In 2006, the Tigers set the record for consecutive walk off victories. What the actual number was doesn’t matter. Game after game, the group that seemed two years away picked then to make something happen. Every other day Pudge Rodriguez seemed to be getting mugged at home plate.
The run consisted of a breeze through two playoff series’ before ultimately being stopped by time — they waited an entire week before their first World Series game — and a team that was better than them.
Throughout the years, other editions of the Tigers have been more highly touted and probably more talented. Including this season. But none of those teams captured that flare, none of the teams had the air of something special. Even last year’s. The Tigers were just good in 2011. There was nothing to indicate there would be a moment like Magglio Ordonez, fist raised, circling the bases after his walkoff home run took the Tigers back to the World Series.
This season a team with a $136 million payroll and one of the weakest divisions in baseball barely snuck into the postseason. Rules regarding division winners kept the Tigers out of a one-game playoff against a team with a better record.
The Tigers are dangerous because they’re talented on paper. They’re vulnerable because of the 166 games we’ve seen so far, nothing indicates they’re that team. After watching Jose Valverde, who was kind of that guy last year, blow the series-clinching save, you have to wonder: is that team in the other dugout?
The hit off the wall, the belt-high fastball hit to left center, the first-pitch hit by Coco Crisp to win the game wasn’t exactly luck. That was a steady diet of straight fastballs in the wheelhouse from Valverde. But you have to take a step and wonder if something is going on here. Hard hit balls find their ways into fielders’ gloves all the time. Player’s trip on the basepaths, balls bounce perfectly off the wall back to fielders.
The Athletics led the league with 14 walkoff wins in the regular season.
If you read Moneyball you’ll know that Athletics General manager Billy Beane will be the first to tell you that the playoffs are almost entirely based on luck. Seven or five or less games isn’t enough for his system to prove its merits. The thing is, his team might just have it this season. The closer you look, the closer you see the similarities to that 2006 Detroit team.
A higher-paid star (Pudge Rodriguez, 4 years, $40 million, Yoenis Cespedes, 4 years, $36 million) at a point where he’s just kind of turning into what he’s going to be with that team. A number of younger guys who are undoubtedly having the best years they’ll ever have. A team with little expectations in the spring training and one that’s 22-years removed from its last World Series appearance.
Breaking long bouts of losing requires amazing feats. It’s coming back from being down 3-0 to your biggest rival. It’s being the best team in baseball just two years removed from being the second worst in history.
It’s proving your system works years after teams with more resources utilized it on their way to their own World Series. It’s being three outs from elimination and coming back. It’s going up against the best pitcher in baseball, the defending MVP and Cy Young winner, in the deciding game five.
As TBS went to its postgame show, it showed all the weirdos in Oakland celebrating. There was a guy with a giant cardboard drawing of an afro with the bottom cut out perfectly to the shape of his own head. A crazed dad, his family long gone, slammed his yellow towel on the seats repeatedly. A couple of Asian kids bobbed up and down with their signs. A couple of innings before, the cameras showed two husky dudes, wearing shirts that said “Yes we cA(‘s)n” and “A(‘s)nd we will.”
I know. The evidence is circumstantial. It could apply to a lot of teams in the postseason. Justin Verlander, maybe the one player who can single-handedly reverse a team’s fortunes for a single game is still set to go.
But the Tigers have made blind belief tangible. They’ll have to face both a team and a fanbase that’s found conviction tonight.
The Tigers can win Game 5. They can shut down the magic before it hits its full post season stride. But be prepared. Defeating Justin Verlander in game five sounds an awfully lot like the first five minutes of the Oakland Athletics’ World Series championship DVD.