As the 2011 season started, I feared, in the back of my mind, that I was feeling too optimistic about the Tigers' chances in the coming season. The Central was looking like a three-team dogfight, and a postseason berth was hardly a sure thing for the Motor City Kitties. Nonetheless, I did pick them to win 91 games, edge the Twins, and win their first division title since 1987.
Not only was I not being overly optimistic, I was underestimating the Tigers, as were many others.
Thanks to a torrid second half (46-24, second best in MLB behind only the Brewers), the Tigers left the Indians and White Sox in the dust (as it turns out, the Twins were never a part of the equation), and claimed the division crown with a 95-67 record.
Credit is due all around, as this truly was a team effort all season long. What can you say about Justin Verlander's season that hasn't already been said? For his efforts, he'll take home his first Cy Young award, and that he's even warranted MVP consideration speaks volumes about how special a season he's had.
To Miguel Cabrera's credit, he put his issues behind him, got his act together, and put together another monster season en route to his first batting title. His countryman, Victor Martinez, proved to be one of the best additions of last off season, as his presence behind Cabrera was precisely what they needed.
A perfect 49-for-49 in save opportunities, Jose Valverde was the best closer in baseball. The man who was behind the plate for most of those saves, Alex Avila, emerged as a budding star and made his first All-Star Game.
Finally, the acquisitions of Doug Fister and Delmon Young will be remembered for some time, as they put the team over the top. Given the best, most talented roster he's had in his time in Detroit, Jim Leyland guided this team back to the postseason.
It's been a magical year, not short on unforgettable moments. In this piece, I'll rank the best of the best from the past six months. Enjoy!
This season was so magical, I couldn't help but mention a few moments that didn't make the cut but nonetheless deserve recognition here.
May 24: Tigers 7, Rays 6
Despite Justin Verlander's worst start of the year, the offense picked him up big time, as Alex Avila hit a go ahead two run blast in the eighth off Cesar Ramos which wound up being the difference.
June 4: Tigers 4, White Sox 2
On the South Side of Chicago, the Tigers' two biggest stars shined. After Verlander kept the White Sox at bay (8 IP, 2 ER, 7 K), Miguel Cabrera put the Tigers up for good with a two run homer in the top of the ninth.
June 13: Tigers 2, Rays 1
A hard fought, low-scoring affair that went into extra innings when in the bottom of the 10th, Ramon Santiago lined a Kyle Farnsworth offering into the right center field gap, scoring Victor Martinez from first to give the Tigers a walkoff win.
June 26: Tigers 8, D-Backs 3
On an emotional day when they at last retired the No. 11 worn by the late, great Sparky Anderson (with his former pupils Kirk Gibson and Alan Trammell present in the visitor's dugout), the Tigers erupted for seven runs in the bottom of the eighth inning to take the series from the eventual NL West champion Diamondbacks.
September 5: Tigers 4, Indians 2
In a matchup of trade deadline acquisitions, Doug Fister outdueled Ubaldo Jimenez, striking out thirteen Indians (and only walking one) and leading the Tigers to their fourth straight win (the streak would eventually reach 12).
After an agonizing three games against the Red Sox, the Tigers needed Justin Verlander to come up big and avert the sweep. He did just that, holding the vaunted Red Sox lineup to four hits and no runs over 7.2 innings before Joaquin Benoit and Jose Valverde got the last four outs.
This game represented one of the turning points of the season, as Detroit came into this game 25-26. They won this game, and then never spent another day below .500.
Part of what has made this season so gratifying is that so many of the Tigers' most special moments have come at the expense of the White Sox. In their last game against the pale hoes on the season, they seized an opportunity to embarrass their rivals from Chicago one last time.
Down by three going into the top of the ninth, it looked as though the Tigers' win streak would stop at 11. Going out quietly is not this team's style though, as Ryan Raburn and Alex Avila hit pinch hit home runs to tie the game in the ninth. In the tenth, Carlos Guillen put them on top for good with an RBI single. The win ran Detroit's streak to 12, their longest in 75 years.
After this game, there must have been one common sentiment among all Arizona hitters; overwhelming happiness that Justin Verlander does not pitch in the National League. For seven innings, Verlander mowed through the D-Backs with ease, striking out 11.
In the top of the 8th inning, the Tigers' ace started to show signs of mortality, as he allowed a walk and a double to lead off the inning. Verlander struck out the next three batters, stranding both runners, and bringing his strikeout total to a career high 14.
On May 23, the Indians held a 7 game lead over the Tigers for first in the division. Over the next three weeks, they watched that lead evaporate and by the time they pulled into Detroit in mid June for a three game set, that lead was gone. And then they had to face Justin Verlander.
With one no-hitter already under his belt, Verlander held the Indians hitless for 7.1 innings before Tiger killer Orlando Cabrera lined a single to center. He got the next five outs, surrendering just one more hit, to shut out the Tribe and move Detroit into first place for the first time all season.
While he may have had better starts this season (some of which have yet to be highlighted in this piece), I don't know if Verlander was ever more dominant than he was this outing (12 K, 1 BB, 2 H).
Based on the events of this particular evening, I'm going to guess no one in the Tigers' clubhouse is familiar with the idiom "beating a dead horse."
Having broken the White Sox's spirits and essentially taken them out of the postseason race with a thrilling comeback victory the day before, the Tigers refused to take their foot off the gas pedal. Before a national audience, they completed a three game sweep by absolutely massacring the White Sox to the tune of an 18-2 final.
Miguel Cabrera broke the game open with a two run double in the 4th that spelled the end of the night for Mark Buehrle. In the sixth, Miggy hit a towering two run shot to straight away center to bring his RBI total for the night to four, a number matched by Andy Dirks (astonishing considering he didn't enter the game until the bottom of the sixth).
I'll do my best to make this concise.
With the top two AL Cy Young candidates, Jered Weaver and Justin Verlander, squaring off, runs promised to be at a premium. It was Detroit who struck first in the third when Magglio Ordonez hit a two run shot just inside the left field foul pole. This was hardly just another home run though.
When Ordonez stood at home plate to see if the ball went fair or foul, Weaver perceived him to be showing him up. While it isn't crystal clear he wasn't showboating, Ordonez has never been one to do that and it did appear he was merely waiting to see if the ball stayed fair.
Weaver let Ordonez hear it though, so when Maggs' good friend Carlos Guillen also took Weaver deep in the seventh, he made sure Weaver knew showboating when he saw it from then on. Guillen flipped his bat, stared out at Weaver, and skipped into his home run trot, outraging Weaver. Despite warnings to both benches, he threw the next pitch over Alex Avila's head and was promptly ejected. He left the field screaming at the Tigers' dugout and would eventually be suspended, forcing him to miss a start.
Oh yeah, Justin Verlander took a no-hitter into the 8th. That inning saw the Angels do their best to infuriate baseball purists themselves, as Erick Aybar laid down a bunt with the no-hitter still in tact and reached on a throwing error by Verlander. After Peter Bourjos reached on a fielders choice, scoring Aybar, Verlander at last surrendered the first hit of the game to Maicer Izturis, which scored Bourjos and cut the Tiger lead to one.
Verlander got out of the inning by striking out Torii Hunter, and left the game with one hit and no earned runs charged to him. Jose Valverde came in to pitch the ninth, and while he made it interesting as he did quite often this season, he closed it out for a 3-2 Tigers' win.
From this day forward, the two aces went in opposite directions. Over his next 10 starts, Verlander went 9-0 with a 2.83 ERA. Weaver, on the other hand, got lit up by the Blue Jays in his first start following the suspension. That start saw his ERA rise from 1.78 to 2.13, eliminating the best argument he had for winning the Cy Young over Verlander.
People in Detroit will be talking about this one for a while.
I'll be honest; going into the season, not for a moment did I think the Cleveland Indians posed any sort of threat to the Tigers. I had them wallowing in the cellar with Kansas City as Detroit, Minnesota, and Chicago duked it out the division crown.
As it turns out, the Tribe wound up being Detroit's fiercest (to use that word generously) competition this season. Though the Tigers moved into sole possession of first just after the All Star Break, the Indians hanged tough and rolled into Detroit on August 19 for a three game series, just 1.5 games out of first.
The Tigers took the first two games of the series to rebuild their lead up to 3.5 games. In the rubber match, they jumped all over the Tribe's prized trade deadline addition, Ubaldo Jimenez. When Delmon Young and Victor Martinez both went deep in the third to stake Rick Porcello to a 7-0 lead, it looked like the Tigers would sleepwalk their way to a series sweep.
It didn't come nearly that easy though. As he did way too often this season, Porcello allowed the opposing team to get right back into the game, as the Tribe got five runs back the very next half inning and knocked Porcello out of the game. Young singled in Austin Jackson to rebuild the Tiger lead to three in the bottom half of the inning.
The Indians scored one in both the fifth and sixth innings though, slicing what had seemed like an insurmountable Tiger lead to one run. Cleveland threatened in every inning from the fifth on, including the ninth when they got runners over to second and third with only one out and Jose Valverde on the mound.
It was then that Matt LaPorta hit a shallow fly ball to Jackson in centerfield, who threw a frozen rope home to gun down Kosuke Fukudome, inciting bedlam at Comerica Park and sealing the game and the series sweep for the Tigers.
Instead of leaving Detroit 2.5 games back, feeling good about themselves, and with a little momentum, the Indians left town with their tails between their legs. They never got closer than five games back of first the rest of the way.
This wasn't a postseason game, and no one threw a no-hitter. However, I can already tell that years from now, when someone brings up this game, I'll be able to remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when it happened.
The White Sox rolled into the Motor City on September 2, needing to take two of three (if not sweep) to have a realistic shot of catching the Tigers. Behind Justin Verlander, the Tigers took game one, basically making the next two games must-wins for the pale hoes.
Tied 1-1 going into the top of the fourth, the White Sox started to beat Brad Penny as if he'd stolen something, as Alexei Ramirez hit a three run bomb that gave the White Sox a 6-1 lead. Then in the fifth, Alejandro De Aza and Brent Morel took Penny deep on consecutive pitches to give the Sox an 8-1 lead.
Honestly, if I'd had better things to do, I'd have turned the TV off then and there. I couldn't think of anything by the time Delmon Young hit a two run bomb to cut the deficit to four, so I kept watching.
The score remained that way until the bottom of the fifth when Wilson Betemit hit a moonshot to left to cut the score to 8-5. Then in the eighth, following a one-out double by Victor Martinez and in the middle of Alex Avila's at bat, the rain came, delaying the game by over half an hour.
When play resumed, Chris Sale got Avila to strike out, but Jhonny Peralta promptly picked his teammate up by singling in Martinez to make it an 8-6 game.
Spirited a comeback as it was, it looked as though Detroit would ultimately fall short when Ozzie Guillen called on his closer Sergio Santos, who hadn't allowed a run in his past 30 road appearances leading up to then.
Santos got Betemit to strike out, but then Austin Jackson tripled down the left field line. That brought up Ryan Raburn.
Down in the count, Raburn got a hanging slider from Santos and managed to sneak it inside the left field foul pole, tying the game at 8. Santos recovered to strike out Young, and then Miguel Cabrera stepped to the plate. What happened next is straight out of a Hollywood script.
Cabrera tee'd off on the first pitch he saw, hitting a majestic home run over the left field fence, completing one of the greatest, most unpredictable comebacks in franchise history.
Cabrera didn't simply hit a home run. What he did, with that one swing, was eliminate any doubt that this Tigers team was different from the heartbreaking teams of seasons past. As Cabrera and his teammates celebrated at home plate, it was crystal clear that this team was for real.
No matter how the postseason plays out, it seems a foregone conclusion that Tigers' fans will remember 2011 as the year of Justin Verlander.
While he'd cemented himself as one of the AL's best starters in 2009, it wasn't until this year that Verlander realized his full potential and achieved superstar status. He became appointment viewing, as every fifth day, the Motor City stopped what they were doing to see what JV would do next. People I know who don't even like baseball were talking about this guy.
Accustomed to dominance and strikeouts as Tigers' fans became, his finest start of the year saw him strike out only four. However, that start is the most obvious example of why Verlander has been able to take his game to another level in 2011.
Losers of eight of their previous eleven, Jim Leyland gave the ball to his staff ace, in hopes that he could get the team back on the right track.
The Tigers got to Blue Jays' ace Ricky Romero early and often, and Alex Avila's two run shot in the fourth knocked out the southpaw and staked Verlander to a 6-0 lead.
As opposed to racking up strikeouts, Verlander instead induced quick out after quick out. Through five innings, he'd thrown a mere 59 pitches in facing the minimum fifteen hitters.
He retired the side in the sixth on eleven pitches, and then sent them down in order on fourteen pitches in the seventh. At this point, the Tigers' 7-0 lead felt like a 14-0 lead.
He got Mike McCoy to line out to center to open the eighth when rookie J.P. Arencibia had a phenomenal 13 pitch at-bat that ended with him taking ball four just outside, ending JV's pursuit of perfection. However, he promptly erased Arencibia by getting Edwin Encarnacion to ground into a 6-4-3 double play.
Verlander sat through a lengthy top of the ninth that saw the Tigers plate two more runs to bring the score to 9-0. As it turned out, one run would've been enough that day.
Verlander retired David Cooper and John McDonald with ease before getting Rajai Davis swinging to complete his second career no-hitter.
It couldn't have been more different from his first one either. Whereas he simply blew away the Milwaukee Brewers that June evening, needing 129 pitches to finish that gem, this game saw Verlander paint a masterpiece by mixing his pitches, inducing contact early in counts, and trusting his defense. He needed only 108 pitches to achieve this second rendezvous with baseball history.
After a rollercoaster first month, this game helped kickstart the Tigers' season, as it was the first win in what would crescendo into a seven game winning streak that sent a message across the American League that the Tigers were a team to be reckoned with.
Memorable as all those moments were, they all were merely plot points that led to an immensely satisfying climax; the Tigers celebrating a 3-1 victory and their first division title in 24 years at the Coliseum in Oakland.
It was a most fitting victory in several ways. For one, it saw the continuation of a yearlong theme of "a different hero every night" as the often-maligned utility man Don Kelly (hitting in the two hole, certainly to the chagrin of more than a few Tigers' fans) was the difference, knocking in two runs, one on a no-doubt solo shot in the seventh.
It also was appropriate that the Tigers clinched the AL Central behind Doug Fister, who evoked memories of Doyle Alexander in 1987 in putting this team over the top (8-1, 1.79 ERA, 11.40 K/BB in 70.1 IP). The tall, lanky right-hander tossed eight innings, surrendering one run on just three hits, striking out five, and walking none.
In the ninth, as he'd done all season, Jim Leyland gave the ball to his closer, Jose Valverde. While he made it interesting, allowing the tying run to come to the plate in the form of Josh Willingham, Valverde yet again got the job done, getting Willingham to ground out to clinch the AL Central.
The ensuing celebration, predictably, was pure chaos. Away from the madness, puffing on a cigar, Jim Leyland teared up in acknowledging and thanking the loyal fans who supported this team from day one. Leyland has taken his fair share of heat during his tenure in Detroit, and he'll take more before it's all said and done, but I'd like to think that in that moment, he endeared himself to some degree to this city forever.
And the ride isn't over yet. Tonight at 8:37, the Tigers begin their quest for their fifth World Series title, and they have what it takes to go all the way. Anything that happens from here on out is purely icing on the cake though. 2011 is already set to go down as one of the most memorable seasons in this franchise's long and storied history.