Six years later, the Detroit Tigers are in a familiar position.
For an opponent. For their next real game. For the World Series to begin.
Although only three current players were on the roster when the Tigers last reached the Fall Classic, there’s a general awareness around the organization – certainly among the front office, manager Jim Leyland and his coaching staff – about the perils of a long layoff before the World Series.
In 2006, the Tigers swept the ALCS and clinched the pennant on Oct. 14. It was their seventh consecutive postseason victory, spanning series against New York and Oakland.
This year, the Tigers swept the ALCS and clinched the pennant on Oct. 18. It was their fifth consecutive postseason victory, spanning series against Oakland and New York.
You probably noticed a lot of similarities in those two paragraphs. But the Tigers don’t want history to repeat itself.
The 2006 World Series didn’t begin until one week after the ALCS. Game 1 against St. Louis looked like a lock for Detroit – Justin Verlander vs. Anthony Reyes – but the Tigers committed three errors, lost 7-2, and never fully recovered. Detroit batted .199 in the Series and lost in five games, as the team’s pitchers became famous for throwing wildly to the bases instead of accurately to home plate.
Rust was an obvious factor, in the minds of just about everyone who watched that World Series. (For the record: Reyes, who earned the Game 1 win against Verlander, has seven major league victories since.)
The layoff won’t be quite as long this time – five days, rather than six, before Wednesday’s Game 1. But the Tigers are taking a different approach, bringing minor leaguers to Detroit to simulate game conditions Sunday and Monday.
From a preparedness standpoint, two more factors should help the Tigers: The near-term forecast in Detroit is more favorable than it was during the same period six years ago, when several days of dampness forced the team to practice indoors at Ford Field. Also, the fact that the series opens in the NL city will break up the monotony. The Tigers seemed especially lethargic in Game 1, after spending so many days at home with little activity – other than to answer perpetual ticket requests.
The Cardinals could have completed the 2006 parallel – and created their own layoff quandary – with a victory Friday night, but the Giants forced Game 6 on Sunday in San Francisco (NLCS on FOX, 7:30 p.m. ET). At most, the Cardinals would have two days to prepare for the World Series. If there’s a Game 7 on Monday, there’s only a one-day buffer for the NL champion. Will that make the Tigers’ opponent sharper (because of the extra games) or exhausted (from the laborious travel)? We’ll see.
One clear benefit for Detroit: The rest should help the Tigers’ bullpen – especially fill-in closer Phil Coke, who has thrown 7-1/3 innings already this postseason. It remains to be seen what role the struggling Jose Valverde will have in the World Series.
Leyland has plenty to think about in the interim. Since the Tigers will play Game 1 on the road – thanks, in part, to Verlander’s rocky start in the All-Star Game – Leyland must adjust his lineup right away. Regular designated hitter Delmon Young hasn’t started in the outfield since Sept. 2. But after Young won ALCS MVP honors, Leyland told reporters Saturday that Young will play left field in Game 1. Even with Young’s defensive shortcomings, it’s hard to argue with that decision given his postseason production. Young’s presence in left field will mean less playing time for Quintin Berry or Andy Dirks.
A cautionary tale: Faced with a similar quandary, Texas Rangers manager Ron Washington used Vladimir Guerrero in right field for Game 1 of the 2010 World Series. Guerrero made multiple misplays in the tricky AT&T Park outfield field that night, and the Rangers never gained momentum against the Giants.
Unlike six years ago, there’s no second-guessing about the Tigers’ Game 1 starter. It’s going to be Verlander – a much less controversial decision now. (Some in Detroit still wonder why veteran Kenny Rogers wasn’t the choice to start the Series opener six years ago.) This time, Leyland has a dominant starting rotation – 5-1 with a 1.02 ERA this postseason – that should help offset the layoff.
It will be fascinating to see if Leyland lines up Anibal Sanchez for Game 2, since Sanchez had to handle the bat as a National League pitcher this season. Sanchez made two quality starts against the Cardinals this year, including one in St. Louis, and beat the Giants at AT&T Park in May (seven innings, one earned run).
Who would the Tigers rather play? That’s hard to say. Leyland is more familiar with the Cardinals, having worked for the organization under close friend Tony La Russa. The Tigers also took two of three from St. Louis in a series at Comerica Park this June. But the Cardinals’ down-to-the-last-strike relentlessness – particularly in a potential Game 6 or 7 at home – could create anxious moments for a Tigers bullpen that remains a work in progress.
A Giants-Tigers matchup would carry intrigue because the teams have so rarely played one another over the years, although they did meet in 2011. Verlander hasn’t faced the Giants since 2008. Giants ace Matt Cain hasn’t pitched against the Tigers in his career. The Giants’ lineup has been susceptible to power right-handers, and Detroit has a rotation full of them.
For now, though, the Tigers must prepare two scouting reports, while they watch the NLCS from home and hope the Michigan weather allows them to practice outside. They’ve done it all before.