Top 10 Playoff Moments in Detroit Tigers' History
The Detroit Tigers are a storied franchise with plenty of memorable moments throughout their history.
With four World Series titles and a handful of Hall-of-Famers, they rank among the best franchises in MLB.
With names like Willie Horton, Hank Greenberg, Mickey Lolich and Al Kaline among modern stars like Miguel Cabrera, Justin Verlander and Prince Fielder, their history books have always been ready to be re-written.
We're going to look at some of the more memorable moments in Tigers' playoff history. Some successes are listed among strange moments, stories of perseverance and a few clutch performances that all culminate in Tiger teams earning their stripes.
Let's get started!
The traditional center fielder was thrust into action at shortstop, a position he never played, with nine games left before the 1968 World Series. Outfielder Willie Horton told Steve Kornacki that he credited a lot of what he learned from Mickey Stanley saying "Mickey's the best". His versatility allowed manager Mayo Smith to use Stanley in the lineup in place of Ray Oyler's weak bat.
Morris pitched two complete games in the 1984 World Series to help the Tigers achieve their fourth title. Morris went the distance in both starts, allowing four earned runs and striking out 13. While Morris was impressive, he wasn't necessarily dominant, and the Tigers proved that they were simply too much for the San Diego Padres.
10. Playoff Success over New York Yankees
Over their last three appearances in the postseason, the Detroit Tigers have had the New York Yankees’ number.
They eliminated New York in the 2006 ALDS in four games, five games in the 2011 ALDS and again in the 2012 ALCS in a four-game sweep.
After three close wins gave Detroit a commanding 3-0 lead in the series, the Tigers’ offense exploded in Game 4. They tagged Yankee ace C.C. Sabathia for six runs, five earned, in 3.2 innings while Max Scherzer struck out 10 in his 5.2 innings pitched. Jhonny Peralta hit two home runs while Miguel Cabrera and Austin Jackson each contributed a dinger.
Detroit wouldn’t advance to win a World Series, but their string of recent postseason success over the daunting New York Yankees is something to hang their hat on.
9. Kenny Rogers' Pine Tar Incident
During the second game of the 2006 World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals, Tigers’ starting pitcher Kenny Rogers took to the hill in the first inning with a brown substance below the thumb of his pitching hand.
According to Gene Wojciechowski of ESPN.com Cardinals hitters noticed 41-year-old Rogers’ pitches doing some “interesting things” in the first inning. By the time home plate umpire Alfonso Márquez checked Rogers’ hand in the second inning, the mystery gunk had been washed off.
Even without the substance on his hand, Rogers would go on to pitch eight masterful innings, surrendering no runs, two hits, and three walks on 99 total pitches. In fact, he gave up one hit and a walk with the "substance" on his hand.
The Tigers won the game on a score of 3-1 but would eventually lose the series in five games.
Wojciechowski quoted Cardinals manager Tony La Russa after the game:
It's not important to talk about. A guy pitches like that, we as a team don't take things away from anybody.
Rogers would finish with a scoreless streak of 23 consecutive innings, just four shy of Christy Mathewson’s all-time single postseason record.
8. Tigers Defeat Bob Gibson in Game 7 of 1968 World Series
The St. Louis Cardinals ace was nearly invincible in his first two starts in the 1968 World Series. In Game 1 alone he struck out a record 17 hitters. He would go on to strikeout 35 in his three starts—all complete games.
That season, Gibson pitched 28 complete games—13 for shutouts—amassed 268 strikeouts, was the NL Cy Young Award recipient, NL MVP and a Gold Glove winner according to Clifton W. Williams.
The Tigers had managed just one run—a Jim Northrup home run—on 10 hits through Gibson’s starts in games one and four. In Game 7 they got to him for four runs on eight hits en route to their third World Series title.
Gibson would finish 2-1 with three complete games, a 1.67 ERA and a dominant 35:4 K:BB ratio in three starts. It was one of only two postseason losses in Gibson’s career, making it a key moment in Tigers’ playoff history.
7. Justin Verlander's Dominant Game 5 in 2012 ALDS
I don’t want to put this all on one guy, because I don’t mean it that way, but this game will probably be decided with Verlander in the game. I don’t have anybody better than him. And if they get to him that much, we’ll probably be in trouble.
After a win in Game 1 in Detroit, Verlander took the hill in Oakland with the intention of earning a spot in the ALCS. Verlander delivered with ease, shutting out Oakland en route to a 6-0 victory and 3-2 series win.
Verlander went the distance, striking out 11 while allowing four hits and issuing just one walk on 122 pitches. He finished the series 2-0 with a 0.56 ERA, 22 strikeouts and yielded only seven hits through 16 innings.
His performance in a clutch situation put him in a solid spot at number seven.
6. Hal Newhouser Rebounds from Awful Game 1 to Win Games 5 and 7 in 1945
Joel Reuter included Hal Newhouser in his list of worst pitching performances in World Series history:
There was no better pitcher in the American League in 1945 than Hal Newhouser as he went 25-9, 1.81 ERA, 212 Ks to win the Triple Crown and take home AL MVP honors.
In his next start in Game 5, Newhouser rebounded to pitch a complete game in Detroit’s 8-4 win at Wrigley Field. Newhouser gave up four runs on seven hits while striking out nine to give the Tigers a 3-2 series advantage.
In the pivotal Game 7, he would prove his worth with another complete game win—on two days rest—to secure Detroit’s second World Series title. Newhouser allowed three runs on 10 hits while striking out 10 in the win.
His ability to recover from such a poor outing at home and return to form for two key victories on the road earns Hal the number six spot.
5. Tigers Defeat Chicago Cubs for 1935 World Series Title
Perhaps the fifth time was the charm for the Detroit Tigers and it’s fitting for fifth on our list.
After losing in the World Series in 1907, 1908, 1909 and 1934, the Tigers were finally ready to be champions. The Chicago Cubs hadn’t been to the World Series since 1918 and hadn’t won since 1908—they defeated the Detroit Tigers.
In Game 6, after Detroit pitcher Tommy Bridges stranded a leadoff triple in the top of the ninth, the Tigers came to the plate in the bottom half looking to finally win their first title.
With player-manager Mickey Cochrane on base, Goose Goslin hit a single to right field with two outs that scored Cochrane and gave the Tigers a 4-3 victory.
It also gave the city of Detroit its first World Series championship.
4. Freehan Throws out Lou Brock at Home to Win Game 5.
Trailing in the 1968 World Series 3-1, and facing elimination in Game 5, the Tigers were in desperate need of a play to turn their fortunes around. It came from the hand of outfielder Willie Horton.
In the fifth inning of Game 5, Detroit trailed 3-2 and with Lou Brock standing on second, Julian Javier single to left and Brock tried to score. Horton grabbed the ball and threw a one-hop strike to catcher Bill Freehan who tagged Brock. Crucially, he elected not to slide. Foxsportsdetroit.com writer Steve Kornacki wrote:
There isn’t a bigger defensive play in Tigers history than left fielder Willie Horton throwing out the Cardinals' Lou Brock at home plate in Game 5 of the 1968 World Series.
The Tigers would come back to win the game, 5-3.
That play would forever be designated as the turning point of the series, as Detroit would come back to win in seven games. It was their third World Series title and their first since 1945.
3. Magglio Ordonez Walk-off to the World Series
After finishing the 2003 season an abysmal 43-119, the Detroit Tigers found themselves one win away from the 2006 World Series only three years later.
After a game-tying solo home run in the sixth inning, Magglio Ordóñez came up to bat in the bottom of the ninth inning in a 3-3 tie facing A's closer Huston Street. After consecutive two-out hits for Craig Monroe and Plácido Polanco, Ordonez hit a walk-off, three-run home run to win the game and send the Tigers to the World Series.
There was a ruckus in the stands at Comerica Park as the Tigers went from a historically terrible season to the Fall Classic in just three seasons. It was their first playoff appearance since 1987 and first World Series appearance since they won in 1984.
Although they would lose to the St. Louis Cardinals in five games, it put Detroit baseball back on the map, and it made America’s favorite pastime relevant once more in the Motor City.
2. Kirk Gibson's Second Home Run in Game 5 of 1984 World Series
The 1984 postseason was the end of a 12 year playoff drought for the Tigers, and they ended it in a big way.
Gibson came to bat with one out in the bottom of the eighth inning of Game 5 with runners on second and third. The Tigers already led the game 5-4 and, while facing elimination, Padres’ pitcher Goose Gossage wanted to pitch to Tigers’ slugger Kirk Gibson—who had homered earlier in the game.
As shown in the video, Gossage convinced manager Dick Williams to let him face Gibson. During the conversation on the mound, Tigers’ manager Sparky Anderson was telling Gibson “he don’t wanna walk you.”
Well, he didn’t. Gibson took the second pitch he faced and deposited it in the upper deck of right field at Tiger Stadium to seal the victory for Detroit. It was Detroit’s fourth World Series title and most recent to date.
It was as spectacular a moment as it is memorable for Tiger faithfuls, but there was one performance that steals the number one spot…
1. Mickey Lolich Wins 1968 World Series MVP
There are few playoff performances that match Micky Lolich’s from the 1968 World Series.
Like St. Louis Cardinals’ ace Bob Gibson, all three of Lolich’s starts were complete games, but the third of which came against Gibson in the decisive Game 7.
In his three starts Lolich surrendered just five earned runs, totaling a minuscule 1.67 ERA. He gave up 20 hits in 27 innings while striking out 21 Cardinals and walking only six.
While it was more common to see pitchers throw complete games in that era, it’s still a stunning feat to accomplish three times. Today, most pitching rotations feature five starters that pitch, on average, every fifth day. Lolich threw three complete games in seven days.
He would easily win the 1968 World Series MVP and would go down in Tigers’ lore as one of the best pitchers in franchise history.