OK, with apologies to all my non-sports-fan readers (which is to say, pretty much all of you except Suldog); you know how some guys are with their sports teams. . .
My Detroit Tigers had a pretty darned good year in 2011, winning the American League's Central Division, thus reaching the post-season for the first time in five years (unless you count the 12-inning play-in game they lost to the Minnesota Twins in '09), and only the sixth time in my own young life. Then we beat the mighty Yankees in the first-round series, earning us the right to be defeated in six games by the Texas Rangers for the American League championship. Alas, of our four losses to the Rangers, one was by one run, and two were in 11 innings (although getting beat 15-5 in the final game tends to stick in people's minds). That said, the Rangers are a really strong team (such hitters!), and they'll acquit themselves well in the World Series, I'm sure.
I'll beg your indulgence for a few paragraphs while I briefly review the season. . .
It was an odd season, beginning with a sense that this was a pretty good, competitive team, and that the Central Division was ripe for them to win it, with even the better teams all flawed, to varying degrees. And yet, us Tiger fans spent most of the season in frustration, wondering when the team was going to stop struggling so much, and show its true quality. Well into August, the Tigers were only six games above .500, and a game or two ahead of the second-place Cleveland Indians (or was it the Chicago White Sox? It varied from day to day). Then suddenly, in mid-August, everything started clicking, and the Tigers finished with 95 wins, winning the division by 15 games. Amazing.
For much of the season, the only real attention given to any individual Tiger was focused on Justin Verlander, their ace pitcher, who will undoubtedly win the American League's Cy Young Award as the best pitcher in the league. I could go on and on, but suffice it to say that JV won 24 games (a really large number, in these days of five-man pitching rotations), allowing 2.4 runs per nine innings. Opposing hitters could only hit .192 against him, and he amassed 250 strikeouts during the season, besides throwing his second no-hitter. As phenomenal a season as any Tiger pitcher has ever had.
There was also our closer, Jose Valverde, who collected 49 saves without blowing a single opportunity (which isn't to say that we were never nervous when he was in the game). Miguel Cabrera had a relatively quiet season, by his standards, but still led the league in batting average, while hitting 30 home runs and driving in 105 runs.
A couple of the Tigers' young players had breakout seasons - Alex Avila made the All-Star game as the best catcher in the American League; not many of us saw that coming. And Brennan Boesch developed into a steady, productive major-league outfielder, which was not obvious at the end of 2010.
The pitching looked to be a strength, given how well Max Scherzer had pitched the second half of 2010, but he never really found that groove in 2011. Rick Porcello is still a promising young pitcher, but the fulfillment of that promise remains mostly in the future. But the acquisition of Doug Fister at the trade deadline was a stroke of pure genius; he'd gone 3-12 in Seattle, but with an ERA of around 3.3, so he was pitching well, without much to show for it. Then, practically from the minute he arrived in Detroit, he was right on a level with Verlander for shutting down opposing hitters (and frankly, in the post-season, he pitched considerably better than Verlander did).
In fact, several of the Tigers' deals this year paid big dividends. The big off-season free-agent signings were Victor Martinez and Joaquin Benoit, and both were huge contributors to the team's success. If Martinez did nothing else, he earned his pay for making opponents pitch to Cabrera; a .330 batting average (and close to .400 with runners in scoring position, or when Cabrera was walked ahead of him), with 103 RBIs, were above and beyond. And Benoit, after some early struggles, settled into a lights-out 8th-inning guy, handing games over to Valverde.
At the trade deadline, the Tigers picked up Wilson Betemit and Delmon Young, besides the aforementioned Mr. Fister, who both contributed solidly to the amazing stretch run, capably filling gaps in the lineup. In the past, these deadline deals have often as not turned to dust (*cough* Jerrod Washburn *cough* Aubrey Huff *cough*), but this year, it seemed like every single player addition (with the exception of Brad Penny, and even he had his moments) just worked out wonderfully. I love it when a plan comes together.
So, it was an odd season - four months of frustratingly mild success, capped off with an incredible final six weeks. And in the end, this was one of the better teams in Tiger history, for sure.
And the nice thing is, the team looks to be set up for a nice run for a few years to come. With few exceptions, most of the Tigers main players are young - 28 and younger. And if some of the younger players start living up to their potential (which, I realize, is never guaranteed), we could be having a lot of fun for the next few years. It would be nice to have it be our turn to win the division for four or five years in a row. We've never done that (at least, not in my lifetime); it would be nice to see how it feels. . .
And, as long as you're indulging me my sporting affections, can I also mention that yesterday, my beloved Spartans were victorious over our intense in-state rivals from Ann Arbor? And that this was our fourth consecutive victory over the Wolverines? And thus, an entire senior class will have graduated from the University of Michigan never having defeated their 'little brothers' from up the road? I can hear the Wailing of the Victims from 60 miles away. . .
All kidding aside (well, most of it, anyway), these are good times to be a Spartan. . .
Thank you; you all are very kind to indulge me in my reverie. We will return to our regularly-scheduled programming with the next post. . .