This Tiger team needs no introduction to big leagues

We were sitting in a famous New York deli once. It was 2 a.m., place was empty, someone ordered a big sandwich, and several of us had a bite. When the bill came, we were charged $17 apiece for sharing.

“Why?” we asked.

“Customers wait for tables,” the waitress said. “We can’t have one eater and others taking up space.”

“But there’s no one else here,” we protested.

“Listen,” she griped, a hand on her hip, “this is New York. It’s the big leagues.”

You get that a lot in the City That Never Sleeps. This is different. This is the big leagues. And no doubt there’ll be a little of that going on tonight when the Tigers enter Yankee Stadium for Game 1 of the American League Division Series.

But in studying the two teams, I notice three things: Bigger opener. Bigger closer. Bigger man in the middle.

And I wonder which team is really bringing the “Big” to the Apple?

The Tigers have Justin Verlander. The opener. There is no better pitcher this year. He’s got the Cy Young Award as sure as Justin Bieber has the Teen Choice vote. He could end up MVP. He is 24-5, has an ERA of 2.40, and never sees an early exit, unless you count going to bed before the rest of the guys at the hotel.

He’s the Tigers’ ace with a capital A. He pitches tonight. The Yankees counter with CC Sabathia. Big name. Big man. Not a better pitcher, not this year, not compared to Verlander.

Advantage: Detroit.

Even in “the big leagues.”

Papa Grande vs. the Sandman

What about bats? The Yankees have plenty, it’s true. Curtis Granderson (they can thank the Tigers for him), Mark Teixeira, Robinson Cano, Nick Swisher, Alex Rodriguez. But the Tigers have Miguel Cabrera. The man in the middle. He just won the AL batting title with a .344 average. He’s always a home-run threat. He has massive RBI totals. And if you’re thinking of avoiding him with an intentional walk, you’ll have to face Victor Martinez, who’s only hitting .330, higher than anyone in the Yankees’ lineup.

So who’s bigger?

And then there’s the big closer. Jose Valverde. I don’t know how you describe what the man did this season. Even “perfection” seems too small a word. He’s had 49 chances to saves games, and he’s saved all 49. It’s an American League record. It’s dazzling. “People really should be talking more about him,” manager Jim Leyland said recently.

They will be soon – if he follows regular-season form. It’s true, the Yankees have the best closer of all time, Mariano Rivera. Can’t argue with that guy. Can’t say you’re not still afraid of him.

But chance for chance, game for game – this year, not last year or last decade – Valverde has done a better job.

So who’s bigger?

Recapping the Central issue

And then there’s the karma factor. The Tigers have been on such a massive blitz, you want to check their clubhouse for tanks. As Leyland told the news media, “In all my managing, I’ve never had a run like we had the last part of the season.”

It’s as if one moment they were battling opponents, and the next moment, they were standing alone with their swords, and all they saw around them were fallen soldiers.

Who does what the Tigers did to their division in the first two weeks of September? Took three from the White Sox? Three from the Indians? Three from the Twins? Three more from the White Sox? Those weren’t series, they were sieges.

Twelve games. Twelve victories. And the season, as far as the AL Central was concerned, was pretty much over. The Tigers went on a victory cruise control and finished with 95 wins, playing strong and hard and with a purpose right to the finish.

The Yankees? Yes, they wound up two games better than the Tigers in the standings. But they’ve had the playoffs locked up for a stretch, and while they might say they were playing to fend off a challenge for home-field advantage, it wasn’t as pressing as what the Tigers faced in a neck-and-neck duel with the Texas Rangers.

In other words, the Tigers enter in fighting mode, no rust, no need for a gear-up. It’s the perfect attitude.

Who’s bigger?

A team’s time of destiny

Five years ago, the Tigers went into New York for the first round of the playoffs. Same record. 95-67. The Yankees were a prohibitive favorite. The Tigers, a wild-card entry, started Nate Robertson as their Game 1 pitcher and lost the opener, 8-4. There were people everywhere saying, “This will be over quick.”

It was. Three more games, and Tigers advanced, leaving the stunned Bronx Bombers to wonder what happened. Detroit got clutch hitting in Game 2 and a shutout performance for the ages by an aging Kenny Rogers in Game 3.

On such moments do series turn. I look at these 2011 Tigers, and I see guys who can, at any point, step up and be single-game heroes. I see Alex Avila, who seems to pull timely home runs out of his pocket. I see Jhonny Peralta, one of the more underappreciated players in this postseason. I see Doug Fister, who has been insane since coming to Detroit (8-1, a 1.79 ERA), being that second-day pitcher who surprises everyone. I see new faces like Joaquin Benoit and Delmon Young doing what they were acquired to do when it’s most needed.

I see a clubhouse in which players really believe in one another and a manger who knows exactly how high to turn the thermostat. The roster may not seem as star-studded as the Yankees’ to people living in Los Angeles, but it’s pretty darn impressive if you’ve been watching it all year.

There is no telling what will happen. Never is. But know this going in: These Tigers are not an underdog. Not on paper. Not in stats. Nobody on Detroit is some out-of-town hick looking to share a sandwich, and nobody needs a lecture on life in “the big leagues.”

Big opener. Big closer. Big man in the middle. Something special is about to happen in the Big Apple, but don’t be shocked if it’s wearing the out-of-town uniform.

Start spreading the news.

Contact Mitch Albom: 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR. To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/mitch.

We were sitting in a famous New York deli once. It was 2 a.m., place was empty, someone ordered a big sandwich, and several of us had a bite. When the bill came, we were charged $17 apiece for sharing.

“Why?” we asked.

“Customers wait for tables,” the waitress said. “We can’t have one eater and others taking up space.”

“But there’s no one else here,” we protested.

“Listen,” she griped, a hand on her hip, “this is New York. It’s the big leagues.”

You get that a lot in the City That Never Sleeps. This is different. This is the big leagues. And no doubt there’ll be a little of that going on tonight when the Tigers enter Yankee Stadium for Game 1 of the American League Division Series.

But in studying the two teams, I notice three things: Bigger opener. Bigger closer. Bigger man in the middle.

And I wonder which team is really bringing the “Big” to the Apple?

The Tigers have Justin Verlander. The opener. There is no better pitcher this year. He’s got the Cy Young Award as sure as Justin Bieber has the Teen Choice vote. He could end up MVP. He is 24-5, has an ERA of 2.40, and never sees an early exit, unless you count going to bed before the rest of the guys at the hotel.

He’s the Tigers’ ace with a capital A. He pitches tonight. The Yankees counter with CC Sabathia. Big name. Big man. Not a better pitcher, not this year, not compared to Verlander.

Advantage: Detroit.

Even in “the big leagues.”

Papa Grande vs. the Sandman

What about bats? The Yankees have plenty, it’s true. Curtis Granderson (they can thank the Tigers for him), Mark Teixeira, Robinson Cano, Nick Swisher, Alex Rodriguez. But the Tigers have Miguel Cabrera. The man in the middle. He just won the AL batting title with a .344 average. He’s always a home-run threat. He has massive RBI totals. And if you’re thinking of avoiding him with an intentional walk, you’ll have to face Victor Martinez, who’s only hitting .330, higher than anyone in the Yankees’ lineup.

So who’s bigger?

And then there’s the big closer. Jose Valverde. I don’t know how you describe what the man did this season. Even “perfection” seems too small a word. He’s had 49 chances to saves games, and he’s saved all 49. It’s an American League record. It’s dazzling. “People really should be talking more about him,” manager Jim Leyland said recently.

They will be soon – if he follows regular-season form. It’s true, the Yankees have the best closer of all time, Mariano Rivera. Can’t argue with that guy. Can’t say you’re not still afraid of him.

But chance for chance, game for game – this year, not last year or last decade – Valverde has done a better job.

So who’s bigger?

Recapping the Central issue

And then there’s the karma factor. The Tigers have been on such a massive blitz, you want to check their clubhouse for tanks. As Leyland told the news media, “In all my managing, I’ve never had a run like we had the last part of the season.”

It’s as if one moment they were battling opponents, and the next moment, they were standing alone with their swords, and all they saw around them were fallen soldiers.

Who does what the Tigers did to their division in the first two weeks of September? Took three from the White Sox? Three from the Indians? Three from the Twins? Three more from the White Sox? Those weren’t series, they were sieges.

Twelve games. Twelve victories. And the season, as far as the AL Central was concerned, was pretty much over. The Tigers went on a victory cruise control and finished with 95 wins, playing strong and hard and with a purpose right to the finish.

The Yankees? Yes, they wound up two games better than the Tigers in the standings. But they’ve had the playoffs locked up for a stretch, and while they might say they were playing to fend off a challenge for home-field advantage, it wasn’t as pressing as what the Tigers faced in a neck-and-neck duel with the Texas Rangers.

In other words, the Tigers enter in fighting mode, no rust, no need for a gear-up. It’s the perfect attitude.

Who’s bigger?

A team’s time of destiny

Five years ago, the Tigers went into New York for the first round of the playoffs. Same record. 95-67. The Yankees were a prohibitive favorite. The Tigers, a wild-card entry, started Nate Robertson as their Game 1 pitcher and lost the opener, 8-4. There were people everywhere saying, “This will be over quick.”

It was. Three more games, and Tigers advanced, leaving the stunned Bronx Bombers to wonder what happened. Detroit got clutch hitting in Game 2 and a shutout performance for the ages by an aging Kenny Rogers in Game 3.

On such moments do series turn. I look at these 2011 Tigers, and I see guys who can, at any point, step up and be single-game heroes. I see Alex Avila, who seems to pull timely home runs out of his pocket. I see Jhonny Peralta, one of the more underappreciated players in this postseason. I see Doug Fister, who has been insane since coming to Detroit (8-1, a 1.79 ERA), being that second-day pitcher who surprises everyone. I see new faces like Joaquin Benoit and Delmon Young doing what they were acquired to do when it’s most needed.

I see a clubhouse in which players really believe in one another and a manger who knows exactly how high to turn the thermostat. The roster may not seem as star-studded as the Yankees’ to people living in Los Angeles, but it’s pretty darn impressive if you’ve been watching it all year.

There is no telling what will happen. Never is. But know this going in: These Tigers are not an underdog. Not on paper. Not in stats. Nobody on Detroit is some out-of-town hick looking to share a sandwich, and nobody needs a lecture on life in “the big leagues.”

Big opener. Big closer. Big man in the middle. Something special is about to happen in the Big Apple, but don’t be shocked if it’s wearing the out-of-town uniform.

Start spreading the news.

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