The plan was for me to go to Detroit and enjoy a first round playoff game this week with my sister and my brother-in-law. I even ordered a new Detroit hooded sweatshirt for the trip that arrived yesterday, just in time for my planned trip. Of course, the final two months of play put that plan in peril and finally the last weekend of the season dashed it altogether. Nevertheless, we must trek on. After all, the Detroit Tigers are in the playoffs for the first time since I was six. Needless to say, I don’t really remember any of that season so this is the first time I get to enjoy my absolute favorite professional sports team (Detroit Lions #2) in postseason action. Instead of keeping the entire day off at work, I am going to go for a half day (12-5), but I will be home in plenty of time for the game.
It’s obvious to anyone with a pulse that the Tigers are significant underdogs against these New York Yankees, but that doesn’t mean they cannot win. They need plenty to go right, but the October mantra is plus pitching beats plus hitting and the one thing the Tigers have is plus pitching. During the September skid, the staff still posted a composite ERA of 3.80, including sub-3.00 figures posted by Game 1 starter Nate Robertson (2.76) and Kenny Rogers (2.79). Both left-handers will be keys to the series for the Tigers. In fact, at the risk of looking like I’m aping ESPN, I feel that Robertson is probably the key player in the series for Detroit. I told my dad this over the weekend and Keith Law wrote as much in his preview of the series this morning. Robertson allowed .181/.218/.269 line against left-handers this season. The Yankees lineup features just three right-handed batters in Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Gary Sheffield. Meanwhile, the rest of the lineup is filled with lefties and switch hitters with Bobby Abreu, Melky Cabrera, Robinson Cano, Johnny Damon, Jason Giambi, Hideki Matsui, Jorge Posada and Bernie Williams. I know, that is 11 players. Very scary stuff.
The Yankees wear pitchers out by drawing an average of four walks per game. This was a heavy contributor to their league-best .363 on-base percentage. Thankfully, the Tigers are second best among playoff teams at preventing walks, allowing just three per game (Minnesota, 2.2). Walks will be the key to this series. However, it will be based on how many the Tigers hitters are able to draw that goes a long way in determining their fate. This is hardly groundbreaking information as it has been an oft-discussed issue all season that the swing-happy Tigers must show some semblance of patience to be successful in the playoffs. Here is table that shows the team’s ability (or inability as it were) to take walks by month and in particular situations:
The Tigers play a softballesque sort of game that cashes in on home runs, but you have to have runners on base for those home runs to truly count against a team like the Yankees. Solo home runs won’t put this team at bay for too long. The team hit 117 solo home runs against just 86 with runners on. If they can reverse the trend and hit 58% (or more) of their home runs with runners on, it will take some pressure off of their pitching staff.
Carlos Guillen is the key hitter for the club as he has been the best throughout the season. He should probably be batting third instead of fifth. I doubt manager Jim Leyland will make any sweeping changes to the lineup including the move of Guillen, but another to consider might be to remove Curtis Granderson from the leadoff spot. He put together an impressive season, but his strikeout problem actually peaked in September with 35 (lumping in the October 1st game). In fact, the opening lineup is in the balance due to Marcus Thames’ flu. How would I set the lineup? Glad you asked:
Curtis Granderson, CF
Placido Polanco, 2B
Carlos Guillen, SS
Magglio Ordonez, RF
Ivan Rodriguez, C
Craig Monroe, LF
Sean Casey, 1B
Marcus Thames, DH
Brandon Inge, 3B
I understand the idea behind Casey batting third, but he isn’t anywhere near his on-base percentage displayed in Pittsburgh earlier this season and Cincinnati in past seasons. For now, I’d prefer him sixth. I know I just got done saying Granderson might be better suited away from leadoff, but I just love Polanco in the two-hole and no one else strikes me as a leadoff hitter. Though a very limited sample (12 at-bats), Rodriguez was exemplary as a leadoff hitter and I could see throwing him up there. The simple fact is, lineup order isn’t a huge deal and its construction won’t impact the series enough to worry any further about it. The team needs to be patient and get on base whether they are the first, fifth or ninth hitter.
So what about those key pinch-hit situations that make October so exciting? The Tigers bench is laden with a trio of punch-less middle infielders, an effective if unthreatening backup catcher and an average outfielder. Omar Infante, Neifi Perez and Ramon Santiago made the roster with Vance Wilson and Alexis Gomez. The entire roster shakes out as follows (thanks to DTW.com):
Infielders: Casey, Polanco, Guillen, Inge, Infante, Perez, Santiago
Outfielders: Monroe, Granderson, Ordonez, Gomez, Thames
Catchers: Rodriguez, Wilson
Starting Pitchers: Robertson, Verlander, Rogers, Bonderman
Relief Pitchers: Jones, Rodney, Zumaya, Walker, Ledezma, Grilli, Miner
So I have been thinking about this series non-stop since Sunday evening. Am I just psyching myself into believing my beloved team can compete? How can the Tigers win this series? I mean, honestly, how can they? First off, they can get back to what they did at the beginning of the season and that is pitch fantastically with nearly flawless defense behind those hurlers. Any extra outs given to the Yankees will almost be automatic runs, because there is no break in the lineup. That said, to completely write the Tigers off, as most of the national media have, because they limped in on one helluva sour note is foolish at best. You can’t erase what the team did this season and suggest that a poor month (though horribly timed) is enough to discount their accomplishments. The only carryover from September the Tigers will want to bring with them is their increased patience at the plate. If they get men on base, they most certainly can hang with this team. Everything about momentum and crying in our beers over last weekend ends now. It’s game time. The 2006 Detroit Tigers are in the playoffs and everyone is 0-0. In a short series, everything is heightened and I truly believe that a Game 1 win tonight will set the tone for the Tigers to take down the Bronx Bombers.
Detroit in five.
I have to go to work…
Detroit Tigers Weblog
Mack Avenue Tigers
ESPN Game Preview
ESPN – Keith Law
Detroit Tigers Tales
Freep – Mitch Albom
Complete Playoff Predictions
Oakland over Minnesota in 5
Detroit over New York in 5
Oakland over Detroit in 6
St. Louis over San Diego in 5
New York over Los Angeles in 4
New York over St. Louis in 5
Oakland over New York* in 5
*If El Duque is seriously injured, I’ll jump on the Cardinals bandwagon in full force.