Thursday, July 19, 2007

Thursday, 7/19/07's main point: For two days, Tigers look like last year's version


I'm going to try to finish this column quickly, because in a matter of hours, it could be B.S.

So let me get straight to the point: The Detroit Tigers looked like last year's version — the World Series edition — the past two games. In 1-0 and 3-2 wins over the Twins in the tricky Metrodome, the high-scoring, you-never-know-with-the-'pen Tigers did what they accomplished in '06.

Two phrases...

Timely hitting.


Great pitching.

And by "great pitching" I'm not just referring to the Tigers' starting rotation, which we've known is arguably the best in the majors since the return of Kenny Rogers. No, I'm including that patched up bullpen, which finally seems to be coming into form, despite the continued absence of Joel Zumaya and Fernando Rodney.

Last season the Tigers weren't nearly as explosive offensively as they are this time around. They didn't have a hitter leading the majors in batting average and doubles and tied for second in RBIs (Magglio Ordonez), a hitter leading the majors in triples by a ginormous margin (Curtis Granderson) and a player second in runs (Gary Sheffield).

They were a good hitting team, but not a great one. They got the big hits when they needed them.

Well, the Tigers went back in time Tuesday and Wednesday night. They managed just 11 hits between the two games, but just about every one of them counted. Ordonez had the big RBI single in Tuesday's shutout. Wednesday night, Ryan Raburn doubled, Placido Polanco singled, and Ordonez brought them home with a double in the fourth inning.

Two innings later, Ordonez homered off Twins' ace Johan Santana, giving the Tigers the eventual winning run. So, basically, Maggs owned the night, but it should be mentioned that four of Detroit's six hits accounted for their runs. It is extremely important to take advantage of every opportunity you get against a pitcher like Santana, and that's exactly what the Tigers did on Wednesday.

At least with their bats.

I was more impressed with their pitching. That's what is going to keep them playing deep into October again. Especially the 'pen.

A year ago, the formula was pretty simple. The starter would go six or seven innings. If he went six, maybe Jamie Walker (now an Oriole) would step in for an inning. Then Zumaya or Rodney would take the eighth, and Todd Jones (I just call him Jonesy) would finish pitch the ninth. On Jones' off nights, Rodney would fill in. It was pretty darn simple. And, with the exception of Jonesy's scary outings (put two guys on with nobody out before retiring three straight), it was pretty automatic and quick.

This season has been the antithesis of '06's well-oiled routine. From night to night, we've been left to guess who will pitch prior to Jonesy. Guys have been called up. Then sent back down. To the DL and back. OK, no more dizziness.

But then came Tuesday... and Wednesday. It wasn't pretty. It certainly wasn't quick. But they got it done.

On Tuesday Macay McBride and Jonesy didn't allow a hit in two innings of work. On Wednesday, there was a bit more sweating, as four relievers were needed to survive the three innings leading up to Jonesy's one-hit ninth inning, which began with a Twins' base hit but then really lost its luster.

The previous three innings must have had Jim Leyland smoking inexorably. After allowing a run in the sixth, Jason Grilli stranded a runner at third to preserve a 3-2 lead. In the seventh, Chad Durbin survived a one-out, bases-loaded jam. In the eighth, Durbin and McBride stranded speedster Luis Castillo.


Again, the 'pen's work was as pretty and clean as a grafittied telephone pole, but it got the job done — giving it something in common with last year's 'pen. It's pretty clear that once Zumaya and Rodney return, at least one of the current 'pen's members — most like Grilli — will be sent down. There will simply be too much congestion, not enough relaxing space for the big guys like Zumaya and Jonesy.

But maybe until then — emphasis on maybe — Leyland has nothing to worry about.

The Tigers are hitting when they need to.

They're getting stellar starting pitching.

And their bullpen is getting its collective act together.

Which isn't too bad for a team with the best record in baseball.

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