Wednesday, April 2, 2008

2008 Detroit Tigers preview — every game counts


For any die-hard Tigers fan, Monday afternoon had to feel like a painful repeat of the entire 2007 season.

An early lead.

A blown lead.

Missed opportunities. Runners left on base.

And, finally, an "L" in a game that should have been a "W" against an inferior team.

Yes, yes, it was only one game. There remain 161 left to play, including the one that just began inside the confines of Comerica Park. And, yes, the Tigers have arguably the scariest lineup in all of the majors.

But as silly as this sounds, there isn't much room for error for these Tigers. If they were in the American League West, I'd feel differently, but Detroit is in the A.L. Central and will have to battle those pesky Indians the entire season to win the division.

As for claiming the wild card bid to the playoffs, let's just say the Tigers shouldn't bet on it. Any time you have to outperform the Yankees or Red Sox to get into October, you're battling the odds.

So the point of the past eight paragraphs is this — don't start ordering your playoff tickets just yet.

However, it's sunny here in Durham, so let's talk about all the positive these Tigers have going for them.

— Anytime All-Star Miguel Cabrera bats fifth in your lineup, you know you're stocked with hitters.

— Cabrera looks to be in tip-top shape and already has a home run in a Tigers uniform.

— Don't expect Magglio Ordonez to slack off after his stellar '07 season, especially being sandwiched between Gary Sheffield and Cabrera in the lineup.

— Did I mention that once Curtis Granderson returns from injury, he and Placido Polanco will anchor Detroit's lineup.

— And the starting rotation is strong from top to bottom, barring injures/Kenny Rogers realizing he's too old to be good/Dontrelle Willis having another poor season.

Look, there's a reason that tickets sold so quickly this past winter. Tigers fans have a lot to look forward to. Their team is like the Phillies with good pitching, and the Phillies made the postseason a year ago (albeit with a lot of help from the choking Mets).

But the difference between this team winning the Central and storming into October and falling just short of the postseason for a season consecutive year will be the close games.

I remember sitting in the rain last September at the Tigers' final home game, wondering, "What if?"

"What if Todd Jones hadn't blown a five-run lead against the Indians in May?"

That was only one of the instances that I thought of. Unlike the magical 2006 Tigers, the '07 Tigers blew many leads, didn't win enough of the close games. Usually, when a team loses a game in May, you think, "Who cares! It's May. I don't even start paying attention to baseball until July!"

The truth, however, is that every game matters. In fact, if Detroit ends up a game back of the Indians, I might think all the way back to March 31 and the season-opener, when a 3-0 lead became a deficit in the late innings and lead-off doubles didn't translate into runs.

We all know the Tigers have great power throughout their lineup, but can they get the runner from second to third with less than two out? Can they score the runner from third with a sacrifice fly or even groundball to the middle infielders? Those will be big indicators of success this season — not how many long bombs Detroit hits.

Another huge key will be the bullpen. Last season was a nightmare, and it wasn't Jones' fault. As much as Jones scares fans with his knack for making things interesting in the ninth inning, he was Detroit's most reliable reliever a year ago.

"Reliable" does not describe the work of his 'pen mates. That can't be the case this season, but things will be difficult with Joel Zumaya again sidelined for a good chunk of time due to a fluke injury. Fernando Rodney, Detroit's other setup man, began the season on the disabled list. That puts a lot of pressure on the likes of Jason Grilli and Bobby Seay to perform well early in the season.

It also places a burden on Detroit's starters to work later into games and on the lineup to score a lot of runs so that one- and two-run leads become larger advantages late in games.

But it's the nature of baseball that regardless of who Detroit plays, it will face its share of tight games. Seay, Grilli and the rest of the 'pen will be trusted to protect one-run margins in the seventh and eighth innings.

And Tigers fans will hold their breath.

Hey, that's what comes with a winning culture. Prior to the '06 season, all Detroit followers wanted was a .500 season. Now, following a World Series berth and the acquisition of several big-name players, expectations are very heavy in the "D."

The economy — as far as I know from hearing folks back in Michigan — is atrocious. The snow won't stop falling. As usual, there's constant cloud cover. And, no, the Lions will miss the playoffs again.

Which means that once the Pistons and Red Wings complete their annual playoff visits, the sole focus of Michigan sports fans will be on the Tigers. There will be no shortage of pressure on Jim Leyland and his boys.

And games like the one on Opening Day will be unacceptable in what figures to be a heated division race.


Sportsattitude said...

After four games, it looks like the Tigers spent more of the pre-season reading their press than pressing forward with proper preparations for the '08 campaign. They've lost every which way so far. If Jim Leyland is still smoking he must be a three-pack a day man by now.

Jake Lloyd said...

Ditto everything you said. If they end up missing the playoffs by a game or two, they can look back to this horrid start against mediocre teams.