Friday, September 22, 2006

Getting in isn't good enough

It sunk in late Wednesday night, after Joe Crede grounded into the last of his three double plays, giving the Tigers a 6-2 win in the rubber match of a crucial series against the Chicago White Sox.

This Tigers team is playoff-bound for the first time in 19 years.

It's clearly evident--barring a major collapse the last 10 games, six of which come against the basement-dwelling Kansas City Royals--after a very convincing late-season showdown in Chicago.

When the Tigers needed to outslug the power-laden White Sox, they did, smashing six home runs, including four in Monday's 7-2 victory.

When they needed to execute to manufacture runs, they did better than the defending champs, who grounded into 7 double plays.

And, as the story has went all season, when they needed to outpitch their opponent, they did.

Continuing to polish their league-best pitching numbers, Kenny Rogers and Jeremy Bonderman once again delivered.

Rogers, wrote off by many after his post All-Star Game swoon, once again claimed ownership of the White Sox, improving his record against them to 3-1, with a microscopic 0.82 ERA.

Then, after rookie Justin Verlander was knocked around Tuesday night, Bonderman once again turned in a clutch performance, once sign of--dare I say it--an ace.

It's outings like Wednesday night's that makes one want to shake the inconsistency out of Bonderman, the only thing preventing him from becoming a bona fide ace.

But although the path to the postseason is looking clearer and clearer everyday, the Tigers still have a division title to win, with the Minnesota Twins lurking only a half game back in the standings.

A playoff berth via the Wild-Card spot would be nice, sure, but undoubtedly bittersweet.

How can one complain about the Tigers making the playoffs, you ask?

Because now that we have seen the potential of this team, we can no longer rest on our laurels that making the playoffs is just good enough.

With every win, expectations have been raised. This team has no relation to the past 12 losing teams, and shouldn't be treated that way. They aren't the same old Tigers.

This team has spent four months of the season in first place.

In April and May we pondered if this team would finish above the .500-mark.

In the summer heat of June and July, we could see the Wild Card in the distance like a mirage.

But when the division lead stretched to 8 1/2 games over the White Sox in August, and 10 1/2 over the now-2nd place Twins, the Division Crown became our target.

Expectations change.

And now, a month later, the lead over the media-darling Twins has all but evaporated.

The Twinkies are now the feel-good story, rebounding from a horrible start to get back in the race, and they just won't go away. There is still a cloud of skepticism over the Tigers.

They're the nervous freshman kid giving a speech in front of the whole school. Everyone's just waiting for him to mess up.

A division championship would pit the Tigers against the soon-to-be AL West champion Oakland Athletics, with the Tigers having home-field advantage.

The Tigers won the season series, 5-4, and match up more than favorably with the A's.

Rogers has two wins and can't lose in Oakland, Verlander has looked dominant in games against them, and wouldn't you love to welcome those Californians to Detroit in October?

A wild-card spot would see the Tigers kick off their postseason in Yankee Stadium against a playoff-seasoned team who is 5-2 against them this year.

And consider those two wins as a gift.

Because in October, there will be no walk-offs against Kyle Farnsworth or late inning three-run home runs off Scott Proctor.

No, there will only be Mariano Rivera.

And an early exit from the playoffs, the end to a fantastic summer with nothing to show for except rich promise for the future.

So, as the Tigers finish the regular season with the Twins breathing down their neck, ask yourself this question:

Is just getting to the playoffs really good enough?

Thursday, September 7, 2006

Young's release puts damper on playoff race

Don't be that fan.

Excuse me.

What I meant was, don't be that person.

Because those of you cheering Wednesday's dismissal of Dmitri Young aren't fans.

Don't be the person to kick Young when he's down, possibly further down than ever before.

Young's five-year tenure with the Tigers officially ended with the club's unconditional release of the 32-year-old designated hitter, whom battled back from substance abuse problems to join
the first place Tigers down the stretch.

General Manager Dave Dombrowski cited the move was "strictly performance related."

But it's clear to everyone not wearing a blindfold that something transpired Wednesday, before or during a rain delay exceeding 3 hours, which proceeded a 5-4 extra innings loss to the Seattle Mariners.

What that was, however, remains to be seen.

It could have been a confrontation between Young, who was batting in third in the lineup Wednesday, and manager Jim Leyland, after Young popped out with the bases loaded in the third inning.

The count was 2-0, and Mariners pitcher Gil Meche was laboring, allowing a Vance Wilson home run followed by a Brandon Inge double and back-to-back walks before Young stepped to the plate.

Conventional wisdom says he didn't have the green light.

But Young took a rip at the 2-0 offering, and popped out for the 2nd out, virtually killing a Tiger rally.

Or it could have been in the eighth, when Leyland pinch-hit for Young with recent call-up Kevin Hooper.

Hooper, who his known to have good success buting, was used to sacrifice two runners into scoring position.

Two runners that scored one batter later on Craig Monroe's early Christmas gift, a double misplayed by Seattle rightfielder Ichiro Suzuki, who lost his footing in Comerica Park's wet grass.

But something tells me Young has been around long enough to understand a baseball move when he sees one.

And quite possibly, this could be the final chapter in the demise of Dmitri Young, who arrived in 2002 with a golden smile, ready to turn this team, still years away from winning, around.

The substance abuse and domestic violence problems that nearly forced Young into rehab and out of baseball could have relapsed, punching a one-way ticket out, that same smile now turned to the look of a shameful man, weary and battered.

What the next month has in store for the reeling Tigers is anybody's guess. But Young was a nice comeback story on a team that is this season's best story.

Activated from the disabled list on July 21 after a tumultuous couple months battling personal issues, Young was awarded new life, one equipped with base hits, home runs, a first-place team, and yes, that contagious cheek-to-cheek grin.

Since he rejoined the Tigers as their potential answer to a lack of left-handed bats in the lineup, Young hit .292 with 7 home runs and 19 RBI. Young exceeded expectations in his return, and as recent as Wednesday routinely hit in the middle of the lineup.

A performance-based decision, huh?


On the field, the Tigers will attempt to spark their offense, putrid as of late, without Young, a left-handed hitter, which has publicly been touted as one of their needs.

The Tigers brass decided it was in the best interest to move on without Young, for the good of keeping the team's morale high.

Maybe it was.

Compounded with his recent issues, Young has a history of attitude problems, most notably last year, when he had run-ins with Pudge Rodriguez and then-manager Alan Trammell.

The release, now lingering above the Tigers as they head to Minnesota for a four-game series with the 2nd place Twins, is unfortunate and sad.

It would have been nice to see Young win with this team, after enduring the past five losing seasons, including the horrid 2003 season, where the Tigers lost 119 games, an American League record.

They have lost a hitter who can certainly help them wrap up the A.L. Central and secure a playoff birth.

But most importantly, Dmitri Young may have lost himself, to a place nobody wants to be. A place that was seemingly in the rearview mirror just a couple weeks ago.

That can turn a smile into a frown on anybody's face.