The Tigers are in the World Series! As I wrote to reader and White Sox fan chikat this week, the AL Central ended the way we all thought it would, with Detroit in first place, and Chicago and the rest of the ragtag divisional band lining up behind them. The journey from game one to game 162, though, as documented here from the Tigers’ perspective, did much to raise doubts about what was once thought to be a foregone conclusion. When Detroit, after losing Victor Martinez– an offensive leader on the field and an emotional leader in the clubhouse– to a season-ending injury in the offseason, signed Prince Fielder, they had upped the ante in a big way. For reasons I explained at the time of the Fielder signing, the window on a Tiger World Series victory had been accelerated and focused on the immediate next few seasons, beginning with the present one. For a variety of reasons, enunciable and otherwise, I had pegged next year in my mind as the year this Detroit team would play for a world championship. But here they are, facing off against the San Francisco Giants, who are just a year removed from defending their own World Series title.
I don’t think the Tigers are a year early. I do think they have more confidence in themselves than I do, as evidenced by that prediction and by some of the things I’ve written about them this season. I also think that baseball, for all of its extended, plodding slowness, is a sport of fleeting opportunity at least as much as the other, faster-paced games we play on a major level. (Brendan and I criticized the Washington Nationals for ignoring this fundamental premise when they shut down their ace this season.) There’s no reason to shy away from this moment or otherwise treat it as a test run or bonus opportunity, and this Tiger team has a variety of means by which they can and should seize this opportunity to bring Detroit its first World Series championship since 1984 and its second since 1968.
Indeed, the Vegas money favors Detroit in this matchup against San Francisco, and while I have an opinion on the meaningfulness of gambling lines as an indicator of actual outcomes that’s best left for another post, the truth is that there are a lot of good reasons to believe that the Tigers can and will seize this opportunity.
The first, and perhaps most obvious, is Justin Verlander, the pitcher who will start game one for the Tigers, the pitcher who has twenty-five strikeouts and gave up just two runs, five walks, and ten hits in three playoff games this year, the pitcher who is the defending Cy Young and MVP award winner, the pitcher who almost certainly will win neither award this year despite performing at essentially the same level. He’s a methodical, rhythmic guy who’s superstitious. The much-discussed time off between Detroit’s clinching of the AL pennant and the start of the World Series tonight may affect Verlander as much as any other factor in play in this series.
The second, and perhaps most unheralded, is Max Scherzer, second in the MLB only to Verlander in strikeouts this season. Scherzer is a complicated figure in this World Series calculus. His strikeout style was perfect to take down a Yankee team (and let’s take a moment here to remember that these Tigers swept those Yankees) that was struggling to find its hitting rhythm, but it’s unclear whether it will have the same effect against a Giants batting lineup that seems to be coming into this series pretty hot. Scherzer’s late-season shoulder injury also looks to be a factor for manager Jim Leyland, who has limited Scherzer both in terms of his pitch count and his positioning in the rotation. Still, I can’t get Max’s lights-out performance in game four of the ALCS out of my mind, and I don’t really want to.
Third, and perhaps most underappreciated, is Miguel Cabrera, the Triple Crown winner. There isn’t much more I can write about Cabrera, except that he’s poised to cap off one of the most special seasons in baseball history with a magical World Series performance, and there is no reason to think it can’t happen.
I could go on from here, discussing everyone from Fielder to Gerald Laird and Don Kelly, defending Jim Leyland and noting the passing (from the Motor City) of Brandon Inge. Instead, I’ll just take a moment for Delmon Young, the man who went from spouting racial slurs to ALCS MVP (not to suggest that winning the latter absolves him of the former), from regular season albatross to playoff boon, from inexplicable trending Twitter topic (every weekday afternoon in 2011) to inexplicable trending Twitter topic (with the Brinks Truck in 2012), and all this for a man I’m not at all convinced even likes baseball. Phil Coke definitely likes baseball, though, and if he’s done nothing for these Tigers, he’s saved ousted closer (yes, if you’re the “closer” and they don’t put you in up eight runs to one and three games to none, you’ve been ousted) Jose Valverde from the bottom of the Detroit River tied to a pile of cinder blocks and old car parts. The former chimney repair man has done so much more for the fans, though. Spend just half an hour crawling the web for video of the interviews he’s done in the past week and you won’t be disappointed. (Derivatively, to significantly enhance your game-watching experience, follow @PhilCokesBrain (and @ALDLANDia, of course) on Twitter.)
As for the Giants, there’s reason to be worried about them, even though I went out of my way to declare them the worst team in the playoffs during our MLB playoff preview podcast. My impression from my fleeting observations of the NL side of these playoffs is that the NL teams score a lot of runs, and these Giants look to be no exception. Additionally, Barry Zito might have found his mojo, which is a frightening concept. They also seem to have Susan Tedeschi on their side (see video above), despite the allegiance of her great uncle-in-law. Beyond those observations, I don’t know much about these Giants, but I’m sure I’ll come to hate them very quickly. That’s the way it goes.
I’m not interesting in rendering a prediction except to say that this Tiger team is better than the 2006 team that was only able to avoid a World Series sweep by the Cardinals because of Kenny Rogers and his wily ways, and that this Giants team is worse than that Cardinals team. They also look worse than the SF team that won it all two years ago. But remember, during the regular season, these Tigers were no great shakes. So far, things have come together for them at the right time. So far, we can’t say otherwise for these Giants. The playoffs are a brand new season, and the World Series a whole new venture within that brand new season. I have a good feeling about this.
Playoffs?!? Playoffs. – 10/6
You forgot about J(ustin Verlander) – 10/1
Get perspective – 9/12
Everybody knows this is nowhere – 8/31
Now it’s just offensive – 8/29
Explode! – 7/23
Halfway at the Half-way – 7/9
Interleague Play – 6/26
Call the Experts! – 5/26
Recipe for a Slumpbuster – 5/2
Delmon Young Swings and Misses – 4/30
Brennan Boesch’s Birthday – 4/12
Tigers open 2012 season with Sawks sweep – 4/9