Sweaty Men Endeavors

The sports blog with the slightly gay name

Monday, May 15, 2006

Still waiting for a sign?

Yes, the Pistons are in the playoffs, with eyes set on another NBA championship. LeBron had a triple-double in Saturday's Game 3, the kind of performance - making his teammates better for three quarters, then "taking over" in the fourth - that forges superstars. Rasheed Wallace "Guaransheed" a five-game series victory over the Cavaliers. And it looks like we'll have a Detroit-Miami rematch in the Eastern Conference Finals.

But it's the other Detroit team that was in Cleveland this weekend that really caught my attention.

A three-game sweep for the Tigers at Jacobs Field?

That ballpark didn't even exist the last time the Tigers swept the Indians in Cleveland. The Tribe was still playing in "the mistake on the lake." The baseball team was better in the movies than they were on the field.

Some Tigers fans are enjoying the ride, basking in the enjoyment of a baseball team that's winning some games, that looks like it knows what it's doing on the diamond. But I get the feeling that plenty of others still think it's too early in the season to get excited. They're anticipating the eight-game losing streak that brings the Tigers back down to Earth. As much as they might want to, they still can't quite embrace this team. They need a sign that these Detroit Tigers are "for real."

For me, sweeping Cleveland on the road is that sign. The Indians were expected to place first or second in the AL Central division. And, of course, they still might. But the Tigers are making such a finish look pretty difficult right now. The pitching - especially Jeremy Bonderman on Saturday - was outstanding, allowing Detroit to win three close games. They kept Travis Hafner in check. They're 4-2 so far this season against the Tribe.

And on May 15, the Tigers are a half-game out of first place. (If the Tigers were in any other division right now, as the Daily Fungo points out, they'd be looking down at everyone else.)

Okay, the Indians were swept by the Royals in Kansas City last week. So they're clearly struggling. Maybe this feat isn't quite as impressive as it first appears.

And the Tigers have won a lot of close games so far, which could easily turn around later in the season. On Friday, Mike Valenti of the "Sports Inferno" on Detroit's WXYT-AM pointed out that the Washington Nationals followed the same pattern in the first half of last season. At the All-Star break, the Nats were in first place. But they were walking a tightrope, and started losing those close games. Eventually, they fell to a .500 record and a fifth-place finish.

Are the Tigers this year's Nationals? What if the lineup goes into a protracted slump, and isn't saved by the long ball? What if the starting pitching starts to falter? What if opponents catch up to the bullpen in late innings? What if the young players, like Curtis Granderson and Justin Verlander, are overcome by the grind of a full major-league season?

But what if the lineup can play even better, and score more runs? Detroit hasn't had full use of a healthy Dmitri Young and Placido Polanco yet. And what if the pitching rotation can continue to be this good? Maybe Kenny Rogers' wisdom has had that kind of effect on Mike Maroth and Nate Robertson. Maybe Bonderman finally found his slider for good. And even if Todd Jones eventually falters in the bullpen, might the Tigers have enough depth to compensate? (Such a question could also be asked of the rotation, by the way, with Jason Grilli and Roman Colon waiting for their chances.)

Okay, those questions can't be answered for certain until the season plays itself out. So I understand that some trepidation is justified. But the Tigers keep coming up with moments that make you wonder.

Look at what happened late in yesterday's game: In the 8th, Jamie Walker couldn't get Travis Hafner out when he needed to, but Joel Zumaya came in for a big strikeout and eventually preserved a one-run lead. And in the 9th, Vance Wilson fielded Grady Sizemore's bunt, and threw what looked like a sure error into the dirt near second base. Except Carlos Guillen did his best Plastic Man routine, stretching to catch the ball on the hop and get the out.

Lucky? Maybe. On another day, those plays could've gone the other way. But they haven't been.

(Photo by Robin Buckson/ Detroit News)

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4 Comments:

  • At May 15, 2006 11:29 AM, Blogger Mike said…

    Ian,

    I agree that the weekend sweep in Cleveland is a sign that the Tigers are a solid team that will hang around this year.

    People can dismiss the sweep as a result of Cleveland's recent slide but here's where I think this team is different from last year's: in the past the Tigers would have been the perfect tonic for a team in a slump. They'd see Detroit on the schedule and figure that the key ingredient had arrived.

    In year's past, the Tigers couldn't win games they were supposed to (i.e., Kansas City, Tampa Bay, etc.). Times have change, methinks. For the better

    Keep up the good work.

    Mike

     
  • At May 15, 2006 1:13 PM, Anonymous Evan said…

    Even if the Tigers don't end up being in the playoffs, where they're certainly headed at the pace they're on now, they're clearly 100 times better than they've been in ages. That alone is worth celebrating.

    As for sustainability...

    I see no reason we can't keep close to this pace all year. The homers aren't all coming from one guy. First Shelton was hot. Then Monroe hit 'em in a bunch. Then Maggs when on a 5 game homer streak. It's not just one guy holding it up. It's all 9 starters...and on yeah, most of the bench players too. When you're that deep, it doesn't matter anymore. Yeah, you might hit a slump, but these guys are too good through the entire line-up to be knocked down for too long by a little hitting slump.

    Similarly, the starting pitching doesn't seem likely to falter too much. All the guys seem to be pitching rather than throwing. Even Verlander, who's a ROOKIE, pitched his way to victory when his best stuff wasn't there. That's maturity and swagger that doesn't go away when your arm is a little tired. It's the kind of thing that carries you all the time -- that makes you confident every time you play (any sport, really). They've all got that now. It's probably got a lot to do with Rogers, but I think the coaching staff has a lot to do with it as well. These guys are all chiseled, work hard/play hard sort of guys, and man, it shows. Everyone on the team looks like they're having fun...and will beat the piss out of you at the same time.

    The only thing that seems likely to derail these guys is a bunch of big injuries. Everyone seems healthy, but you never know. I'm hoping it doesn't happen, obviously, but that could be problematic.

    I'm looking forward to the off-season, though. One more big bat and a little more growth from Shelton, Granderson, Zumaya, Tata, Verlander, and Bonderman...whew. We'll be a damn good team.

     
  • At May 15, 2006 3:27 PM, Blogger the sports dude said…

    Look, there is nothing wrong with being excited about the now but being afraid of the next couple months. If the Tigers survive June and July and are anywhere near either first of the Wild Card late July-early August this town will catch on and truly go nuts. But I can understand why they are apprehensive at this point and I do not blame them.

    I also checked all the standings at lunch and was totally thrown back that in every other division in baseball they would be alone in first. Is this the coming Armageddon that everyone has been speaking of?

     
  • At May 15, 2006 6:41 PM, Blogger Sam said…

    Tigers! Tigers! Tigers! Tigers! Tigers! Tigerrrrrrs!

    *passes out*

     

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