On August 2nd, Jim Leyland called that day's game against the Indians the most important game of the season (for reasons pertaining to the bullpen and getting it set up right). Te Tigers promptly fell flat on their face in losing 11-1.
Detroit's road record fell to 7-17 since mid-June. They've been in first place since May, but their grasp on first is tenuous at best. Their bullpen was completely depleted in the Indians series that saw 7 extra innings played over the weekend.
Given no time off, they began a three game series with the Orioles yesterday, with their ace Justin Verlander taking the mound. I'm sure that manager Jim Leyland was looking forward to a game where the bullpen could take the night off. Unfortunately, events rarely follow the ideal script we would like them to.
Justin Verlander gave up a leadoff homer to Brian Roberts, followed by three singles and two doubles before escaping the inning in a five run hole.
At this point, Leyland must've been really itching for a cigarette. Knowing that the Tigers would have to rely on their bullpen for the majority of this game must have weighed heavily on Leyland's mind after the top half of the first inning. As recently as last year, I would've guessed at this happening as well.
But this is 2009, and this is a different Tigers team. Last year's team would've packed it in after giving up five runs before taking a single swing at the ball. Last year's Justin Verlander would've struggled tremendously after an inning like that by picking up the pace and getting visibly frustrated.
So how did the Tigers respond? The offense got three of those runs back immediately in the bottom half of the first inning, then was able to tie it up in the 5th inning. Verlander slowed himself down, and proceeded to dominate the Orioles by allowing just three hits in the following seven innings. And Clete Thomas thrilled the home crowd with a 426-foot blast over the center field wall on a 1-2 count with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning.
So, what can we take from last night's game? Well, this is an opinion article, so I'm going to give you my opinion. That game could be the turning point to this season.
Tigers fans might possibly be able to look back at this one and say "this was when the Tigers started to establish some consistency."
"This was when the Tigers grew a backbone and started to fight back against adversity."
"This was when rookies Rick Porcello and Ryan Perry started to tap into their potential and become vital parts to this team."
"This was when Miguel Cabrera, Carlos Guillen, Curtis Granderson, Brandon Inge, Placido Polanco, and that deep starting rotation put this team on their collective backs and made a deep run into the playoffs."
The schedule isn't going to get much easier the rest of the way, with series against Minnesota, Boston, the Angels, and Tampa Bay on the near horizon. That said, if they can come out of this month and still be in first place, you have to like their chances against their divisional foes in September with the pitching and defense that they possess.
I just hope that by the end of the year Tigers fans aren't saying "well, at least we were competitive until August!"