As soon as the Tigers wake up this morning, they should go to their calendars and rip out the current page that reads “August.”
It’s September now.
Oh, maybe not by the moon and the stars, but by the little white ball that measures the season. “September” is really a frame of mind in baseball. It means crunch time, the shedding of the fat, every game and inning with consequence for the playoffs.
And make no mistake: The Tigers are there. Having blown a weekend in the Big Apple – three straight losses in the Bronx – the Tigers are now behind in their division and behind in the wild-card chase, and are home for seven games against teams they are chasing for both.
This week is their best chance to do something about their treading-water season. It is their best chance to set the table for a postseason run. Nobody wants to crack a whip on a team that has so blessedly rekindled interest in Detroit baseball.
But the truth is the truth: Blow these games, and it’ll still be summer, but it’ll start to feel like winter.
A team on the skids
That means the Tigers cannot do this week what they did this past weekend.
They cannot put runners on base, then strike out to leave them stranded.
They cannot blow a double-play ball with an error.
They cannot have Gary Sheffield get three hits in a game, while Magglio Ordonez goes 0-for-4 behind him.
They cannot send starting pitchers out there as if surviving six innings and surrendering five runs is some kind of goal.
And they simply cannot continue their hurricane season of relief pitching. On Sunday, the Yankees used two rookie relievers you probably have never heard of. They pitched three perfect innings and saved the game.
The Tigers, meanwhile, sent out Zach Miner, a starter last season, who promptly gave up two runs, followed by 32-year-old Aquilino Lopez, who gave up three more.
Yes, I know. That’s the way this bullpen has gone. But until recently, the Tigers had been offsetting it with timely offense, or some Jeremy Bonderman or Justin Verlander successes.
Now the timely hitting is in a dry spell. The Tigers are out of sync. There is too much pressure on the two reliable starters, one of whom, Bonderman, is getting less and less reliable. Firecracker guys like Curtis Granderson and Brandon Inge are sagging at the plate. Dave Dombrowski told me part of the reason they brought up rookie phenom Cameron Maybin was to provide a possible “spark.”
When a team that went to the World Series needs a spark from a 20-year-old, things are serious.
Still alive for now
“We’ve still got a good shot,” Jim Leyland said Saturday. And he’s right. The St. Louis Cardinals last year had 85 regular-season wins, and look at what they did.
But you have to reach the postseason to surprise people in the postseason, and the way the Yankees, Red Sox, Angels and Mariners are playing, the Tigers might need to win their division to make the playoffs. Success is still too new to Detroit to count on “experience” kicking in during the final weeks of the season.
Which brings us back to this week. The Indians are 1 1/2 games ahead of Detroit. After this week, the Tigers have three more games against them, on the road, in mid-September. After next weekend’s Yankees series, there are no more games against New York, Boston or Los Angeles. And the best way to catch a team is still to beat that team.
Look, these are not the 2006 Tigers. That squad got 17 wins from Kenny Rogers, who has barely pitched this year. It got a 1.94 ERA from Joel Zumaya, who has barely pitched this year. It got a sprinkling of pixie dust that doesn’t happen the second time around.
But this is still a very good team, one that could jell nicely if everyone dusted off, stood up healthy and found the collective beat. I have no idea whether that can happen. But I know when it has to happen. September.
As in tomorrow.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or email@example.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).