Wednesday, September 30, 2009 Updated: October 1, 8:35 AM ET
Tigers fight, for playoffs and city
By Jerry Crasnick ESPN.com
DETROIT -- The Detroit Tigers talk frequently about their obligation to lift the spirits of a downtrodden city in economically troubled times. Their professional responsibilities are magnified by the need to run out balls, play with passion and assume the role of social healers in a town that's badly in need of a hug.
The old "team/city synergy" storyline can be heartwarming when Tom Izzo and the Michigan State Spartans make it all the way to the NCAA championship game, or rookie quarterback Matthew Stafford leads the Lions to their first victory since December 2007.
But there's a flip side known as panic, and the Tigers experienced it while blowing most of a seven-game lead over Minnesota in the American League Central. The more the city of Detroit rooted for them to pull away, the more the Tigers zigged when they should have zagged.
Hunt For October
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The suspense certainly made for some entertaining baseball in late September. But with the arrival of October, the low-pressure system that stalked the Tigers for several weeks has dissipated.
The only division race left in Major League Baseball is teetering on the edge. With Minnesota in desperate need of a victory Wednesday, the Tigers rode the starting pitching of rookie Eddie Bonine and some clutch hitting by Brandon Inge, Magglio Ordonez and Ramon Santiago to a 7-2 victory before a crowd of 34,775 at Comerica Park.
If the Tigers can beat the Twins in the finale of the teams' four-game series Thursday afternoon, they can revel in their second playoff berth in four years. And the Twins will return home to face Zack Greinke and say goodbye to the Metrodome.
The mere mention of the recession-battered locals and their pennant hopes prompts Detroit manager Jim Leyland's eyes to well with tears. It's downright Pavlovian.
"They're just special to us," Leyland said. "They've been so supportive -- you wish you could meet all of them and talk to all of them."
If the prospect of a celebratory bonding ritual with the city of Detroit makes Leyland misty, just imagine how he feels about the prospect of managing a team with the weapons to stick around a while.
Magglio Ordonez came up big for a second consecutive day against the Twins.
The Tigers are generally regarded as a danger to the New York Yankees in the American League Division Series because of the presence of Justin Verlander, Edwin Jackson and Rick Porcello at the top of the rotation. As an AL scout recently observed, "Power plays in the postseason."
The question is, do the Tigers have enough offense beyond cleanup man and MVP candidate Miguel Cabrera to provide a test for CC Sabathia and the Yankees' staff? If you had a seat here Tuesday afternoon for the series opener versus the Twins, and saw Clete Thomas batting third and Aubrey Huff protecting Cabrera in the No. 5 spot, you might have wondered.
Curtis Granderson has given Leyland 30 homers out of the leadoff spot, and No. 2 hitter Placido Polanco has 43 strikeouts in 599 at-bats. But production from the rest of the order has been sporadic, and that helps explain why the Tigers rank 10th in the league in both runs scored and OPS.
"We're not a powerhouse type of club," Detroit hitting coach Lloyd McClendon said. "By no stretch of the imagination are we the Yankees with that powerful lineup, or Boston. But we have some very professional hitters, and some guys who know how to get it done. We just need to be clicking on all cylinders."
The good news is that two players who make the Tigers more formidable seem poised to step up their contribution.
Inge, Detroit's third baseman, made his first career All-Star team on the strength of 21 homers and a .515 slugging percentage at the break. But he has tendinitis in both knees, and they bark at him every time he charges a ground ball or digs a toe into the batter's box. Inge has a woeful .285 slugging percentage in the second half, and his knees have all but neutralized his Gold Glove ability in the field.
The knee problems also prevent Inge from doing the extra work in the field and the batting cage that he needs to stay sharp. He has to save himself for those three hours a night when the at-bats count.
"He just keeps grinding it out," McClendon said. "He's a warrior. There's no question this has affected him quite a bit."
After an extended slump that dropped his batting average from .268 to .228 -- not to mention some cortisone shots and a treatment involving a glucose solution -- Inge is back among the living. He went 6-for-12 in the first three games against Minnesota, and doubled home two runs against Twins starter Carl Pavano on Wednesday.
At this point in the season, Inge is resigned to the pain. He's missed only two games all year.
"It's hit-or-miss," Inge said. "There are times when I'm definitely just surviving.
"I know it's gonna hurt. But you reach a point where you're like [Curt] Schilling with his ankle [in the 2004 ALCS]. You just block it out and do it. The adrenaline and focus that you have fuels you. I think mentally, playing big-game baseball helps you see things through."
Ordonez has his own issues to address. He made his biggest news of the season two weeks ago when he reached base on an error by Kansas City's Alex Gordon in his 1,080th plate appearance since the start of 2008. Once Ordonez passed that threshold, an $18 million option for 2010 automatically vested.
Although Ordonez's power numbers are feeble (as in seven homers, 47 RBIs and a .407 slugging percentage), he's hit .352 since the All-Star break and shown enough gap power lately to re-establish himself as a dangerous presence. His three-run double off Pavano in the fifth inning Wednesday gave Detroit a 7-2 lead and busted the game open.
All that positive reinforcement from McClendon appears to have made a difference.
"Magglio's a guy who never struggled his entire career, and he's struggled this year for whatever the reason," McClendon said. "Early on, there was probably some self-doubt and certainly some wonder going on. More than anything, we have mental sessions more than physical sessions. I keep reminding him what a great hitter he really is. Sometimes even the great hitters need to hear that."
If Nate Robertson can beat Scott Baker on Thursday to send Detroit to the playoffs, all the travails will be worth it. Detroit's unemployed auto workers and empathetic big leaguers will celebrate in unison.
And Jim Leyland will get misty. That's the one given in the equation.
"I live downtown, and I see a lot of people around the hotel who come in for the weekend to see the games," Leyland said. "It's amazing how many Tigers fans there are. You'll get a lot of arguments from people. But I've said this a thousand times: I really believe St. Louis and Detroit are the two best baseball towns in this country."
Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.