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A sometimes-irreverent look at Detroit's Boys of Summer, the Tigers, as they try to return to the top of the American League Central.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Division-clinching surge provides Tigers a 'Get Out of Jail Free' card on meeting expectations

Didn’t seem like the Jeff Baker experiment was a part of the 2012 Detroit Tigers long enough to make a lasting impression.

On the field, certainly he was not.

But something he said upon his arrival in trade from the Cubs — through which he “picked up 20 games in the standings” — fit the should-have-been-better, perplexingly underachieving bunch that he joined in Detroit.

He called it his “Get Out of Jail Free” card.

Baker moved on to another golden situation at the trade deadline, landing with the Atlanta Braves, who will be one of the two National League Wild Card entrants, but his apt description of the situation here still resonates.

Especially since his former Tigers teammates got their “Get Out of Jail Free” cards on Monday, when they finished off a late-season rush, clinching the American League Central title — a moment that everyone expected should happen, but looked increasingly unlikely just two weeks earlier.

They don’t have to pass ‘Go,’ or collect $200.

They don’t have to listen to critics or cranks.

They don’t have to justify anything, or excuse anything, or explain anything.

They’ve gotten their “Get Out of Jail Free” card by making the playoffs.

Even if it wasn’t close to how anyone expected it to happen, they’re in.

Goal No. 1 accomplished.

Catastrophe averted.

“It wasn’t easy, but we got it done,” Prince Fielder said. “It’s awesome. It’s awesome.”

“It’s been a tough year. In this business, you gotta be able to take some hits. Some certainly justified and some not. But I’m a tough old bird, and I can take some hits,” said Jim Leyland, who was the lightning rod or lodestone for of much of the team’s criticism, in the postgame celebration on Fox Sports Detroit. “I think a lot of times, because we lost some games, and probably underachieved, up until tonight, and now we’ve achieved. We don’t have to listen to the ‘underachieving’ anymore. We’ve achieved. We got to the postseason, now it’s a crapshoot.”

In a lot of respects, it puts the Tigers back at square one.

Boy is that relieving.

“I think it’s gotta be (the best feeling in pro sports). I don’t know how you can beat it,” said ace Justin Verlander through the champagne shower. “Obviously, we want to go all the way, but it starts with this: Getting into the playoffs.

“Yeah, I think (the adversity) makes it a little more special. I think that we showed we’re a team that can win with our backs against the wall, and I think that bodes well in the playoffs for us.

“It almost feels like we’ve been in a playoff race the last month. I think that helps us.”

When they host Games 1 and 2 of the American League Division Series on Saturday and Sunday, they won’t be a prohibitive favorite that’s seemingly failing to live up to expectations.

They’ll be just one of 10 teams in the postseason pool with as good a chance as any other.

It was where they were expected to be all along.

And, after a 9-3 start — exactly the beginning that everyone foresaw when they were a unanimous pick to run away with the AL Central, including a sweep of all 50 ESPN prognosticators — it was something that seemed far, far away.

The Tigers were .500 at the end of April, and four games under .500 at the end of May. They wouldn’t even get back to the .500 mark until the final series of the first half of the season, and they wouldn’t sniff first place until the end of July, after a three-game sweep of the White Sox, one of two key series white-washings they’d hand the division leaders down the stretch.

Even those bright moments were fleeting, though, as they’d go 2-6 after the first sweep of Chicago, and 1-6 after the second, stumbling quickly back into second place each time.

After a make-up game loss to the White Sox, they sat three games back with 16 to play, but make up considerable ground on a 10-game home stand — thanks in part to a late Chicago slide — before heading out for the season’s final six games on the road, a place where they’d gone just 12-20 in the second half.

What do all those struggles mean now?

Absolutely squat.

“You just gotta ignore everybody and believe in the 25 guys, and the coaching staff and the front office that are day-to-day out at the ballpark every day,” designated hitter Delmon Young told the TV cameras in the celebratory locker room. “The media and the critics and the fans get mad at us when we’re not winning, but they’re fans and they want us to win every day, but as players and people involved in the game every day, you just know you gotta get hot at the right time. We’re hot right now, and fortunately for us, the White Sox cooled off at the wrong time.”

Following that make-up game, the Tigers won nine of their next 13, while the Sox went 3-10.

In sum total, the Tigers would spend just 34 game days in first place the entire season, but they would spend the most important ones in first: the last eight of the season.

“We believe we could do it. There’s a lot of expectation, we don’t got a chance to catch White Sox, but we did it. It’s an unbelievable feeling, man,” said an exuberant Miguel Cabrera, when interviewed on the field after Monday’s title-clinching 6-3 win. “And we did it, man. We did it. Right now, we’re going to enjoy. Right now, is unbelievable feeling. Hopefully, we can go all the way. We made the hard part, go to the playoffs. Right now, we gotta be ready, be ready for the playoffs.”

It wasn’t easy.

But it’s satisfying now.

“It was magical last year, and for us to have the naysayers out there saying, ‘Oh, you guys aren’t going to do it. You’re not going to do it.’ For us to turn around and, look at what we’re doing again,” reliever Phil Coke told FSD. “That right there is a big lift to us as a team, with some new faces in the group we had last year — we’re missing one key guy, and that’s Vic. We’re missing Victor.”

That was the first big domino that fell between last year’s run to within hailing distance of the World Series and this year’s very different feeling team.

Victor Martinez tore up his knee during an offseason workout, and was lost for the season, a catastrophe that had a silver lining, as it prompted owner Mike Ilitch to pony up the money to sign Fielder for nine years and $214 million in January.

While Fielder more than made up for the loss of Martinez on the field, it was a different dynamic without the enthusiastic VMart off the field. That leadership vacuum, while taken up by several different sources, was felt throughout the year, as the Tigers struggled to establish a personality.

Or maybe it was just a different personality. More laid back. Less dramatic.

Maybe those in the locker room — like Octavio Dotel, one of the two free agents having experienced Cinderella success with the St. Louis Cardinals last season, who was struggling to see the same excitement in his new team — couldn’t identify it, either.

He said as much after the Tigers dropped both ends of a home doubleheader to the Twins.

Others were not fazed.

“You know this team by now. Everybody’s kind of laid back guys, but we play with intensity,” Andy Dirks said after Monday’s season-redeeming win. “We might seem calm and stuff in the dugout and everything, but that’s just the way this team is, it’s just our chemistry. It’s who we are, and how we’re going to be.”

Calm. Unflappable. Quietly resilient.

Not the type of team that necessarily needs a manager — or a vocal leader — to light a fire under it.

“I really think ... contrary to what a lot of people believe, last year’s club was more of a rah-rah club because of Victor Martinez. The personalities on this club are not that way. We’re not a rah-rah team,” said Leyland, who less than a month ago called team meetings and saber-rattling speeches by the manager “eye wash,” something to entertain the media and fans more than to produce actual results.

“I think as a manager, you have to know that that’s your team’s style. I think for me to try to be a rah-rah guy with this team would’ve been a mistake. I don’t think that’s its personality. I think that’s one of the things you have to do as a manager. You don’t have to only learn what your players can do, physically and talent-wise on the field, but you gotta know what kind of people and players they are. I think that’s very important. And that’s why there wasn’t any yelling or shouting, any rah-rah stuff. I thought that if we hung in there long enough, that we could get it done. And we did.”

Lord knows it’s not how they drew it up.

“It’s been a very trying year for us, but the guys persevered, they stuck it out,” pitching coach Jeff Jones told FSD. “There were times this year it didn’t look very bright, but the guys persevered, didn’t give up. We lost the the makeup game in Chicago, and in a sense, it was kind of a turning point for us. Nobody quit. And that was the big thing.”

Now, it’s a whole new ballgame.

Everything resets.

The Tigers “Get Out of Jail Free,” and get to totally remake the perception of this season. Win now, and no one recalls what happened in May.

“We believe we’re as good as any team in the American League,” Max Scherzer told the TV cameras, while wearing a pair of goofy goggles to protect his eyes from the champagne spray. “We respect everybody that’s made it, but at the end of the day, we feel like we have a team that can win it. We’re very confident, and to be in the playoffs again is a great feeling.”

Boy, is it a relief.


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