An abrupt ending for Tigers
Four-game World Series defeat to Giants leaves Detroit feeling empty
DETROIT -- The cold reality of the Detroit Tigers' situation will dawn on Prince Fielder on Monday morning when he piles his two young sons into the car and chauffeurs them to school, then comes home with nothing special on his agenda. Teammate Justin Verlander, who was hoping to spend the day in a competitive cocoon in preparation for World Series Game 5, now will concentrate on packing -- or lying on the couch and watching his mother do his packing for him.
And catcher Alex Avila, who took a foul ball off the wrist over the weekend, now has 3½ months for the assorted aches and pains of a 162-game season to subside. For the moment, the pain in his wrist ranks a distant second to the unwelcome void in his schedule.
"I have no video to look at," Avila said. "I have no scouting reports to go over. It's very sudden. It's strange. I guess I'll just wake up and see if I want to go have breakfast with my wife. It's weird. The next few days, I'm sure I'll get up at the time I normally get up, and around 1 o'clock, I'll feel like I need to go to the stadium. But I don't."
The end of the baseball season is always difficult for the competitors in the losing clubhouse, but the Tigers are a particularly stunning example of how abrupt the transition from postseason to offseason can be. The night of Oct. 18, they were reveling in a four-game sweep of the New York Yankees, and looking forward to bringing the city of Detroit its first World Series victory since Alan Trammell, Jack Morris, Kirk Gibson and company vanquished the San Diego Padres in 1984. General manager David Dombrowski stood on the Comerica Park infield and spoke passionately of the team's desire to win a title for 83-year-old franchise owner Mike Ilitch, who never has hesitated to give his baseball people the resources they need to compete.
Who knew it would come to this -- with Verlander leaning over the dugout rail on a cold Sunday night, watching the Giants whoop it up on Detroit's home field, with an emptiness in his gut and a wistful look in his eyes?
"On one hand, it's amazing to see this city embrace us, and bring such a vibe and notoriety to Detroit," Verlander said. "But it's tough to lose, especially here at home. Our fans deserve better than that. I think it's just as tough for our fans as it us for us to see the Giants celebrating on our field."
It wasn't all that shocking that the Tigers would fall to San Francisco in the World Series, but few people expected them to provide so little resistance. The Tigers hit .159 as a team and led for only three of the 37 innings in the series. They scored a total of six runs -- the third-lowest output by an American League team in World Series history and the fewest since the 1963 Yankees scraped across a meager four runs against Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale and the Dodgers.
In the end, it was only fitting that Miguel Cabrera, the best hitter in the game, stood with the bat on his shoulder, and watched an 89 mph fastball from Sergio Romo dissect the plate for strike three to end San Francisco's 4-3 victory and give the Giants their second title in three seasons.
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The 2012 season has been a long, bumpy trip for the Tigers. They began the year with great expectations, only to get off to a 26-32 start. Then they hit their stride in time to win a battle of attrition with the Chicago White Sox and capture the AL Central division. Verlander pitched Detroit past Oakland in the climactic Game 5 of the division series, and the Tigers' starting rotation completely shut down the Yankees to give Detroit its second pennant in seven seasons.
In a repeat of 2006 -- when the Tigers lost to St. Louis in five games in the World Series -- Detroit played a disappointing brand of baseball after an extended layoff. But the Detroit players overwhelmingly downplayed it as a factor. Verlander described himself as "out of sync" after giving up two Pablo Sandoval homers and lasting a mere four innings in the World Series opener, but he declined to speculate on what role the time off played in Detroit's quick exit.
"You win the first three [over the Yankees], and then what do you do -- lose a couple on purpose?" Verlander said, half-jokingly. "Two times in a row, I guess we were playing too damn good. You hit the brakes, and it's tough to step on the gas again. I'm not making excuses, but there's no telling if that had an effect or not. I don't want to take a single ounce of credit away from the Giants. They played better than us for four games."
Cabrera and Fielder, the most dominant 3-4 tandem in the game, went a combined 4-for-27, for a batting average of .148. Fielder managed a lone single in 14 at-bats, and struck out four times and hit into a double play in the final two games at Comerica Park. Cabrera hit a wind-blown home run to right field in the finale, and was robbed of hits by Giants left fielder Gregor Blanco, shortstop Brandon Crawford and Sandoval at third during the course of the series. But he strayed from his typically disciplined approach and said the other Detroit hitters ultimately fell into the same trap.
"We expanded the strike zone," Cabrera said. "That's why you saw a lot of strikeouts. That's when mistakes come -- when you swing at bad pitches. We looked to make something happen the whole series, but we never found our game. We didn't play our best baseball. I feel bad for that."
The two sluggers nevertheless combined for a memorable season. Cabrera won Major League Baseball's first Triple Crown in 45 years, and Fielder hit .313 with a .412 on-base percentage, 30 homers and 108 RBIs in his transition from Milwaukee. The two sluggers appeared in 323 of a possible 324 games, and formed a fast friendship and a bond that they hope will lead to more postseason appearances.
"I've been able to get to the postseason two years in a row, and that's a blessing," Fielder said. "A lot of people go their whole careers without getting there one time. I'm definitely fortunate. We have a good team, and I think we're gonna get better next year. We have a chance to get here again."
The Tigers have lots of reasons to expect that they'll be contenders again in 2013. Delmon Young, Anibal Sanchez, Jhonny Peralta and closer Jose Valverde are free agents this winter, but Cabrera and Fielder will be joined in the middle of the order by Victor Martinez, who'll return from the knee injury that forced him to miss the entire 2012 season. Verlander, Max Scherzer and Doug Fister also will be back to anchor a potentially dominant rotation.
But spring training seems a long way away right now. Verlander had no reason to indulge in his pre-start, 1,650-calorie Taco Bell meal late Sunday night and no opportunity to redeem himself for his disappointing Game 1 outing at AT&T Park this past Wednesday.
"I threw two bullpens for nothing," he said.
As Verlander tried to put it all in perspective, manager Jim Leyland dropped by his locker to give him a bear hug and say goodbye for the winter. A couple of minutes later, Dombrowski did the same thing. Lather, rinse, repeat.
"God," Verlander said to no one in particular. "I wanted another shot. Bad."
In baseball, as in life, wishes don't always come true. Verlander and his teammates will wake up Monday with no game to play -- just an empty day to herald an empty winter, with too much time to reflect on what might have been.