Don't count out Tigers just yet

BY foxsports • October 9, 2011

In the first inning of their first postseason game, the Detroit Tigers sent Austin Jackson, Magglio Ordoñez, and Delmon Young to the plate against New York Yankees ace CC Sabathia.

Barely more than one week later, Ordoñez is off the Tigers’ American League Championship Series roster because of injury. Young, originally left off the ALCS roster after he hurt his left oblique in the final division series game against New York, was activated Monday to take Ordoñez's spot. Ordoñez on Saturday suffered a re-fracture of his right ankle, which was surgically repaired last year; the injury is season-ending and potentially career-threatening.

Perhaps Jackson should play the remainder of the postseason in football pads.

In all seriousness, the Tigers are in trouble. They trail the Texas Rangers in the series, 1-0. Ace Justin Verlander won’t pitch again until Game 5 at the earliest. And Detroit is without two right-handed-hitting outfielders who were supposed to do damage against the Rangers’ three left-handed starters.

But writing off the Tigers this early in the ALCS would be a mistake. There is a road to the World Series for this team. It just has a few orange cones.

If you can believe it, Sunday’s postponement — which pushed Game 2 to Monday at 4 p.m. ET — actually helped the Tigers. Most importantly, it gave Detroit right-hander Max Scherzer an extra day off before a Game 2 in which the Tigers actually have the edge in starting pitching.

Scherzer threw 32 pitches in an impressive relief outing Thursday night in the Tigers’ Game 5 victory over New York. The extra 21 hours of rest may help Scherzer take a livelier repertoire of pitches to the mound Monday afternoon.

There will be those who argue that the rainout favors Texas for a different reason: Alexi Ogando, who needed a day off after his impressive Game 1 relief outing, will now be available for Game 2. The difference is that the Tigers know Scherzer will pitch Monday. There is no such guarantee with a reliever like Ogando.

Scherzer, not Verlander, has been the Tigers’ best starting pitcher in the postseason. He has the power stuff to succeed at hitter-friendly Rangers Ballpark. And the Detroit bullpen didn’t allow a run in Game 1, with Rick Porcello (normally a starter) and Ryan Perry turning in particularly impressive performances.

Meanwhile, the washout also gave the Tigers time to contemplate Ordoñez’s replacement on the ALCS roster. One source with knowledge of the team’s plans indicated Sunday that they were seriously considering two options — keeping the spot open for Young, if and when his injury heals sufficiently; or calling up minor-league outfielder Clete Thomas. (When adjusting postseason rosters in the middle of a series, teams must replace pitchers with pitchers, and position players with position players.)

Thomas, 27, is far from a perfect option. He hasn’t played in the majors since 2009. His last game action this season came more than one month ago, on Sept. 5 with Class AAA Toledo. He also bats left-handed, and the Tigers’ primary need is for a right-handed hitter.

But Thomas was 20-for-23 as a base stealer this year, so he could pinch run in the late innings. He could also serve as a left-handed pinch hitting option. Wilson Betemit filled that role against Texas closer Neftali Feliz in Game 1 and was overmatched, fanning on three straight fastballs.

Right-handed power threat Ryan Strieby, who has a career .811 OPS in the minor leagues, is on the 40-man roster, but it doesn’t appear that the Tigers are considering him right now. Strieby played some games in the outfield during the 2009 and 2010 seasons, but he was strictly a first baseman and designated hitter at Class AAA Toledo this year. It’s unlikely that the Tigers would thrust him into an outfield role on such a big stage.

Detroit’s Game 2 outfield against Texas lefty Derek Holland is a huge unknown, but it’s likely to include Ryan Raburn in a corner spot and Jackson in center. Options for the other spot include Don Kelly and Andy Dirks, but both are left-handed hitters. Brandon Inge, known for his defense at third base, has outfield experience and is a longshot possibility. If Inge plays in the outfield, Leyland could start Danny Worth (another right-handed batter) at third base.

No matter which player replaces Ordoñez on the roster, the Tigers will need increased production from their current cast. That starts with the leadoff man Jackson, who’s batting just .143 with 11 strikeouts in six postseason games. Texas manager Ron Washington is likely to pitch around Detroit slugger Miguel Cabrera — now the Tigers’ No. 3 hitter — at every opportunity. But that will be harder to do if Jackson is on first base.

After Jackson, Victor Martinez is the Tigers’ most important hitter. Martinez, elevated to the cleanup spot for Game 1, is Cabrera’s protection. Cabrera will see more pitches to hit if Martinez is swinging the bat well — but Martinez, as the Detroit DH, is batting .190 in this postseason.

Martinez had 103 RBI during the regular season, and it’s hard to imagine the Tigers winning the pennant unless he can be the same type of run-producing force in this series. Jhonny Peralta and Alex Avila, who drove in key runs from the second half of the lineup during the regular season, have combined for just two RBIs so far in the postseason.

Avila, batting .050 in the postseason, is known to be battling a knee injury. But he said Sunday, “That shouldn’t be an excuse for my performance or anybody else’s at this point. In the playoffs, you go out there with what you’ve got.”

That sounds like a new mantra for the Tigers, who are undermanned but very much alive.

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