OK, I know that there are not so many avid baseball fans among my readership, but you'll indulge me for one short post, won't you? 'Rejoice with those who rejoice,' and all that, right?
My beloved Detroit Tigers are division champions again this year. Taken together with their division championship from last year, it's the first time that they've made the post-season in consecutive years since 1934-35, in the years of Hank Greenberg and Charlie Gehringer and Mickey Cochrane, and lots of other guys whose playing careers were over many years before I was born. Honestly, the whole 'post-season' thing is a little bit lame; up through 1968 (coincidentally, the Tigers won the World Series that year, transporting my 12-year-old soul on clouds of bliss), only one team from each league qualified for the 'post-season', which in those days was simply called the World Series. From '69 thru '93, the American and National Leagues were both split into two divisions, and each league had a 'Championship Series' between its divison winners, and that winner moved on to the World Series; so there were two rounds of 'post-season' in those years. From '95 to the present day, four teams from each league qualify for three rounds of post-season playoffs. So, whereas in 1968, two of 20 major-league teams qualified for the 'post-season', now eight of 30 do. So, qualifying for the 'post-season' isn't quite as hard to do as it once was. But then, the only way to get to the World Series is to make the post-season first, so there you go. . .
At this stage, my own feeling about the season is more one of relief than exultation. From the time the team signed Prince Fielder to a contract last winter, the expectation was more or less that the team, which had run away from the division in 2011, had just gotten significantly better, and 2012 would be something of a cakewalk to the division title. It, uh, didn't quite work out that way. Lots of the guys who'd had good years in 2011 didn't come close to duplicating them in 2012. The team's hitting, which had been expected to be an over-arching strength, struggled for most of the season, especially when it came to the kind of timely, clutch hitting that contributes to scoring runs. The pitching staff was disrupted by numerous injuries, and the bullpen, which had been amazingly solid in 2011, was considerably shakier this year; they lost way too many games in which they had a lead in the late innings, because the relief pitchers couldn't hold them. And the team's fielding, which hadn't exactly been stellar before, became very shaky indeed, with the addition of Fielder at first base, which necessitated Miguel Cabrera (of whom, more later) moving to third base. So lots of batted balls which last year's team would have fielded, wound up getting through the infield for base hits.
That's a lot of 'baseball talk' (and I am grateful for those of you who are still reading, this far into the post) for saying that it was a long, frustrating summer, watching the Tigers struggle and stumble when we had expected them to win, and win easily. As recently as September 23, they lost both games of a doubleheader to the lowly Minnesota Twins, to stay securely in second place. Over the course of the full season, they were actually in first place for something like 40 days (and probably 30 of those were in April and early May). But just in the nick of time, they put together a late run (and it didn't hurt that their main competition, the Chicago White Sox, went into a tailspin at the same time), and clinched the division title this past Monday.
So now, they're in the playoffs, and once you're in the playoffs, anyone can win. They face the Oakland A's in the first round of the playoffs, starting this Saturday. The Tigers' pitching, especially their starting pitching, is solid, starting with Justin Verlander, arguably the best pitcher in the game right now, and it has been getting even stronger in recent weeks. And strong pitching is about the most important thing a team can have in the post-season. Our hitting is capable of putting up impressive scores, but whether it will or not remains to be seen.
But you can't win if you don't get to play, and just making the playoffs is the key first step.
So, congratulations to my Tigers. From here on in, we will see what we will see. . .
I also need to say something about Miguel Cabrera, the Tigers' third baseman. He is arguably the best hitter in the game right now (and gee - if we have the best hitter and the best pitcher, how is it, again, that we just barely scraped into the playoffs?). But this season, he did something truly rare and remarkable - he led the American League in all three of the 'classical' hitting stats - Batting Average, Home Runs, and Runs Batted In - which, taken all together, are called the Triple Crown. Winners of the Triple Crown are quite rare; the last Triple Crown winner was the Boston Red Sox' Carl Yastrzemski in 1967, 45 years ago (oddly enough, the Baltimore Orioles' Frank Robinson also won the Triple Crown the year before Yaz did). Heck, it's noteworthy when someone leads his league in even two of the Triple Crown categories the same year (especially if one of them is Batting Average; Homers and RBI tend to go together much more often). Since 1901, there have only been 14 Triple Crown seasons, by 12 hitters, and all of them except Cabrera (for the simple, obvious reason that he's still playing) are in the Hall of Fame. So, this is a Big Deal, and it is our privilege here in Michigan to get to see Miguel Cabrera hit every day, during the baseball season.
As a personal aside, last night was one of the more interesting nights of following baseball that I've ever experienced. Cabrera went into last night's games leading in all three statistical categories, but his leads in both batting average and home runs were slim enough that he could have been passed by the second-place hitters. In home runs, the Texas Rangers' Josh Hamilton was only one behind Cabrera, so I brought up the live-game summary of the Rangers' game on my computer, to see if Hamilton hit any homers. He didn't, so I switched to the Los Angeles Angels' game to check on Mike Trout, their young hitting phenom. If Trout had a 4-for-4 game, he could pass Cabrera if Cabrera went 0-for-4. So, when Trout made an out on his second plate appearance, the Triple Crown was essentially sewn up. Shortly after that, Tigers manager Jim Leyland removed Cabrera from their game, allowing him a curtain call in front of the fans in Kansas City (and a bit of rest in an otherwise meaningless game), who showed real class, recognizing what they were seeing. There was a bit of late heartburn when the Yankees' Curtis Granderson hit a second homer in their game with the Red Sox, leaving him tied for second in homers with the aforementioned Mr. Hamilton. But Granderson came out of the game soon afterward, leaving Miggy's crown in place. It was really kinda fun to watch it all unfold.
So, congratulations to Miguel Cabrera. The likes of him don't come around very often. . .