The Detroit Tigers shocked the world.
Well, not really. Fans of the Tigers and knowledgeable baseball fans know that the team was every bit as good as the New York Yankees.
In fact, it became evident the last several weeks of the season that three teams were head and shoulders above the rest of the American League.
The Tigers, Yankees and Texas Rangers, whom will face the Tigers in the ALCS.
On paper it appears to be an even matchup, but it's going to swing in the Tigers favor due to seven factors.
The Tigers will rely on these intangibles to return to the World Series.
As a buddy of mine calls it, Don Kelly is a NL scrapper.
The Tigers have a few role players like Kelly, and they all chipped in significantly in the ALDS against the Yankees.
The Tigers aren't going to do anything without their big guns like Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez, but guys like Kelly, Ramon Santiago, Andy Dirks and even the rejuvenated Brandon Inge will do the dirty work for the Tigers when called up.
That mentality will also rub off on the Tigers stars, who'll turn it around.
Before this season, the Tigers were awful on the road—combine that with their excellent home record, and they were what they were. A mediocre team.
Something clicked this year. After starting slowly on the road, the Tigers started rolling away from home midway through the season.
The Tigers finished the season tied for the best road record in the AL at 45-36 and just went out and shut the door on the Yankees in front of 50,000 opposing fans.
Home field means nothing to the Rangers in this series.
Going into 2011, the Tigers had one of the best No. 2 starters in baseball in Max Scherzer. But while Scherzer was in the midst of a merely mediocre season, the Tigers traded for Doug Fister at the deadline.
Fister was dominant as the Tigers No. 2 down the stretch, and Scherzer caught fire in the ALDS versus the Yankees, shutting them down in Game 2 as a starter and giving them a big inning of relief in Game 5. He was hitting 99 miles per hour during his work that night.
True, the Tigers have the best starter in baseball, but they're not just a one-trick pony. Fister and Scherzer, when on, can be nearly as dominant as Justin Verlander.
Outside of Delmon Young, no Tiger regular had a particularly strong first round.
The numbers look ugly, but the Tigers still found a way to win. Miguel Cabrera (.200), Victor Martinez (.222), Jhonny Peralta (.222), Austin Jackson (.125) and Alex Avila (.063) all had subpar offensive showings.
You can't keep these guys down. Especially Cabrera and Martinez. They're two of the games best hitters and will be looking to catch fire against the Rangers.
OK, the entire bullpen isn't lights out by any means.
In fact, anyone not named Jose Valverde or Joaquin Benoit are like Motel 6: "They'll keep the lights on".
Luckily, with the innings the starters have been chewing up and with the ability to throw in a starter if needed, there hasn't been a real need for anyone but Valverde and Benoit.
Valverde has been spotless in save situations, and Benoit might even be better as the setup guy who's been able to give them multiple innings.
If the Rangers can't get to the Tigers starters, they don't stand a chance.
While the Tigers were mired in a mid-season swoon, nearly everyone was calling for Leyland's job—including me.
Then, the unthinkable happened. Leyland's contract got extended. Talk radio went nuts... fans went nuts... everyone went nuts.
We were all wrong. Leyland went 34-14 after his extension and beat the Yankees in ALDS.
I think what we learned was that Leyland's second-half collapses were more a testament to his ability to keep thin teams in contention in the first half before the eventual collapse.
Thanks to several shrewd moves and some emergent players, the Tigers are no longer thin, and Leyland has shined with the improved roster.
Everything he's touched the last two months has turned to gold.
Justin Verlander once is bad. Twice in a seven-game series basically puts the Rangers in an 0-2 hole before they even start.
Verlander had perhaps the most dominating season for any starter in nearly two decades.
Even though he had a so-so first round, he's had his troubles with the Yankees this year. In his only start against the Rangers, he pitched a complete game—and that was before he got really good.
Look for Verlander to dominate the Rangers bats Saturday night and eventually get the Tigers back to the World Series for the first time in five years.