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After narrow AL Central win, Tigers on familiar ground in postseason

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DETROIT — Max Scherzer stood in Detroit's soaked clubhouse amid another euphoric celebration and spoke for a team that was taking nothing for granted.

"Last December, all the way until now, we've been working as hard as we can to be in this position," Scherzer said after the Tigers wrapped up their fourth straight AL Central title on the regular season's final day. "We could have smoked everybody and it would have still been special, and we could have been struggling the whole time and limped in, and it's just as special."

This was almost surely the most difficult of Detroit's recent division titles. A 27-12 start quickly gave way to a terrible stretch in late May and early June. Then, just when it appeared the ship was righted after the Tigers traded for star left-hander David Price, both Anibal Sanchez and Justin Verlander had injuries to deal with. An extended tear by Kansas City put the division title in doubt, but Price pitched Detroit past Minnesota on Sunday to keep the Tigers one game ahead of the Royals after 162 games.

Now Detroit can look ahead to the next challenge. The Tigers have not won a World Series since 1984, but they have experienced postseason success recently, reaching the AL championship series the last three seasons and the World Series in 2012 and 2006.

"When I scouted this team out, I figured this team would help get me a couple opportunities to win a World Series," said outfielder Torii Hunter, who signed with Detroit as a free agent before the 2013 season.

Detroit's starting rotation — particularly Scherzer and Verlander — was outstanding in last year's playoffs, but the Tigers dropped a tough six-game AL championship series against a Boston team that went on to win the World Series. Detroit manager Jim Leyland stepped down after that and was replaced by Brad Ausmus.

PHOTO: Detroit Tigers starting pitcher David Price, facing camera, is hugged by relief pitcher Joe Nathan after the Tigers defeated the Minnesota Twins 3-0 in a baseball game Sunday, Sept. 28, 2014, in Detroit. The Tigers clinched the AL Central title. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)
Detroit Tigers starting pitcher David Price, facing camera, is hugged by relief pitcher Joe Nathan after the Tigers defeated the Minnesota Twins 3-0 in a baseball game Sunday, Sept. 28, 2014, in Detroit. The Tigers clinched the AL Central title. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

Even after the addition of Price, the starting rotation didn't exactly dominate. Sanchez went down with an injury in August and has only one short appearance in relief since returning. If Price, Scherzer and Verlander are at their best, the Tigers could perhaps be considered World Series favorites, but as the last couple months have shown, that's no guarantee.

One encouraging factor for Detroit is the health of Miguel Cabrera, who was nowhere near 100 percent last October. The two-time defending American League MVP hit only 25 home runs this year, the lowest full-season total of his career. But in September, Cabrera hit .379 with an OPS of 1.118.

Although there are plenty of big names in the rotation and the lineup, the Tigers' bullpen still looks shaky. Joba Chamberlain and Joe Nathan breezed through the final five outs Sunday, but until that starts happening on a more consistent basis, Detroit fans will be sweating out the late innings.

The Tigers acquired reliever Joakim Soria shortly before the trade deadline, but an injury kept him out for a month, and Ausmus has stuck with Chamberlain in the eighth-inning role and Nathan as closer.

Soria is always an option to displace Chamberlain or Nathan, but Ausmus does not show any inclination to change things up now.

"I know Joba hasn't done as well in the second half as he's done in the first half, but it was not like he ever fell off a cliff," Ausmus said. "I know Joe had a rough couple months, but really in the second half, I think since Soria got here, probably 17 for 19 in saves with like a little over 3.00 ERA. It's not like he hasn't done his job."

Nathan has converted 16 of 18 saves since the All-Star break, and although it wasn't always pretty, the Tigers emerged from the division as a flawed but undeniably talented group. In a year with no dominant teams, Detroit certainly has an opportunity to shake off some of its earlier struggles and end the franchise's championship drought.

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