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Join Date: Jun 2001
Location: I'll be up with the sun, I'm not coming down...
Local Time: 10:42 PM
Tigers suddenly are favorites
The question began changing almost before the final champagne drop dried. At the risk of sounding greedy and giddy and pompous, it's time to view these Tigers through an entirely different prism.
Outdated question: Can they?
Updated question: Will they?
This is where it shifts, starting now, from the improbable to the oh-so-possible. The Tigers have proven they can beat anybody after vanquishing baseball's alleged biggest somebody, the Yankees. When the Tigers open the American League Championship Series tonight in Oakland, they'll rightly be favored to advance. Not to pile unnecessary pressure on the warmest, fuzziest story in baseball, I'd even suggest the Tigers just became co-favorites with the New York Mets to win the World Series.
Pause. Blink, blink.
That sentence hasn't been typed in nearly two decades, so it might take a moment for the blur to clear. But it's real, because in their first test of authenticity, the Tigers easily passed.
Pitching and passion
Pitching wins and passion pushes and the Tigers are loaded with both. Judging by the frenzied atmosphere in Comerica Park over the weekend, they now might have the most-intimidating home field in baseball. Listening to all the experts on ESPN pick the Tigers to oust the A's, it's fair to wonder how a perception could shift this suddenly. (Note: Every expert in the Western Hemisphere picked the Yankees to flick aside the Tigers, so beware).
There's no sense hiding it anymore, no need for the Tigers to apologize anymore for failing to win their division. As long as their heads stay level and their bubbly hangover doesn't last, they know they have a great shot to turn a terrific story into an historic one.
"This is a different feeling, a different group of guys," pitcher Jeremy Bonderman said. "We have a special, special thing going on here and we're just going to try and ride it."
It does have that rare feel. But you know what? The A's have the same feel right now, and so do the Mets and Cardinals.
Cockiness doesn't befit the Tigers, a true team, and it better not grab them now because the A's possess many of the Tigers' qualities -- pitching depth, scrappy lineup, churning motivation. The A's Game 1 starter, Barry Zito, silenced the Tigers with a 1.29 ERA this season, so the warning is issued.
As long as Jim Leyland is managing, it's hard to imagine the Tigers forgetting who they are. As long as Kenny Rogers and Justin Verlander and Bonderman and Todd Jones and Joel Zumaya are pitching, it's hard to see the Tigers falling apart.
Shortly after the defiling of the Yankees was complete, I asked GM Dave Dombrowski if he was remotely surprised by the domination. The quick firmness of his response was enlightening.
"No," he said. "When we pitch well, we can play with anybody."
Actually, the Tigers have said that all year. Now everyone's listening, and more are believing.
But you'll have to excuse the A's if they enjoy their own story just as much. This is one of those low-payroll teams that always loses stars but survives with shrewd scouting, a good manager, Ken Macha, and solid, fundamental baseball. Even Zito is likely to leave as a free agent after the season. The A's did pick up a 38-year-old star on the downside, Frank Thomas, who has been tremendous, but there aren't many other scary hitters in their lineup.
Maybe that's not a good thing for the Tigers. The A's finished next-to-last in the AL with a .260 batting average but their 4.21 ERA was fourth, behind the Tigers' top-rated 3.84. You look at the A's, you see elements of the Tigers. You listen to the A's, you hear elements of the Tigers.
From Oakland relief ace Huston Street: "We thrive on chemistry. Every man is pulling for the next guy."
From third baseman Eric Chavez: "This is one of the least-talented teams I have ever been on and participated in the playoffs. But we have a bunch of hard-nosed baseball players who love to play the game, and it's really showed."
It sure did during Oakland's sweep of Minnesota. As weak as the A's might look, to themselves and others, they play with a spirit embodied by cult-figure shortstop Marco Scutaro, the feisty star against the Twins.
Oakland has collected pieces and parts from everywhere, just like Detroit. So while the poor-little-Tigers angle played well against the Yankees, it won't play now. Besides, these Tigers always were more talented than given credit for. Pudge Rodriguez, Magglio Ordonez and Rogers are All-Stars, with several more on the brink.
It's all even
We know now talk of the Yankees thoroughly outclassing the Tigers was ridiculous. We should also know, talk of the Tigers thoroughly outclassing the A's is equally ridiculous.
"They're a very good team," Tigers center fielder Curtis Granderson said. "We have to respect them as much as we did the Yankees. They can hit and they can pitch. It's going to be a very tough series."
Make no mistake, everything is changing now. Instead of being the spunky team that could, the Tigers are transforming into the confident team that should.
It's funny, but getting swept by the Royals the final weekend of the regular season and blowing the best-record-in-baseball tag might have helped the Tigers, who realized they let up too soon. When a team recovers from that, you figure it has a whole new appreciation for where it is.
"You have to go through these things and learn how to handle winning and losing," Leyland said. "You have to learn how to get through a playoff game and a pennant race, it just doesn't happen. This is all a process. We grew up in a hurry. We passed a few tests, and hopefully we can continue."
It begins anew tonight with lefty Nate Robertson, another of those Tigers poised to find his moment. After that wonderful weekend celebration in Detroit, the story and the questions are shifting now. That's just the way it works, fortunately and unfortunately. When you become a big deal all of a sudden, you have to play the role, ready or not