Monday, September 28, 2009

And It All Comes Down to This...

If there is anything to be sure of in the game of baseball, it is sure of nothing. The Tigers entered last year as the heavy favorite to dominate the American League Central. Perennial All-Star Miguel Cabrera had been added to the mix in the prime of his career, Justin Verlander was coming off a spectacular sophomore campaign, and things looked to be setting up perfectly for a return trip to the World Series. Then the season started, and the world came crashing down. Seven straight losses out of the gate. The failed Edgar Renteria experiment. The tragic Jacque Jones experiment. An astounding 17 losses and near-five ERA for Verlander. Too many AB's for guys like Jeff Larish and Matt Joyce. Too much Dane general. Journeymen hurlers like Aquilino Lopez and Casey Fossum were counted on for big late-inning outs. The decaying Kenny Rogers and the crumbling Nate Robertson combined to give up approximately 900 miles in home runs. After opening day, the Tigers didn't see the .500 mark again until the 88th game of the year. They finished the 2008 schedule with 14 losses in 18 games and wound up in dead last. Behind the Royals. The freakin' Royals. It was an unequivocal disaster.

Which brought us to 2009. A fresh start. Practically zero expectations. The pundits told us this time that the Tigers might improve from their '08 collapse, but not to the point where we should take them seriously as playoff contenders. After all, their off-season moves were about as vanilla as it got. A chunky catcher with a solid arm in Gerald Laird. An aging, defensive shortstop with no stick in Adam Everett. A historically Jekyll & Hyde right hander in Edwin Jackson. And a lanky young bonus baby being counted on for 170 quality innings in Frederick Alfred Porcello (real name, no joke). Fans weren't exactly readying themselves for a memorable summer of baseball. April came and went without much of a whimper. But then the Tigers invaded Cleveland and swept a three-game set to assume first place in the division. That was May 10th. It's been 156 days since. They're still on top.

It hasn't been a classic pennant-winning type season. There have been surprises, both good and bad. You have Miguel Cabrera, a guy that has surprised nobody by maintaining his Hall-of-Fame quality numbers and anchoring the middle of the lineup all season. There's Curtis Granderson, who has morphed into Willie Mays Hayes from Major League II, bashing a career high in homers while seeing his average dip uncharacteristically to the dreaded .250 territory. Ryan Raburn has been a pleasant surprise, showing a frisky power stroke while still trying to fight off the ever-present and potentially lethal comparisons to former Tiger Shane Halter. Placido Polanco and Magglio Ordonez struggled mightily for half the year before turning it into overdrive. The middle of the lineup still doesn't scare anybody, but at least it's starting to resemble something that might. From the dark side, Armando Galarraga's slider was exposed as a one-year phenomenon, joining the likes of the Steve Sparks knuckleball and anything Bill Gullickson threw in 1991. Brandon Inge has dazzled with the leather, and fizzled with the lumber. His eight K's in three games over the weekend was frightening, to say the least. Verlander has been near perfect, this time winning 17 games, many of them coming when the Tigers needed it most (see, final game in Fenway last month). Brandon Lyon made an important switch after the first month of the year, deciding to throw baseballs toward the opposing hitters instead of the tropical grapefruits and industrial-sized beach balls he'd been tossing prior. It might have even been life-saving, as many doctors felt that Lyon was risking spontaneous combustion out on the mound if he continued his fire-setting ways. Fernando Rodney has caused many a worrisome 9th inning for Tigers fans, but this year, every time but one, things have turned out just fine. It practically mirrors this season.

The Tigers have been leading almost the whole way. In the last few weeks, they've walked leadoff hitters, missed easy grounders, and been shut down by no-name pitchers (I don't even think Daniel Hudson knows who Daniel Hudson is). The race has gotten tighter and tighter as the season draws to a close, but the Tigers refuse to budge from the catbird seat. One final test remains. The second place Twins, trailing by a minuscule two games, come to town for a season-deciding four-game series beginning tonight. They arrive without the services of their MVP first baseman, Justin Morneau. But in his stead has been the suddenly terrifying Michael Cuddyer, who seems to have hit all 30 of his homers in the last ten days. Joe Mauer, the Twins do-it-all rock behind the plate, could wind up with the rarely seen stat collection of 30 round trippers, 100 ribbies, and a .375 batting clip. Kinda reminds you of Gerald Laird...ya know, if Mauer put on about 50 lb's and dropped about 150 decimals from that average.

These Twins are by no means a collection of superstars, but that's the way they like it. They fly under the radar, and that suits them just fine. But this week, they have no choice. The entire baseball world will have their eyes focused on Comerica Park. The other races are virtually all decided, and the AL Central is the only drama that remains. In 2008, we wanted everything, and got nothing. This year, we expected nothing, and have gotten much more. As a great philosopher once said, "Nothing is perfect because life isn't perfect, and that's what makes it beautiful." This season hasn't been perfect...but if things fall the Tigers' way, it might wind up being the most beautiful sight two eyes have ever seen.

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