Tigers Can Slug With Yanks

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The New York Sun

On June 20, 1988, Billy Martin’s Yankees visited Sparky Anderson’s Detroit Tigers. The Yankees were leading the Tigers in the division race by half a game. They were swept, the series climaxing on the second night when the Yankees took a 6–1 lead into the bottom of the ninth. Reliever Neil Allen allowed the first two Tigers to reach base. Martin went to closer Dave Righetti. Rags, as he was called, allowed a single, which loaded the bases. After getting two outs, he suddenly lost his control, forcing in two runs with walks and making the score 6–3. With the great Alan Trammell coming to the plate, Martin called for Cecilio Guante. Moments later the game was over — Trammell took Guante deep for a walk-off grand slam.

The sweep dropped the Yankees 2.5 games behind the Tigers. Martin was fired. The team never recovered. It would be six years before the Yankees were again serious competitors. The Tigers, defending AL East champions, would finish one game out that pre-wildcard season. It would be 18 years before they were again as good. Now, for the first time since that series ended Martin’s career (and, for all purposes, his life), the Yankees and Tigers meet again in meaningful battle.

The Tigers’ turnaround is the story of the 2006 season. Last season they went 71–91. It was the 12th consecutive season they had posted a losing record, and yet the campaign was a victory because they didn’t lose 100, something they had done twice in the previous three years. As an organization, the Tigers had been unable to develop pitching. Tigers hurlers ran the gamut from Felipe Lira to Jose Lima, with only the occasional good start by a Jeff Weaver or Justin Thompson in between.

That finally changed this year. The Tigers led the majors in earned run average, an impressive accomplishment given that they play in the DH league. Detroit had largely been unable to draft and develop pitching going back to the late 1970s. Now they are driven almost entirely by homegrown hurlers. Only three Tigers pitchers are older than 30. Game 1 starter Nate Robertson is 28; Game 2 starter Justin Verlander is 23 and a rookie; if Game 4 is necessary, the starter will be Jeremy Bonderman, 23. The bullpen’s secret weapon, the nigh-unhittable Joel Zumaya, is just 21.

The asset that made the Tigers’ emergence possible may be their great weakness in the playoffs. While the value of experience can be overrated, these pitchers face a great burden in having to perform before more than 50,000 Yankee Stadium partisans. Even Rogers, veteran that he is, shrinks from the October spotlight, as his career post-season ERA of 8.85 attests.

Still, it would be wrong to expect these pitchers, as talented as they are, to simply fall apart. Detroit has an advantage in that two of its first three starters (Robertson and Rogers) are left-handed, something that may give the Yankees some trouble. While New York’s overall numbers against southpaws are strong, some of the Yankees’ key hitters, including Bobby Abreu, Robinson Cano, and Jorge Posada, had their power almost completely shut down by lefties. Righthanders Derek Jeter (who hit .390 against southpaws) and Alex Rodriguez will have to spark the offense.

Knocking Detroit’s starters out of the game is only half the battle. The Tigers have a strong bullpen.It’s their one clear advantage over the Yankees, where the bridge to Mariano Rivera is cratered with potholes. Tigers lefties Wil Ledezma and Jamie Walker will give New York’s lefties trouble, while Zumaya should make it very difficult for the Yankees to kick off one of their patented seventh-inning rallies.

Detroit’s offense disdains the walk, something that plays into the hands of New York’s control-oriented staff. However, they have as much raw power as the Yankees, which is more apparent on the road than in their unforgiving home park. The Tigers’ hitters don’t have the same all-around batting ability that the Yankees do, but most of them can hit the ball out of the park.

More than anything else, the key to winning for the Yankees will be for them not to forsake their offensive game plan. The infamous Red Sox-Yankees 2004 ALCS turned when New York lost its selectivity, becoming over-aggressive at the plate. The Yankees took the thirdmost walks in baseball this year and led the majors in on-base percentage by a wide margin. If they maintain their approach they will put constant pressure on their youthful opponents. If the Yankees are as impatient as the Tigers, they’ll kick away their main advantage.

Mr. Goldman writes the Pinstriped Bible for www.yesnetwork.com and is the author of “Forging Genius,” a biography of Casey Stengel.

The New York Sun

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