- Doug Padilla, Chicago White Sox beat reporter
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. - The Detroit Tigers might be the defending American League champions, but they won’t take anything for granted when it comes to things closer to home.
So two days after White Sox general manager Rick Hahn said that his club needs to first take aim on the Tigers if it aspires to bigger things, Detroit manager Jim Leyland returned the compliment to their American League Central rival.
The Tigers didn’t shake the White Sox until the final week of September before going on to the World Series.
“It obviously was a great race,” Leyland said. “I just had lunch with Robin Ventura. They had a very, very good team. I remember talking to (third-base coach) Gene Lamont. He said, ‘We'll catch them, but I don't know if we'll beat them or if we'll pass them.’ We caught them one time. They caught us again. And we finally caught them and passed them for good, but it was a heck of a race.”
In Leyland’s view, the difference in the division race ended up being the Kansas City Royals. The Tigers ended up 13-5 against the Royals, collecting their most victories against any one team. The White Sox, on the other hand, were 6-12 against the Royals.
“It's just freaky because at the major league level, it's not so much who you're playing, it's when you're playing them,” Leyland said. “That's very important. You get a team that's really hot and you're not playing good, you get beat. It doesn't matter what place they're in. Kansas City's got a lot of really good young players and an up and coming team. We were fortunate last year with them.”
Another difference? While Leyland is impressed by the young arms in the White Sox’s bullpen, the inexperience proved costly.
“When you're talking about (Paul) Konerko, of course he got it done, and he hit the home runs like they expected,” Leyland said. “(Alex) Rios really came on for them. And maybe we caught a break too. (John) Danks was out. But Paul Konerko is one of the better players in the game in my opinion.
“They're just a good team. Last year they used a pretty young bullpen, which caught up to them at times, but overall did a good job with some big arms down there. I just felt like this was a really good team, and it's been a really good team ever since I've been in the league.”
Leyland wouldn’t handicap the AL Central in 2013, but of course he is partial to the Tigers taking the crown again.
“I can't swear to that; it will be tough again,” Leyland said. “Kansas City is really up and coming. Terry (Francona) is going over there to Cleveland now, and Robin's got a year under his belt. I thought he did an unbelievable job for a first-year manager. He kind of made it look easy, to be honest with you. I didn't like that too much. I told him he made it look a little too easy.
“It's not going to get the press of the (AL East), obviously, but when you're in that dugout every night competing against those guys, you're not thinking what division you're in or anything. It's tough to win games.”
Despite being the AL champs, the Tigers won't be taking their eye off the White Sox.