box in the sixth inning. Since the Tigers decided to carry three middle infielders instead of putting Shelton on the playoff roster, I would imagine replacing Casey will involve sliding Guillen over to first and putting in Infante (I hope) or Perez (please, no) at short. My guess is they only put in Santiago last night because the game was already 5-0 and they figured his solid defense was more important than the increased offense Infante offers. The subs may actually work out well for the Tigers because they will probably slide Thames or Monroe up into that three slot, and Infante is at least as capable at the plate as Casey.

The pitching matchup tonight is Justin Verlander against Esteban Loiaza. I think this is a big edge for the Tigers, especially when you consider each team's lineup. Then again, I thought the A's had the edge last night.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

ALCS 2006: Tigers v. Oakland

I haven’t figured out the best way to preview a playoff series, and I think it may be because it’s a pointless exercise. My first inclination is to look at the numbers, but if I would have focused on the numbers before the Yankees series, I would have never been so optimistic about the Tigers’ chances. In the A’s first round series, the numbers wouldn’t have made you think the A’s would beat Santana at home, and nothing could have predicted the series’ pivotal play – Hunter missing that line drive to center that turned into a crushing two run homer. So, let somebody else get all worked up about Zito outpitching his peripherals and Verlander walking a fine line when he strands so many baserunners. I’m not going to, because all it does is make you shake your head when reality flies in the face of what you convinced yourself was probable.

So, if you came here today thinking I was going to give you solid evidence as to why the Tigers were going to beat the A’s, I apologize. I’m not going to do it. I can tell you the A’s lineup doesn’t scare me all that much, I think the Tigers can put a better pitcher on the mound three nights out of four, and I have a good overall feeling about their chances in this series, but they’re just hunches and I’m not going to spend more time than that trying to explain them. I guess this may be a cop out, and you may think it’s kind of gutless, but the truth is I want you sitting in front of your TV screen with your fists clenched and your legs twitching in anticipation of how things will unfold just like I will be. I want you pacing around your living room when Leyland brings in Jones instead of leaving in Zumaya just like I will be.

We headed into that Yankees series hopeful, but very aware that we may be in for a beating that would seem logical after the way the Tigers finished the season. A loss to the Yankees still would have hurt, but not nearly as much after seeing the Tigers piss away a series and the division against the Royals. Well, now that the Tigers have put down the Yankees, we don’t have that protection anymore. We’re all secretly or not-so-secretly expecting the World Series and we’ve tossed aside the padding and armor we put on before the Yankees series because that stuff pinches and chafes you when you’re celebrating. Nothing I say is going to make anybody put that padding back on, and if the A’s find a way to put the Tigers down, I’ll be laid low at least as badly as anybody reading this (unless any actual Tigers read this, I suppose). So, pull up a seat on the couch or at the bar, but do so knowing that unless we’re on the Tigers payroll, all we can do at this point is watch and hope no matter how much or how little we know about the two teams.

Actually, this approach of not making predictions is probably a good thing because if somebody taunted me with my own words in the even of a Tiger loss, I may not be able to keep the blog going after I was convicted for whatever I did to them. I was in a meeting last week and all a guy said was “You can stick a fork in the Tigers” after their Game 1 loss and that made me want to strangle him with his own tie. “What are you basing that on?! Did God Himself tell you that? Then shut the hell up, you sheep! Oh, and could you take a look at this work plan and approve what we’ve proposed? Thanks.”

Game 1 is at 8:09 tonight, and it will be Barry Zito against Nate Robertson. Go Tigers.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Game 4: They Did It

I don’t know what to say about the game last night, and really the last two games. Going into Saturday’s game, as we looked around the park and talked about how nice the seats were, and what grand slams we had seen live, etc., I debated internally on whether I’d rather see something like the previous night’s game or something more like a classic. I decided I didn’t really care as long as the Tigers won, and let me tell you, I have no complaints about the way things went down.

It was unbelievable the way the weekend games went, and Saturday the surprises started before the teams even took the field. They showed the Yankee lineup and A-Rod was batting eighth and Giambi wasn’t batting at all. I haven’t read the stories to find out if he was injured or not, but he definitely wasn’t in there. Instead, Matsui filled the DH spot, Melky Cabrera played left and Sheffield resumed his duties at first. I was pretty surprised, just because in the beginning of the series Leyland was quoted as saying they would have to do some unconventional things to win. Now here was Torre sitting one of his best hitters – a lefty when the starter was right-handed - and sliding one of the most talented players ever down to the eighth slot in the lineup. I’m not saying these were bad decisions; they were just surprising, and a good indicator of how things had changed since Tuesday.

When the game started, I couldn’t tell if I was going to have to run off to the bathroom or if I was just this excited. It was the same feeling I had before my high school pitching debut and my high school varsity pitching debut. Bonderman retired the first three batters before I could even decide. Damon flied out on an 0-1 pitch. Jeter grounded out to short on the first pitch he saw and Abreu flied out to Granderson. After only seven pitches, the Tigers were coming to bat. Clearly, we didn’t know what we were in for, but it felt like a small victory that the Yankees didn’t bat around and score five runs after being shut down the night before. The Tigers didn’t fare much better in their half of the inning, as they were only able to work Jaret Wright for nine pitches before going to 1-2-3 as well.

The surprises kept coming when Bonderman repeated his first inning effort. He mowed the four through six spots down in eight pitches and that was after a three pitch strikeout of Gary Sheffield. Was it possible that he would be able to improve on Rogers’ start from the night before? We just laughed at the idea of Bonderman getting six outs on fifteen pitches, and had barely settled in our seats when Maggs took a 1-0 pitch and absolutely crushed it into centerfield. God, he smoked that ball, but was it high enough to clear the wall? It was definitely going to be extra bases because Damon was just putting his head down and running, but to go out, it would have to do it in the ballpark’s deepest dimensions. It seemed to take forever, but it finally landed on the side of the fence that let Ordonez slow to a trot, nearly hitting the flagpole (that used to be in play) when it did. The stadium erupted with an orange flash of Tiger Towels and cheers. I realized my celebration perhaps went a little overboard when I was still shouting “Yes!” and high-fiving everyone around me and the guy behind me was sitting down and looking at me with one eyebrow raised. But, dude, these are the Yankees, and these are our Tigers!

After Guillen had a good at bat, Pudge came up and quickly found himself down 0-2. He worked the count back to full – yes, Pudge worked the count. My wife told me Pudge didn’t have to do anything but get a walk so that Craig could hit a two run home run. The next pitch was in the dirt, and a few pitches later, her request was answered when Monroe hit a fly ball where the only question from where we sat was which side of the foul pole it would land on. This is how things went all day. The 3-0 lead convinced that a complete undressing of the Yankees would be okay by me, and the classic could wait until a later round.

In the third inning, Bonderman put them down in order again, and again it was with only eight pitches. This inning was a little different because Craig Monroe made a very nice catch to get the first out. To that point, everything had been pretty routine if I remember correctly. The fifth and sixth members of our party showed up after Monroe’s catch, so we celebrated all that had already happened again and said, “Can you believe this! Oh my God!” for at least the tenth time already. In the bottom of the inning, the first two Tiger batters were retired uneventfully, but then Maggs came up and hit what seemed like a sharp grounder to A-Rod. He booted it, but still had time to make the play. However, hurrying to get the out, he made a bad throw that got past Sheffield and Maggs was safe at first. Since these were the playoffs and it was A-Rod, you couldn’t help but wonder how bad the Tigers could make it hurt. Guillen and Pudge singled to make it hurt for one run, and we all laughed at the idea that A-Rod could not make himself hated more if he scripted it. Maybe in his next at bat he would strike out, but not before he hit a foul ball that hit Jeter in the face.

From there, the Tigers just kept on pouring it on and it seemed like the biggest thing left to cheer for was the “special” night Bonderman was having. After he sent them down in order in the fourth, I leaned over to my wife and told her that if she noticed anything particularly special about what Jeremy was doing, don’t say anything. After the fifth inning, when the Yankees went down in order yet again - this time with two strikeouts in the mix - she had an exchange with my cousin I couldn’t hear and excitedly told me that Bonderman was throwing a perfect game. I winced. “I told you not to say anything!” I said while laughing. The people in front of us heard us and jokingly feigned disgust when asking if she said what he was doing out loud. “No, no, she didn’t say anything” I told them. My wife grimaced when Cano led off the sixth with a single up the middle, and the crowd cheered Bonderman for lasting that long before giving up a baserunner. My wife was quick to point out that my cousin mentioned it and he was the one who should know better. Besides, it was 7-0 at this point, and it wasn’t going to take a perfect game to win this one. The Tigers added their final run in the bottom of the inning on a Casey double, and with the lead at two grand slams, I felt free to stop worrying about a comeback. I say that, but when the Yankees scored in the seventh and had runners on first and second, you could feel a release of tension when Cano flied out to end the inning.

All that was left was to count down the outs, and wonder when and if they were going to take out Bonderman. I guessed aloud that Leyland would leave him in after the eighth so he could get the same ovation Rogers had the night before and as his pitch count neared 100, it was just a matter of which batter would be his last. Abreu led off the inning with a single and then Sheffield, who had pulled balls violently foul the whole game, smoked one to left field that went just foul and instead of being a two-run home run, it was a long second strike. He followed that up with another hard hit to left that looked like it would be trouble. Monroe came in on it and I cringed when he dove because there was a lot of space behind him if he missed. But he hit the ground, the ball hit his glove, the ump went up with the hand, and the place went nuts for the several hundredth time. Leyland must have figured that was as good a time as any to pull Bonderman, and when he started walking off the field I think it was the loudest the stadium was all day. It was like every fan in the park had been told they had won a million dollars. We fell all over ourselves trying to let Bonderman know how much we appreciated this fantastic and unexpected effort. With Bonderman out, counting down the outs was really all there was left to cheer for. Walker came in to get Matsui, reminded us why he probably shouldn’t ever be left in against righties when Posada pounded a two run homer, and then induced a grounder to Polanco that was clearly going to be the final out. My voice hasn’t fully recovered from the celebration.

Watching the Tigers celebrate, we all had to wonder what they were going to do should they actually win the World Series at home, and we were left to worry that they were satisfied with what they’d already accomplished. After all, the Twins were quite a formidable opponent and we don’t want to fall victim to the same fate they and the Yankees just did. But as these kind of thoughts went through my head even as I danced and cheered and looked around at what Comerica looked like when things went nuts, Leyland did an interview that eased my fears. He said that this was so special because the Tigers knew they had broken the fans’ hearts the week before and they were just so glad to be able to do this for the fans. They knew they had work to do; they were just glad to redeem themselves. So this afternoon – or maybe this evening, judging by the hazy eyes of the countless strangers we exchanged hugs, cheers and high-five with - we can start worrying about Zito and Haren and Harden and Big Hurt. Right now, I’m just happy to say the next game is Tuesday night.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Game 2: Almost Worth the 19 Year Wait

As I mentioned yesterday, I took a half day in order to watch the Tigers game. I said I’d be watching it on my couch, but my wife pointed out that we’d need to eat and it’d be more fun to be among others should the Tigers win, so we trekked up to Buffalo Wild Wings. I can’t imagine too many better uses of a half day’s vacation.

The Yankees’ first inning gave us a pretty good clue as to what kind of game it was going to be. Damon dropped a little flare perfectly between Monroe and Guillen for a single. Jeter popped up a bunt attempt for the first out. Abreu walked. Sheffield struck out on one of Justin’s sick curveballs, and Giambi walked to load the bases with two outs. Guess who that brought up. Verlander must have pumped himself up to face Alex Rodriguez because he worked two fastballs inside and up in the zone and both were clocked at 101 mph. That set A-Rod up perfectly for another nasty bender that he was unable to even make an attempt on. It was fantastic to witness, but you had to wonder at that point if the Yankees had just wasted their best chance, or just missed on one of many.

In the Tigers’ second, you had to be nervous as a Tiger fan when Guillen and Pudge both were out on four combined pitches since Mussina had already carved up the Tiger lineup once this season when he threw a complete game without giving up an earned run. But, just as I was realizing I was drinking my beer too quickly from all the nervous energy, Monroe smacked a ground rule double down the line on a 3-1 count. Marcus Thames knocked him in almost before I could say I hoped he did something big because he’s finally going to get his chances without having to worry about getting benched the next day. He singled into right center and it was obvious from the location of the hit that Monroe would score easily.

The Yankees threatened again in the bottom of the inning with Matsui ripping a first pitch fastball into right and Posada working a nine-pitch walk that put runners at first and second with no outs. Then Cano grounded out to Inge on a ball that Brandon didn’t even see until it was about thirty feet away from him. I think the reason was probably because he expected it to be hit much harder. As it was, he fielded the dribbler and stepped on third before making an ill-advised throw to first that had no shot at getting Cano. Damon followed up by flying out to Granderson and Jeter hit a fielder’s choice to his counterpart Guillen to wrap up the inning. Yes, it was one of these kind of games.

Mussina and Verlander both had easy third innings, but that was just to give us a breather for the fourth. In the Tigers’ half, Guillen doubled and moved to third on a Pudge ground out (Pudge, feel free to unleash any time now) to bring up Craig Monroe. I’m pretty sure everybody in the stadium was surprised to see him square around, and if he would have been able to pull it down it might have worked. That didn’t happen though, and Mussina fielded the ball easily and threw him out to end the threat. That's the problem with bunting for a base hit, and that's why this was a terrible decision by Monroe. Even when the situation is right, you have to do it almost perfectly for it to work. He didn't...and it didn't.

To make things worse, the Yankees finally followed through with a threat in the bottom of the inning. It looked like maybe Verlander was going to work out another one as Matsui and Posada singled and walked again, but Cano flied out and was unable to move either up. With two outs, I went to the bathroom and hoped I would come back to wings on my table and the Tigers at the plate. Instead I came back to a 3-1 deficit as Johnny Damon put one into the third deck. I think expectations are slowly eroding in Yankee Stadium, because he received a curtain call for that, and I don’t think that would have happened in the late 90s. Verlander was looking tired when Jeter followed that with a double and Abreu smoked a grounder to first to end the inning. This is where things were just getting good, though.

The Tigers scored in each of the next three innings. The first came in the fifth when Thames doubled, moved to third on a wild pitch and scored on a Granderson sac fly. The second came the next inning when Guillen continued to smoke the ball, and this time pounded one over the right field wall to tie it up. The deciding run came from Thames and Curtis again when Thames singled, moved up on a passed ball, and took third on a bunt by Inge. That brought up Granderson and after falling down 0-2 quickly, he fouled off the next pitch and then connected with a fastball in and sent it all the way to the wall in left center. The Yankee outfielders must have been pulled in a bit to cut down the run, because they took a while to get out there and Granderson slid into third without much of a play. Just like that, the Tigers were up 4-3 and while the scoring was finished, the fun wasn’t.

Verlander was pulled in the sixth with one out and a 1-1 count on Robinson Cano. Leyland saw his decreased velocity and figured it was time to use the hook. This was an especially good time to do it, because the Yankees were in the only part of their lineup where they had consecutive batters who were lefties. That meant Walker could come in to burn two outs instead of just one. Well, it worked even better because he coaxed a double play from Cano to end the inning. That meant he could start the seventh against Damon as well.

He did, retired Damon and gave way to the guy we all love to see, Joel Zumaya. Zoom Zoom (he really needs to ink a deal with a Mazda dealership) came in and immediately established what kind of day he was going to have by striking out Jeter. They said Jeter tipped the ball, but on the replays I saw, he didn’t come with two inches of that ball. Zumaya then retired Abreu on a grounder, and the Yankees were down to six outs.

The eighth was even better as Sheffield hit a line drive right to Granderson on the first pitch, showing that he still has one of the fastest bats in the majors. Zumaya had Giambi and A-Rod after that, and he was more than up to the challenge. According to ESPN’s guns, he struck out Giambi on a 103 mph fastball. He threw two more at that speed to get two strikes, and finally dusted him off. I can’t remember for some reason but I think he got A-Rod with the hammer just like Verlander had earlier edit: It was another 100 mph fastball. Oh, and those fastballs that broke 100 so consistently? At the knees on the outside corner. Just sick.

That left the ninth to Todd Jones, who of course gave up a leadoff single to Matsui. He then struck out Posada in an impressive display that was capped with a called third strike. He induced a harmless fly ball from Cano, and ended the game on a shallow fly to center from Damon. Everybody in the bar whooped and hollered and we had to wait for our victory round of shots because just about every table had ordered one as well.

In case you haven’t believed before this game, I think it’s obvious now that the Tigers haven’t just come to compete in this series. They CAN compete. Not only can they compete, they can win. They are hitting Yankee pitching just well enough, and when professional pitchers make their pitch, outs will follow – yes, even against this lineup the Yankees have. This series may come down to which side can make their pitch more often, and with Randy Johnson and his bad back going tonight and Jaret Wright going tomorrow, there’s a decent chance the Tigers will be the team to do that more often. I’m going to rein in my excitement a bit, because I don’t want to overstate the importance of yesterday’s win, but this just became a best of three series and the Tigers now have home field advantage. By no means can the Yankees be counted out at this point, but whoever comes out of Sunday the series winner, I bet they’re going to feel like the toughest may be behind them.

Tonight it will be the Gambler against Randy Johnson. I obviously don’t know what’s going to happen, but I’m pretty sure I’ll have fun finding out.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Game 2: Delayed

Well, the Tigers didn’t play last night. I was kind of relieved they didn’t start the game because it wouldn’t have started until 10 or so, and that would have made 6 o’clock come very early this morning. I was also relieved because if they started and two innings later, the rain comes back, the Tigers have almost completely wasted Verlander and we’re left to watch Ledezma and Miner against that Yankees’ lineup. As it is, the Tigers have lost their travel day, but at least they get to come home and sleep in their own beds tonight. The Yankees are going to have to fall asleep despite me banging pots and pans and honking my horn all night outside their hotel. I’m kidding, of course. I’m paying somebody else to do that.

In the other games that were played yesterday, the Mets beat the Dodgers and the A’s beat the Twins again. Both games had key mistakes that affected the final outcome. In the Dodgers’ case, it was Jeff Kent not getting a good read on a ball to right field and getting thrown out at the plate. The only reason he was sent home, according to the Dodgers, is because J. D. Drew had run up on his heels and if Kent would have stopped at third, they would have had two runners on third. That’s bad enough, but Drew compounded his mistake by running through third base as well, so after LoDuca tagged out Kent at the plate, he was very surprised to be able to turn a unique double play by tagging out Drew without so much as a rundown. I heard the play described on the radio, so I didn’t see it, but that is indescribably bad baserunning by Drew. If you know there’s a baserunner ahead of you, you never round a bag without taking a peek to see what’s going on ahead of you.

The mistake everybody is talking about in the Twins game was Torii Hunter taking an aggressive route on a line drive to center by Mark Kotsay, diving for the ball, missing it, watching as it rolled all the way to the wall and Michael Cuddyer ran it down from right field. Kotsay scored on the play, as did Jason Kendall, and instead of two runners on with two outs, the Twins found themselves in a 4-2 hole almost immediately after Justin Morneau and Michael Cuddyer had hit back-to-back home runs to tie the game up. I heard Hunter’s comments after the game and he said something to the effect that there was no question in his mind that he had that ball, and it didn’t even cross his mind to play it like a single. Unfortunately for Hunter and Twins fans, the other thing that didn’t cross his mind is that he’s apparently not the fielder he was when he developed those aggressive instincts. Do you feel worse for Hunter or the fans in that situation?

That’s enough about the poor and unfortunate fans of other cities, though. The Tigers play at 1 o’clock today, and I will be watching on my couch. I know it’s probably ridiculously dorky of me to take a half day to go watch a baseball game, but it’s really a responsible act on my part because I wouldn’t be much good to my employer this afternoon anyway.

One more thing, Baseball America announced their Top 20 Players for the Florida State League yesterday. The Tiger’s sole representative was Jair Jurrjens. He’s another quality starting pitcher in the system, and I plan to post about him sometime soon after either the postseason or the Tigers’ season is over. Here’s hoping those two conclusions come on the same day.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Game 1: Keep Hope Alive

I don’t have a wealth of time today, but I just wanted to get some thoughts in on the Tiger game. First, I saw nothing yesterday that tells me the Tigers have no chance in this series. I also saw nothing that tells me the Yankees are a freight train that cannot be stopped on their way to a 27th World Series ring.

I hated the call in the second inning to send Ordonez and Guillen on a hit and run with no outs. I’m not a fan of the hit and run, but I’m a stark opponent to doing it with runners and first and second, especially when somebody like Maggs is the guy on second. That is especially true when you have put your first two runners on and it looks like you may be starting something. It reeked of desperation, and I don’t think the Tigers need to play like that.

Oddly, the next inning the Tigers weren’t aggressive on the basepaths when Marcus Thames wasn’t sent home from second on a single to right by Curtis Granderson. I had no problem with that call since there was only one out and I assumed they would be doing another hit and run with Polanco that probably get the run in. Yet, they didn’t put any play on with Polanco batting and he hit a sharp grounder that Jeter and Cano did a great job of turning into a double play. So, hit and run with no outs and guys on first and second, but no hit and run with a contact hitter up, a good baserunner on first and a runner on third. I don’t get the inconsistency.

In the Yankees’ third, things looked like they were going to get ugly when the Yankees dropped five runs on Nate Robertson. But think of how that inning started. Nate botched a dribbler by Damon. Then Jeter hits a line drive right at the vacated position of Guillen who was pulling toward second to cover as Damon was running. Damon shouldn’t have been on base, and if the Tigers do a conventional cover play there (Polanco covering), Guillen grabs that ball and doubles up Damon easily.

Later, the Tigers had pulled the game back to 5-3 and Robertson found himself in trouble again. He had two outs and a runner on first and he felt he was squeezed on his first pitch to Jeter. He was visibly upset as he received the throw from Pudge, and Jeter pulled the next pitch into left field for his second double of the game. No problem, I thought – there’s two outs. Robertson makes a nice pitch to Abreu who fights it off to get a slow grounder in the hole between Polanco and Casey. Polanco dove, but couldn’t reach it, two runners scored and Robertson was done for the evening.

Even then, the Tigers kept their composure. With two outs in the seventh, Torre pulled Wang to get a lefty-lefty matchup with Granderson and put in Mike Myers. To Yankee fans’ chagrin, Granderson didn’t think much of the matchup and pulled a pitch over the right field wall. Polanco and Casey followed with hits, and with Ordonez coming up down by three, we saw why the Yankees are not unstoppable. The Yankees fans they showed in the crowd were visibly worried, and guys like Scott Proctor and Kyle Farnsworth were not concerning the Tigers. Proctor ended up getting the strikeout to end the inning, but I doubt a lot of people are very confident he will do the same next time.

No, this game didn’t worry me too much, as the Tigers were sure to lose one in Yankee Stadium. I was impressed that all the Tigers who were supposed to be in shock and awe played well and kept fighting. It won’t be easy for them to get to Mussina tonight, and Verlander faces a tough task of his own, but I think anybody who says the Tigers don’t have a chance tonight wasn’t watching closely enough last night.

Go Tigers.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Opening Day

I was regretting that my schedule got in the way of doing a proper preview of this series, but after thinking more about it, I’m not. If you do a preview, you’re going to get the feeling the Tigers will get absolutely railroaded in this series. At least, that seems to be the consensus across the country. I mean, Guillen is the Tigers’ best hitter this season and the Yankees have probably five guys who are better hitters. The Yankees’ pitchers have had their struggles this season, but they don’t seem to have come very often against the Tigers. Mussina, Wang and Johnson have all had their way with the lineup at different points this season.

So all I can say is the playoffs aren’t the regular season, and nobody has any idea what the hell is going to happen. They may act like they do, and their predictions may even turn out to be right, but there’s a difference between probabilities and outcomes and any team in this league can win three out of five. For Christ’s sake, Daniel Cabrera almost no-hit the Yankees last week. Show me one sportswriter in America who hasn’t picked the Yankees to win the World Series at least once over the span covering 2001 to 2005. There may be one - I haven’t checked - but I doubt it. These may be the rantings of a desperate fan, but I’ve watched this team do amazing things this season, and I’m not ready to concede they won’t do more.

I will say that my heart dies a little every time I read that the Tigers will lose in four since I have tickets to what would be the deciding game if that prediction comes true. Still, it’s October and my heart is racing at the thought of 8:19 this evening.

Go Tigers.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Oh Good God

Well, I guess I should start by congratulating the Minnesota Twins for winning the American League Central. They tried pretty hard to gift wrap it for the Tigers, but the Tigers returned it like it was a garden gnome. Second, after dogging on Todd Jones so much this season for not being able to throw more than one inning, I’d like to congratulate him on doing such a good job yesterday. He seemed to be the only pitcher yesterday who could get the mighty Royals out consistently. Finally, I’d like to congratulate the Tigers again for making the playoffs for the first time since 1987. My prediction at the beginning of the season was that they would have a shot at .500 going into the final series of the season, and then they would break my heart. I guess you can just replace “.500” with “the division”. That’s all I’m going to say about this weekend because if I start talking about Neifi Perez leading off the last inning or the Tigers blowing leads of 5-0 on Friday and 6-0 on Sunday, I will go crazy.

The important thing now is to focus on beating the Yankees. Every year, it seems like everybody says it won't be done, but somebody has done it every year since 2000. The Tigers just need to figure out how to be that team in 2006. The series starts tomorrow, and the Game 1 starters will be Chien-Ming Wang and Nate Robertson. In Game 2, Mike Mussina will face off against Justin Verlander. Rogers will start for the Tigers in Game 3, but the Yankees' starter will depend on how Randy Johnson's herniated disc in his back is feeling. I fretted about the Yankee lineup last week before shrugging my shoulders and saying they’re not our problem yet. Well, they’re the Tigers’ problem now and here’s what they can fire at you:

1. Damon CF
2. Jeter SS
3. Abreu RF
4. Giambi DH
5. Rodriguez 3B
6. Matsui LF
7. Sheffield 1B
8. Posada C
9. Cano 2B

So, you know, they’re no Kansas City Royals, but they can plate some runs just the same.

So there’s the bad news. The Tigers totally backed into the playoffs. They have to play the $200 million Yankees as a result, and if they’re able to win, they’ll probably have to win a series against the Twins when the Twins will have home field advantage. (That’s the less mentioned little nugget that is a result of this weekend.) Where’s the good news?

Well, if you’re going to beat a team, you have a better shot in a short series than you do in a long one. That is a fact. So, if you’re somebody who assumed the Yankees were going to beat the Twins if they played in the first round, the Tigers are catching a bit of a break by drawing the Yankees in the first round rather than the second because it’s clearly easier to beat them three times than four.

You want more good news than that, you say? Well, how about this? The good people at Baseball Prospectus did a study of what it is that seems to get it done in the playoffs, and they came up with three key ingredients. The first was a power pitching staff that strikes batters out. The Tigers don’t really have that, but they did strike out more batters than the Yankees this season. The second ingredient was a good closer. We have Todd Jones; they have Mariano Rivera. Um…The third ingredient was a good defense. Whew, two out of three for the Tigers, because the Tigers converted balls in play into outs better than any team in the American League this season. At least they had before this past weekend. I haven’t checked the final standings on that particular category and the 342 hits they gave up to the Royals over the weekend may have hurt them. So, if BP has it right, the Tigers may actually be able to hang this week. Actually, BP did a story talking about those three ingredients and evaluated which teams they were good news for, but it was a subscription article and I haven’t shelled out the dough required to read their premium content stories. It’s too bad my birthday isn’t coming up soon. Oh wait…

So, good reader, that’s all I have for you this morning. I’m actually feeling much better this morning about things than I was yesterday, and I’m pretty sure I will continue to feel better as 7:35 approaches tomorrow. That’s because the shock, dismay and anxiety that resulted from watching the Tigers fail to win one of their final five games will be almost fully converted into hope that they can win three of the next five.