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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.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Tigers could very well be back to 'get another shot,' but know it'll be harder than ever

BOSTON — It’s one thing to open your window of opportunity.

It’s another to keep it open long enough to dive through it.

The Tigers’ window of opportunity did not close with Saturday’s loss in Game 6 of the American League Championship Series, but they all know it was an opportunity missed.

And, as much as they hope that they’ll be right back there in 2014, there’s no guarantee of that.

“It’s just frustrating,” Max Scherzer said. “We’re going to move on, and get another shot.”

That’s the understandably common perception of a team that just fell short of its ultimate goal.

“It’s a tough feeling. I came here for the World Series ring, and I still think that, and I have confidence that next year, this team is gonna go that route. I know Dave Dombrowski is going to put some things together. Little pieces, because we don’t need much,” Torii Hunter said.

“I think he’s going to do something special. With that pitching staff, and our ballclub, the offense that we have, there’s no doubt we’ll be back in this position again. And we’re going to learn from our mistakes.”

Can the Tigers be right back in the ALCS? Sure.

They have a core — including Scherzer, Justin Verlander, Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder and Austin Jackson — of young talent that’s in, or entering, its prime. Tweak it here or there, and it’s certainly a capable cast.

So, could they?

“Of course. We were as good as anybody in the American League. We had as much talent as anybody. We could add all the facets of the game. It just didn’t work out for us. We should have all of that coming back next year,” Scherzer said. “As long as everybody works hard in the offseason, comes out with the intensity and focus for next year, I don’t see why we can’t be back in the postseason.”

But ... will they?

That’s the hard part.

The Tigers have already made the playoffs three straight seasons, just the second time in franchise history (1907-09) they’d done that.

They made the ALCS three straight years, too.

And became the second team to make three straight ALCS, without winning a World Series, joining he 1976-78 Kansas City Royals.

In the 44 seasons since the institution of divisional play, there have been eight teams to make three straight appearances in the ALCS. Only two of them — the 1971-75 Oakland A’s (five straight) and the 1998-01 New York Yankees (four straight) — continued their run past three.

And those two teams were considered dynasties.

The ultimate goal, though, isn’t just making it to ALCS ... or even just to the playoffs.

It’s winning the World Series, and snapping the 29-year drought since the last title.

This year proved yet again how expectations don’t necessarily lead to success.

“When you get to this point in the year, the expectations are always high. The expectations were high coming into the spring, about as high as they could possibly be. But once you get to the playoffs, it’s a grind,” Verlander said. “You can’t say, ‘OK, we’re going to make it to the World Series.’ You can’t just say that, and end up there. I mean, you gotta play the games.”

Verlander made the World Series as a rookie in 2006. He’s repeatedly said that he did not at the time realize how hard it would be to go back. He admitted as much last year, when he finally made a return trip, six seasons later.

“It was my rookie year and everything was kind of a whirlwind. I don’t think I really appreciated the magnitude of how hard it is to get there. I think I had a rude awakening in the years after that, and I think it allows me to appreciate it all the more that I’m here now,” he said before the 2012 World Series. “I realized how lucky I was to get there in 2006 after a couple more seasons; especially after 2008, you know, I realized how tough it was, but I also knew at the same time that I ... hopefully had many more years to go. If I had a lengthy career, obviously, I would have some more opportunities. So I wasn’t worried that I’d never get back, but I realized how difficult it was looking back at it.”

They didn’t make it again this year.

They know it’s never a given, which is why it’s such shame to waste any chance.

“It was hard to win a World Series. You never take nothing for granted. You have so much fun when you win a World Series. Hopefully we can do that for Detroit. We came up short two times so let’s see what happens,” Miguel Cabrera, who won a title in Florida as a rookie in 2003, said before the playoffs started.

It didn’t happen.

Of course, you have to get there to win it. And you have to make the playoffs to get there.

Even that’s not going to be a given next year.

The American League Central has long been considered among the weakest of the six divisions in baseball.

That might be changing, a bit at least.

“I can honestly tell you, Cleveland was about in as close a second as you can get. They’re very good. And Kansas City is very good. I think a lot of people woke up to the fact that the Central Division wasn’t such a patsy like everyone thought. Kansas City was in it until the last four or five days. Cleveland is in it. Two teams from the Central are in it,” manager Jim Leyland said at the start of the postseason.

“Since 2006, two teams from the Central — us — went to the World Series. So maybe we can lay to rest the fact that the Central is not very good.”

And it’s just going to be better next year, at least at the top, where the Royals and Indians will continue to push the Tigers.

Cleveland finished one game behind Detroit in the standings, while the Royals finished with more wins (86) than all but one other third-place team in baseball.

“It’s going to be tougher next year. I just know the American League Central is getting tougher. The Indians are tough, the Royals are getting older and more experienced. They’re going to be extremely tough,” Scherzer said. “For us, it’s going to be an even harder, uphill battle next year.”

The Tigers, on the other hand, will have to make a number of key decisions, just to maintain the status quo. And, while the Indians and Royals have younger cores, just learning how to win, the Tigers’ core is just another year older.

And another year closer to that window slamming shut.

“I’m an older guy, that door is closing for me and that opportunity just wasn’t there this year,” the 38-year-old Hunter said. “Just rips your heart out. It’s tough.”


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