If Detroit doesn’t win it all this time, somebody has got to pay the piper and it probably will be skipper Jim Leyland. Heads are once again picking the Tigers to finally get over the hump, as they begin another postseason with an ALDS clash against the Oakland Athletics.
As usual, Oakland has a team of scrappy fighters who combine clutch hitting, power and a knack for the dramatic to compete with teams more talented across the board. The A’s won 96 games this season, so underdog is a term you should use lightly. This is a rematch of last year’s ALDS, which lasted the full five games and ended with Justin Verlander hurling a four-hit, shutout gem.
Oakland is probably the worst type of team for Detroit to play. The Tigers recent playoff history suggests that they can play tight, especially as favorites. We all know part of Oakland’s mystique is that they play loosy-goosy, crash and dash ball, and this season they have an upgraded pitching staff led by the age-defying Bartolo Colon (18-6, 2.65 ERA).
It’s just hard to figure Oakland. Throw the scouting reports in the trash because playoff games often come down to one swing and the A’ s have four guys with at least 22 homers in Brandon Moss, Yoenis Cespedes, Josh Donaldson, and Coco Crisp. With Bob Melvin mixing and matching like Grand Master Vic on the blend, an Oakland series win wouldn’t surprise anyone.
Then again, if Miguel Cabrera, who has been hobbled for weeks with lingering issues with his groin, abdominal, and hip area, can be his usually dominating self, then Detroit may have the bigger conquest.
Detroit’s not bringing anything new to the party. They have sick hurlers at the top of the rotation in Justin Verlander, Mad Max Scherzer (21-3) and Anibal Sanchez. Verlander had an off year for a pitching god of his ilk (13-12), but the other cats did enough to edge a feisty Cleveland for the AL Central title. The Tigers’ starters lead the league in innings pitched, set a strikeout record as a pitching staff and allowed the fourth-lowest home run total in MLB. However, the bullpen has been shaky all season.
Detroit has the most pressure. The Tigers have been knocking on the WS door for years under Leyland and have come up short each time. They lost to the St. Louis Cardinals in his first season (2006) and the San Francisco Giants in 2012. Neither team was a juggernaut and Detroit was heavily favored. Three-straight division crowns is a dope accomplishment, but not winning a WS creates added pressure for every postseason.
"We talked in spring training. This was a tough year for the guys because the expectations were so high and it was almost like we were set up to fail. I told them don't get caught up in the expectations," Leyland said to the NY Daily News after the Tigers clinched the division.
When you are fielding Triple Crown winners and future Hall of Famers like Cabrera and Prince Fielder, it’s hard not to get caught up in the expectations.
Baseball doesn’t have the same year-to-year continuity that other sports have. The window of success closes quickly for most teams. Just ask Ron Washington and Texas, who lost back-to-back World Series in 2010-11, or the Washington Nats who sat their ace Stephen Strasburg for the franchise’s first playoff appearance in ’12. Their execs had this idiotic belief that they were saving him for “future” title shots, but Washington didn’t come close to making the playoffs this season. The time is now for the 68-year-old Leyland and this Tigers squad. The first step is taking care of Oakland, which the Tigers should do in 5.
The Tampa Scampers meets the Boston Bouncers in an ALDS matchup of AL East contenders. After finishing with 69 pitiful wins and their worst record since 1965 (excluding strike-shortened seasons of ’81 and ’94,) the Red Sox rebounded like Dennis Rodman and led MLB with 97 wins. They kicked Bobby Valentine to the curb, brought in the even-keeled John Farrell and had fellow AL East squads looking up at them for most of the season. Anytime a team made a push in the standings, the Red Sox would just bounce back and reassume control.
This matchup is a toss-up, when division rivals meet in the playoffs, anything can happen. Though Boston may have the offensive edge, led by 37-year-old DH Papi Ortiz, who smashed 30 dingers
Boston stole 123 bases this season and speedster Jacoby Ellsbury, who missed most of September with a compression fracture in his right foot, had 52 of them. If the outfielder can’t go, it will hurt Boston‘s ability to manufacture runs. Boston’s pitching had a rebirth as well. Jon Lester and Clay Buchholtz pitched to ERA’s well over 4.50 in 2012, but caught major wreck in 2013. Buchholtz went 12-1 with a 1.74 ERA, before a shoulder injury sidelined him for the last three months of the season (He’s back and will start Game 3.) Lester came through with a very solid 15-8 campaign.
The Red Sox also found a shutdown closer in right-hander Koji Uehara, who had the lowest WHIP (0.57) in baseball history by a pitcher who logged at least 50 innings, smashing the 0.61 standard set by Dennis Eckersley in 1989.
A balanced attack and a solid staff is Boston’s M.O., but the Rays live and die by the golden arms of 2012 Cy Young winner David Price and Matt Moore (17-4) and the tactically-wild ways of manager Joe Maddon. The Rays had a team-record 17 shutouts during the regular season, including four in their final 18 games.
Tampa beat the Red Sox in seven games back in 2008 to advance to the World Series in their only other postseason match-up. To repeat that feat, they will need a Herculean effort from head honcho Evan Longoria, a clutch batsman. Expect this series to go five games, but if David Price is on the mound in any decisive game, I’m going to give Tampa the edge.