Thursday, September 27, 2007

A bittersweet ending for Tigers


This wasn't how it was supposed to end, I thought...

I stood in the front row of the right field bleachers, my sky blue sweatshirt drenched, my scorecard tucked inside my undershirt so as to stay dry.

The stands surrounding me were empty. So was the field, except for the ominous white tarp covering the infield.

It was only the top of the sixth inning, but yet I had the feeling that it was the bottom of the ninth. A dose of reality, really.

And then the home plate umpire waved his arms, signaling "Game Over." I glanced at the scoreboard and, sure enough, it was over.

The Yankees, 1,199 miles away in St. Petersburg, Fla., had defeated Tampa Bay 12-4, officially eliminating the Tigers from the playoffs. Even though the rain had subsided once again, game officials no longer saw a reason to continue Detroit's final home game. Five innings were in the books. It was official — a shortened 9-4 Tigers victory over Minnesota.

Good night, folks.

At 10:40 p.m. EST many things came to an abrupt halt:
— The Tigers' home schedule.
— The Tigers' playoff chances.
— The rain showers that had engulfed the city for much of the night.

Comerica Park would not see baseball again until the absurdly early March 31, 2008, opener against the Blue Jays (good luck getting that game in).

In a way, the final home game of the season was emblematic of the Tigers season. There were many thrills — highlighted by a six-run fourth inning after the first rain delay. But, ultimately, it ended too early.

Many die-hard fans stuck around until the bitter end, wet and cold, yet itching for a few more innings of Tigers baseball. After all, this season felt incomplete.

Of course, perspective is needed when critiquing the 2007 Tigers. Close to nobody, I'm sure, would have said four years ago that this kind of season — being in contention for a playoff spot until the final week — would be disappointing four years down the line.

But, alas, those in and around the metropolitan area were spoiled by 2006. A season that was too perfect to be true. All the players coming together to accomplish the improbable. Just about everyone staying healthy. And so the story goes...

Repeating the improbable — even if it is no longer improbable — is the challenge. Living up to the all-of-a-sudden huge expectations is a burden that can take its toll.

These Tigers felt it. Pitchers couldn't stay healthy or hid their injury (Jeremy Bonderman). The key newcomer to the lineup (Gary Sheffield) felt the aches and pains of age and struggled, with a bad shoulder, down the all-important stretch run.

The amazing pitching the Tigers got last season didn't repeat itself. Every starter was inconsistent, going through stretches where they simply could not locate their pitches. The bullpen was solid for the most part, yet it still allowed the Tigers to blow several games which looked like sure victories. Turn those "Ls" into "Ws" and the Yanks aren't celebrating yet.

The bottom of the lineup didn't have the punch of a year ago. Craig Monroe wasn't the same player, and ended up being dealt away. Questions, no doubt, will surround Brandon Inge this off-season. He didn't perform well at the plate at any point in '07.

But the most notable thing this team lacked was the ability to pull off the remarkable when it was unexpected — the theme of a year ago. Sure, there were still a few comebacks (with the 5-4 win over the Blue Jays topping the list). But for the most part, when the opposition built a lead late in a game, the Tigers weren't coming back.

There was a lack of walk-offs. Too many strikeouts, popouts and double plays. And even when the Tigers grabbed a late-inning lead, too often — it seemed — the bullpen couldn't hold it.

The magic was gone... sent southeast, one would have to hypothesize, to Cleveland, where the Indians had it all season long. The first sign came in May, when Tigers closer Todd Jones blew an 11-7 ninth-inning lead in a 12-11 loss. The final indication came in last week's three-game sweep for Cleveland, which came back in every game to stun the Tigers.

Yet Detroit, contrary to the opinion of most of the media, wasn't out of the wild card race after the sweep. If not for an uninspiring loss to Kansas City last Saturday, a 2-0 loss to Minnesota Monday night — which was hard to believe, considering Detroit had it best lineup against the mediocre Carlos Silva — and a pair of Yankees' victories over Toronto this past weekend due to the Blue Jays' poor fielding and Yankees' late-inning heroics, the Tigers would still be very much alive heading into their final series in Chicago.

Instead they're done — with many questions lingering heading into the off-season, such as whether Sheffield will return, or Kenny Rogers will be back, or whether Detroit will pick up Ivan Rodriguez's $13-million option.

These are important questions, yet compared to the Qs of four years ago — "What can we do to win 80 games?" — they are minuscule.

As hard as it was for Tigers fans to see their favorite players for the final time in 2007 Wednesday night — especially for a mere five and a third innings — as one postgame show caller educated the listeners on, there are only 142 days (now 141) until pitchers and catchers report to spring training.

I'm sure that as was the case last spring, optimism will be in the air come that calender-marked day.

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