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 Tigers the team no one wants to tussle with

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PostSubject: Tigers the team no one wants to tussle with   Sat Sep 24, 2011 2:42 am

Tigers the team no one wants to tussle with
Meeting surging Detroit in postseason no fun task for AL East foe
By Jason Beck / | 09/23/11 12:00 PM ET

The question about the Tigers' division title was bound to come up. The answer from Jim Leyland was better than others might have managed.

After three consecutive years of watching the American League Central champion get bounced out of the playoffs in the AL Division Series, including back-to-back sweeps of the Twins by the Yankees, somebody was going to ask about the challenge of facing a team from the AL East in the playoffs compared to teams from the Central, where Detroit is currently the only team over .500.

It happened to be a reporter in Oakland last Friday, when Leyland was in a pretty good mood with his team on the verge of clinching its first division title since 1987, and while the club was riding a 12-game winning streak.

Up to that point, Leyland didn't want to discuss the postseason until his team clinched. Friday's question pushed him over his self-imposed moratorium.

"I'll guarantee you one thing: It's not like everybody's lining up to play the Tigers," Leyland said.

The way they've played in September, not many teams are going to argue.

"I think it seems like everything clicks for them right now," White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen said last week, after Detroit swept his team for the second time in two weeks.

"The only thing you worry about as a coach or as a fan is how long they can stay this hot. But in the meanwhile, those guys, if they go to the World Series right now, they would win it."

The Tigers have played roughly .500 ball since then, having already clinched, but that hasn't eased many fears around the league. As momentum goes, they've shown the talent to build it, both from strong starting pitching and clutch hitting. Now they have to carry it into next weekend.

Two questions stand out among Tigers fans when discussing their first division title since 1987. The first: What took them so long? The second: What's stopping them this year from a lot more?

The first answer has a lot of reasons. Though the Tigers haven't been to the postseason since their AL Wild Card berth five years ago, they've come close. Team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski believes to this day that they would've beaten out the Indians in 2007 if not for injuries to slugger Gary Sheffield. The '09 race is still a heartbreaking topic in Detroit, mainly the one-game tiebreaker lost to the Twins. Three injuries over five days in late July cost them any shot at a crown last year.

The Tigers have led the division in July or later five times in six years under Leyland. After all the close calls, this was a win-now year. Their manager, general manager and much of the front office had contract years that depended on it. The club's moves last offseason reflected a team aiming to make a run this year, while still contending for the future.

For a team under such pressure, their deals have delivered. Owner Mike Ilitch reinvested some of the money freed up from bad contracts that expired and signed Victor Martinez. The veteran slugger might well have turned out as the best major free-agent signing of the winter, changing the outlook of a team trying to win into a team that did.

"I think he's probably one of the most contributing factors why we're at where we're at right now," said Justin Verlander, a major factor himself and an American League MVP Award candidate, as well as the Cy Young Award favorite.

The win-now outlook was strong enough for the Tigers to break tradition and sign a setup man to a long-term contract, adding Joaquin Benoit in a move that has shored up the bridge to closer Jose Valverde over the second half. Doug Fister, now 7-1 with the Tigers after owning a 3-12 record with the Mariners, is the jewel to come out of the July non-waiver Trade Deadline. Detroit's mid-August deal with Minnesota for Delmon Young bolstered an offense at exactly the right time, with Magglio Ordonez slumping and Brennan Boesch injured.

"If we had the same team we had in April and May," Leyland said, "I don't know if we'd be 20-25 games over .500."

If it wasn't the Midas touch, it was at least a helping hand.

"When people ask me, 'Do I feel vindicated? Do I feel this? Do I feel that?' No," Dombrowski said. "But I think it's a situation where it just kind of speaks to how delicate a situation it can be, what a balancing act it is. And you have to make the moves that you think are the right ones."

Those moves earned the Tigers the upper hand in the division. Now, they're delivering. Their performance showed them as a team capable of much more.

Ask three different Tigers when confidence really set in, and you could get three different answers. For some, it was the first sweep of the White Sox over Labor Day weekend, which included eight unanswered runs to come back from a 7-1 deficit and 18 runs in the finale the next night. For others, such as Leyland, it was taking three out of four from Tampa Bay in late August, taking it to a contending team on the road.

"I thought that series turned us around," Leyland said. "We had just come off an emotional series against Cleveland, and we had to face a real good pitching staff."

To Don Kelly, whose utility play has helped give the Tigers a roster edge on versatility, the key goes back to the end of July and the showdown between Verlander and Angels ace Jered Weaver. That game, both for the opponent and the attention surrounding it, showed them something about themselves.

Detroit has gone 34-14 since, and it couldn't have come at a more important time.

"I think these guys have really grasped the moment," Kelly said. "It's not like you get a chance to do this every single year."

The confidence, though, was evident before the wins piled up. Some credit Martinez and his leadership with the attitude. Others credit the lessons learned from 2009. Whatever the case, the Tigers didn't ease up as the lead grew.

"You've got to admire the focus that everyone's had here coming down the stretch," said Brandon Inge, one of those players from 2009. "Just watching [Miguel Cabrera], [Jhonny Peralta], Victor -- all those guys -- they just kept going and kept going and never let off."

So did the starting pitchers, which is a large part of what should have potential postseason opponents worried. Add Verlander's 12-start winning streak to Fister's performance since his arrival, and the duo stands 16-1 with a 2.22 ERA since August. They'll have three starts in a best-of-five Division Series, and four in a best-of-seven ALCS or World Series. To beat the Tigers, a team has to beat either Verlander or Fister once and go perfect against young arms Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello.

The way Benoit and Valverde have shortened games, Detroit's opponents will most likely have to do it early.

"They're deep," A's manager Bob Melvin said last weekend. "They have a lot of power late-inning bullpen guys that are very good, and good starting pitching across the board."

Just 10 other teams in the 20th century have won 12 consecutive games in September, but no team has done it since the Orioles in 1999. Eight teams that did it reached the postseason. Three -- the 1909 Pirates, '61 Yankees and '65 Dodgers -- won the World Series.

Few on this team know better than Young. He was part of a Minnesota club that rolled through the AL Central last season, then got swept by New York. To Young, home-field advantage means nothing without momentum.

"We clinched a spot the last day in '09, and it didn't work out," Young said. "And we were the first to clinch last year, and it didn't work out. It just matters if you can get hot at the right time."

The Tigers are shaping up to be that hot team.

Jason Beck is a reporter for Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason.
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

“It takes pitching, hitting and defense. Any two can win. All three make you unbeatable.”    
–Joe Garagiola
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