Commentary

Tigers heated up when it mattered

Detroit survived a rocky regular season, and now finds itself in the World Series

Updated: October 19, 2012, 1:56 AM ET
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

DETROIT -- The story began in spring training in Lakeland, Fla., with high expectations and visions of grandeur amid the palm trees. The Detroit Tigers were so stacked with power pitching and middle-of-the-order thump, an American League Central title was considered a foregone conclusion. Lots of observers predicted they would win the division by 15 games. If they stayed healthy and mentally engaged, maybe they could cruise home up by 20.

[+] EnlargePhil Coke
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesPhil Coke set off a wild celebration at Comerica Park when he recorded the final out of Game 4.

In hindsight, the hot sun and the smell of cocoa butter in Florida might have clouded everybody's judgment. When the Tigers were muddling along with a 26-32 record in early June, the roster's warts were readily apparent. Justin Verlander didn't have enough help in the rotation. Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder and Austin Jackson didn't have enough help in the batting order. The bullpen was spotty, the defense was downright odious at times, and the Chicago White Sox were showing lots of staying power. All those factors combined to make the regular season more of a grind than anyone had anticipated.

"We just had faith in each other and our abilities,'' Verlander said. "That's why we play 162 games. It's not a half a season. It's where you are when you finish.''

The Tigers persevered, making the playoffs with 88 victories, and went the distance to eliminate Oakland in the Division Series. And now, thanks to an 8-1 victory Thursday, they have put the New York Yankees out of their misery and can call themselves American League champions.

This much is true: When it's late October, girls are standing atop the dugout singing Journey's "Don't Stop Believin' '' and the air is thick with promise and chants of "Sweep!'' no one is going to remember or care that you underachieved in April and May.

Detroit's 11th World Series appearance became a reality when Phil Coke threw a 1-1 fastball and Jayson Nix lofted a routine popup to the right side of the infield. Tigers second baseman Omar Infante had designs on catching the ball, but peeled off in the name of self-preservation when Fielder -- all 5-foot-11, 275 pounds of him -- waved frantically to stake his claim. In the 313 area code, Lions nose tackle Ndamukong Suh might be the only athlete capable of asserting his territorial rights more emphatically.

There was poignancy and poetic justice in the moment, given Fielder's baseball lineage. He spent several years hanging around the Detroit clubhouse as an elementary schooler in the early 1990s when his father, Cecil, was cranking out 40 and 50 homers a year for the Tigers. He signed with Detroit for $214 million as a free agent last January, and this was the type of moment he envisioned when sitting on that podium with his son Jadyn, Tigers owner Mike Ilitch, general manager Dave Dombrowski and manager Jim Leyland.

"You always imagine that as a kid,'' Fielder said. "In '96 when my dad was in New York, I saw Charlie Hayes catch the last out of the World Series. I always wanted to catch one and feel like that. It's pretty cool.''

Said Tigers hitting coach Lloyd McClendon: "He was ready to bear-hug that ball.''

Although teamwork, fortitude, Cabrera's Triple Crown performance and the steadying influence of Leyland make for entertaining plot lines, the real story of Detroit's postseason has taken place 60 feet, six inches from home plate. Starting pitching drove the Tigers down the stretch, when they posted a 19-13 record to pass the fading White Sox and win the division. Doug Fister's return to full health helped considerably, and Anibal Sanchez made a big difference after the Tigers acquired him in a deadline deal with the Miami Marlins in late July.

Detroit's rotation has been dominant enough in the first two rounds of the postseason to cast a giant shadow over the proceedings. In the Division Series, Tigers starters went 2-1 with a 1.30 ERA against Oakland. With the season on the brink, Verlander walked into a raucous O.co Coliseum and threw an 11-strikeout, four-hit shutout to send Detroit to the ALCS.

Amazingly, Detroit's pitchers stepped it up a notch against the Yankees, who ranked second in the majors with 804 runs during the regular season, but looked tired and bat speed-impaired in the ALCS.

The Tigers' starting rotation posted an ERA of 0.66 against New York, second-lowest ever in a best-of-seven series behind the 0.61 logged by Dave McNally, Jim Palmer and Wally Bunker of the 1966 Baltimore Orioles in the World Series against the Dodgers. The Detroit staff held the Yankees to a .157 batting average, and New York scored in only three of the 39 innings in the series. Four of the Yankees' six runs came in the ninth inning of Game 1, when Ichiro Suzuki and Raul Ibanez rocked the Tigers with two-run homers off closer Jose Valverde.

It made for the most impressive run of October starting pitching since Jon Garland, Jose Contreras, Mark Buehrle and Freddy Garcia took turns dealing for the 2005 Chicago White Sox. Robinson Cano hit .056, Curtis Granderson and Nick Swisher spent time on the bench, and Yankees manager Joe Girardi lived in fear of sending Alex Rodriguez to the plate because the Tigers might counter with Joaquin Benoit. How's that for demoralized?

While the Yankees head back to the Bronx to clean out their lockers -- and maybe some group therapy -- it's worth noting that the guys throwing the ball played a big role in New York's downward spiral. The Orioles put the Yankees into a funk in the Division Series, and Detroit's staff finished the job.

"We kept hearing, 'The Yankees are going cold.' And I'm like, 'Well, maybe it was the pitching,''' said Detroit catcher Gerald Laird. "These guys went out every night and just dominated. You don't get lucky four times in a row.

"They attacked the zone with everything and came right after the hitters. They pitched the games of their lives and they should get all the credit. That's a good lineup the Yankees have. But you know what? They faced a really good staff this series.''

As the Tigers reflect on their late-season run to a pennant, their minds flash back to various checkpoints. Laird recalls the Tigers doing a lot of soul-searching after they fell three games behind Chicago in the division race with about 2½ weeks to go. Not long after that, Dombrowski spoke at an organizational luncheon and acknowledged that the Tigers could go in one of two directions.

"Everybody was asking me about the season, and I said, 'We have a chance to make this a very special season. Or it might be disappointing,''' Dombrowski recalled. "It's pretty special now, and we'd like to make it a little more special.''

[+] EnlargeMiguel Cabrera
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesMiguel Cabrera's two-run homer highlighted a four-run fourth inning for the Tigers.

From the players to the coaching staff to the front office, the Tigers are motivated to win a title for the team's owner and patriarch. Ilitch, 83, has owned the franchise for two decades, and never hesitates to dig deep when his baseball people tell him that a free-agent acquisition might make the difference.

"He's always there to give us whatever we need and want,'' Dombrowski said. "He's told me all along if there's one thing he really would love to have, it would be that World Series ring. We had that conversation 11 years ago when I joined the franchise. Hopefully we can get that for him.''

The Tigers have some nagging recent history to overcome. In 2006, they swept Oakland in the league championship series, had a week off, and played some haphazard baseball while losing to St. Louis in five games in the World Series. The following spring, waves of fans showed up for pitchers fielding practice on the first day of spring training at Joker Marchant Stadium.

Leyland and his coaches will use that experience to try to keep their players sharper this time. If there's any doubt about the Tigers' focus, a certain Cy Young Award winner stood in the Comerica Park infield Thursday night and delivered the team's mission statement with fervor. As he spoke, thousands of towel-waving zanies in the stands provided the inspiration and the background music to the Tigers' real-life dream.

"This is fantastic, but the ultimate goal is to win a World Series,'' Verlander said. "This team is built to win a World Series. So let's go out and do it.''

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer