In a clubhouse ripe with champagne and cigar smoke, Mike Ilitch, the man who owns the Tigers, made his way gingerly to the manager’s office. At 85, he moved slowly. But as he entered the room, he sounded like a kid.
“All right!” he exclaimed. “Did we get some pitching or did we get some pitching?”
The door closed.
As the door opened.
After 162 grueling, exultant, sometimes mind-boggling games, the Tigers head to the playoffs as champions of the American League’s Central Division, a title not bestowed until the final out of the final inning of the final regular-season game, at 3:49 p.m. Sunday. Oswaldo Arcia’s foul pop near the Tigers dugout in Comerica Park seemed to hang in the air as long as their season. But when it finally fell into the waiting glove of catcher Alex Avila, the dugout emptied and explosions filled the sky.
Fireworks in sunshine. Champagne in the afternoon.
Four times a charm.
“I always say there’s only so much rain in a storm,” gushed a wet but happy Torii Hunter, after the Tigers’ satisfying 3-0 victory over Minnesota clinched the Central title for the fourth straight year and earned a first-round series against the Baltimore Orioles. “It’s gotta end. And today it ended.
“David Price, I can’t say enough. I thank him for stepping up today and getting this thing over with!”
That’s how it felt, didn’t it? Like a long, thrilling but angst-heavy ride that is finally over – this part, anyhow. A home-stretch sprint against Kansas City that saw bad defeats to the Twins in Friday’s and Saturday’s games came to a safe, happy landing Sunday, in the sunshine, behind Price’s fine performance, pitching into the eighth while allowing no runs, just four hits, and leaving with the bases empty.
Joba Chamberlain got two more outs.
And Joe Nathan pitched a perfect ninth.
That is not a misprint.
How far have they come? The crowd was yelling, “LET’S GO, JOE!” so loudly you could hear it out on Woodward Avenue. These are the same folks who, not long ago, were hoping Nathan would surrender his passport.
First things first
“What a moment!” gushed Nathan in the champagne-flooded locker room. “What an absolutely outstanding cross step – to get our brains beat in the last couple nights and be able to come out here and step up!”
But then, that’s the kind of Russian novel the Tigers are writing in this 2014 season. Remember, they won this final shutout against the Twins – after allowing them 23 runs in the previous two games. Twenty-three runs? To zero?
“What do you call that?” I asked multiple Tigers.
“Baseball,” said Brad Ausmus.
“Baseball,” said Ian Kinsler.
“David Price,” said Hunter, laughing.
And indeed, Price was priceless. He struck out eight (and won the AL strikeout crown in doing so). He never allowed a runner to reach third base. Whenever the Twins even sniffed at some offense, he drew a ground ball, a pop-out or a K.
“It feels awesome,” he said afterward. Price, it should be noted, was acquired mid-season. Chamberlain is new this year. Nathan is new this year. And Kinsler – Sunday’s offensive hero with a solo home run and an RBI single – is new this year.
“What does that say about the winning attitude of the franchise,” Ausmus was asked, “with all these news faces?”
“The winning attitude was here before they got here,” he said.
Which means before he got here, too. Don’t forget how difficult changing managers can be. Ausmus, the first-year skipper who looks so young you could easily mistake him for a player in that clubhouse, was handed a mountain of expectations in a star-studded lineup. And for all the assorted ups and downs, he has achieved his first two major directives:
Make the playoffs.
Win the division.
Mission accomplished. It was, admittedly, the slimmest of margins (winning the AL Central by a single game over the Royals) and, for most of Sunday, the slimmest of leads, a 1-0 affair until the bottom of the eighth. It felt like trying to slip a Q-tip through a keyhole.
But consider how unusual a tight game with Minnesota is. The Tigers had not held the Twins to fewer than two runs all season, and the three times they did that, they lost twice (2-1 and 2-0). The Twins, a last-place team, were like the local bully who can’t beat up anybody else, but can somehow always beat you. They had been clobbering Tigers pitching all season long. And Detroit often made matters worse with questionable and even downright bad defense.
Sunday, when it mattered most, the Tigers were the opposite of all that. No runs. Defense tight as a ball of rubber bands. Kinsler chased down numerous challenging grounders. There were no wild throws or bobbled pickups.
And the pitching was a glimpse of what the Tigers can be when they are on their game. Don’t be distracted by the leaky boat performances of Friday’s or Saturday’s games. The fact is most of those pitchers will not be seeing much action the rest of the way. This team is now pretty much Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, Price, Rick Porcello, Chamberlain, Nathan, Joakim Soria and whatever they can figure with Anibal Sanchez.
Their biggest challenge will be connecting the starters with the finishers.
But then, isn’t it always?
Rough road ahead
Make no mistake. The Tigers won 90 games, a nice feat, but they are a flawed team – like every other playoff qualifier. They have a stellar starting pitching lineup, and a few major bats (Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez and J.D. Martinez is an awfully good 3-4-5 combination). But they are lacking in speed (especially if Rajai Davis’ injury is serious). Their sixth through ninth hitters don’t scare anyone. Their defense can be nail-biting and seems likely to cost them runs if not games in the playoffs.
And their relief pitching? Well. You’ve seen it. Even when it’s working, as it did on Sunday, it’s not shaking fear into batters. Other teams will be happy to see the Tigers’ starters wear down in the middle innings. It will require a sea change for Detroit to win games it is trailing late. And no lead will be safe until the final out.
But that is why they play the games. Experience has shown itself to be awfully valuable these last couple of weeks, as guys like Verlander, Cabrera, Hunter and, yes, Nathan, have stepped up. Nathan was particularly moved by Sunday’s reception.
“To stink for the first 21/2 months and come back and be a lot better for the last 31/2, I can’t thank Brad enough for being patient, my teammates, my friends and family… and now that the fans and I are kind of getting back to where I thought we’d be from the start, I can’t thank them enough.”
Winnings makes things right. And keeping the other team from scoring runs – any runs – is a sure-fire road to glory.
For one sunny Sunday afternoon, that all came together – at the perfect time – to nail down a victory, a division and three days off, which is plenty of time for all of us, from the cop on the corner to the 85-year-old owner, to become kids again.
Did we get some pitching or did we get some pitching?
Here comes October.
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.