Despite swift fall, Tigers see positives in season
Cabrera's Triple Crown triumph a highlight on way to AL pennant
DETROIT -- As tough as the end was for the Tigers, with a World Series sweep at the hands of the Giants culminating on their home field, think about what fans would have given just to see the club play in the Fall Classic when they left Chicago in mid-September.
You remember the time, because one makeup game against the White Sox -- played on Sept. 17 -- seemed to embody everything that went wrong with the Tigers. They built an early lead but couldn't add on against a back-end starter. They lost the lead in the middle innings because of a double play that wasn't turned, by a second baseman who didn't seem like he could relax in Detroit.
"I need confidence," Omar Infante said that day. "I've been a little tight. I know the team is competing in the division. I don't have an excuse. I have to do the little things."
As the Tigers packed their bags and left U.S. Cellular Field that day following a 5-4 loss that extended their American League Central deficit to three games, they talked like a team that had some fight left in it, even though they looked like a team that was defeated.
"It's going to be tough," center fielder Austin Jackson said. "We've just got to really handle our business and keep going out there and trying to win these ballgames. The pressure's on, but it's been that way for a while now. We know what we have to do. We're capable of doing it."
Or, as manager Jim Leyland said, "It's right there in front of us. There's no secrets."
Sometime that week, Leyland cautioned reporters not to judge the Tigers until their season was really over. If it ended with the close of the regular season, they'd accept being underachievers. If not, then they'd take credit.
As Leyland sat in his office on Sunday, pondering an insurmountable hole to the Giants in the World Series, the thought came up again.
"I feel really good about what we've done," Leyland said, "and I find it hard to believe that anybody can say we underachieved. People said at the beginning of the season, all winter long, that we're supposed to go to the World Series. Well, we went to the World Series. I don't know anybody can find anything [wrong]. I mean, what do you want?
"I can't really dictate how people think, but I know from my own standpoint, if somebody told me at the start of the season, 'You're going to be in the World Series,' I'd be pretty proud. I don't know how people want to look at it. I'm through with all that stuff."
To call it a magical season would be overdramatic. To call it an underachieving season would be delusional. The Tigers' 2012 season might best be viewed as a magnificent mystery.
The same team that saw Justin Verlander almost single-handedly beat the A's in Game 5 of the AL Division Series before sweeping the top-seeded Yankees in the AL Championship Series also trailed in its division for all but about five weeks of the season.
The same offense that boasted baseball's first Triple Crown winner in 45 years, supported by the Home Run Derby champion and one of the best leadoff hitters in baseball, somehow posted one of baseball's worst production rates with the bases loaded.
"If we hit more like I thought we would, I think we'd have won the 95 games that I thought we would, 90-95," Leyland said. "That part was a little puzzling."
Just when they seemed doomed to disappointment, the Tigers roared through the final two weeks of the season and the first two rounds of the playoffs, all the way to the World Series. Just when it finally seemed nothing could stop them from their first World Series title since 1984, they ran into a Giants squad that outplayed them in every aspect en route to a sweep.
The ending was anticlimactic. The script, however, was suspenseful.
"It's a tough pill to swallow right now," Verlander said, "but I think as the bitterness of this kind of wears off, you're able to look back on this season with a little more of a positive vibe. There's always going to be a little bit of negativity at the end, a letdown, but to get this far in and of itself is an amazing accomplishment, especially with what we went through the entire season."
Verlander's catcher, Alex Avila -- whose right forearm injury left him out of the postseason's final game -- took the same tone.
Record: 88-74, first in AL Central
Defining moment: Trailing the White Sox by three games with 16 games to play after a loss in Chicago, the Tigers went 11-5 down the stretch, taking over the division lead for good with a week left. Six of those losses were by two runs or fewer. Verlander pointed to that stretch as a reason the Tigers were able to roll to the 11th AL pennant in club history, saying they'd been playing must-win baseball since mid-September.
What went right: A starting rotation consisting of no pitchers in their 30s delivered greatness all year before peaking at the right time down the stretch. Max Scherzer overcame early control problems, found his dominant form from 2010 and joined Verlander among the AL's nastiest pitchers; Verlander (239) and Scherzer (231) finished first and second, respectively, in the Major Leagues in strikeouts. Add in another second-half run from Doug Fister and Anibal Sanchez eventually finding a comfort zone in the AL after his Trade Deadline trade from Miami, and the Tigers went into the postseason with four dominant starters. ... They were supported resolutely by their two star hitters. Cabrera had already won batting, home run and RBI crowns individually over his previous four seasons with the Tigers, but he combined all three this year for an all-around historic offensive season -- not just for Detroit, but the Major Leagues. All the while, he made the transition to third base better than most expected, flashing his glove while showing decent range down the line. The man for whom he moved across the infield, first baseman Prince Fielder, not only maintained his 30-homer power in his transition to the AL and a bigger ballpark, but batted .313, surpassing .300 for the first time in his career. ... Jackson took out the leg kick from his swing and turned in his best season as a big leaguer, hitting .300 for the first time while turning in Gold Glove-caliber defense. ... Octavio Dotel, who held opponents to three home runs and struck out 62 batters in 58 innings, brought much-needed depth to Detroit's bullpen with one of his best statistical seasons in the last five years, turning back the clock at age 38 while giving the Tigers a proven arm in the seventh inning for the first time in years. ... Quintin Berry rose from Minor League free-agent signing to midseason surprise by hitting so well in place of an injured Jackson in June that he ended the season as a starter in left field, where he spent much of the postseason. ... Drew Smyly made the starting rotation out of Spring Training, beating out former top prospect Jacob Turner -- who was ultimately dealt to Miami for Sanchez and Infante -- and provided the Tigers with the lefty starter they wanted for the first half of the year before transitioning effectively to the bullpen down the stretch.
What went wrong: While the big names produced in the lineup, the complementary players who hit so well in 2011 largely struggled -- none bigger than Brennan Boesch, who went from the bat in front of Cabrera when this season opened to the odd man out of Detroit's outfield by mid-September. He was far from the only hitter to struggle. ... Delmon Young's late-April incident in New York overshadowed a middling season until he finally heated up for the playoff drive. ... Avila's slow start raised questions about whether his knees were becoming a long-term issue. He improved slightly once the Tigers mixed in Gerald Laird for playing time but never showed the power he flashed in 2011, when he posted a .506 slugging percentage. ... Compared to last season, Jhonny Peralta's average dropped 60 points, his on-base plus slugging percentage fell 135 points and his average plummeted down the stretch. He, too, picked it up in October but raised questions about whether his bat is slowing. ... Remember when Ryan Raburn had six home runs midway through Spring Training? It was all downhill from there, and he took the Tigers' success against left-handed pitchers down with him. ... Jose Valverde wasn't going to again be perfect in save chances, as he was in 2011, but he seemed to spend most of the season struggling to meet his impossible standards from last year. The right-hander's hit rate rose, his strikeout rate plummeted and those baserunners he stranded in 2011 came home for most of the year. ... Most of the statistics suggested another great year for setup man Joaquin Benoit. Those 14 home runs he allowed, though, were nearly triple his 2011 total and left Tigers coaches perplexed as to why hitters were so lethal when they made contact. ... Phil Coke's struggles for most of the season left a gaping hole for the Tigers in lefty relief situations, leading to both Darin Downs' arrival from Triple-A Toledo and the use of Al Alburquerque against left-handed hitters late in the season. Coke recovered come October to step in as the closer.
Biggest surprise: How does a team with so many dangerous right-handed hitters struggle for so much of the season against left-handed pitchers? Forty of Cabrera's 44 home runs came off righties, and Detroit's right-handed hitters batted far better against righties (.274 average) than they did off lefties (.256). Thus, Detroit finished just over .500 in games started by lefty pitchers, and lost the first two games of the World Series to lefties who weren't at the top of the Giants rotation.