By: Jamie Samuelsen
Yesterday in this very space, I told Tiger fans to be calm. The Tigers were still in control of the series and still had an excellent chance to win. Just to refresh your memories, I argued the following.
1) The Tiger bats would wake up.
2) The Tigers would do better against a right-handed starter.
3) The Tigers had Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander as the ultimate safety valves.
Oddly, all of those things happened last night and the Tigers still found a way to lose to the A’s 4-3 to force tonight’s Game 5. And when I say “they” I of course mean Jose Valverde. And even though my post yesterday was sunny and optimistic, I still carried the same fears that all of you had about the Tigers bullpen. I figured that it would cost them at least one game in these playoffs. I just didn’t think it would be so stunning, so seismic and so colossal. But it was.
And so here we are, heading into one of the biggest games in the history of this great franchise. Think about the possible outcomes.
The Tigers win – they advance to the ALCS. They can still win the elusive World Series title. Jim Leyland likely returns. GM Dave Dombrowski almost assuredly returns. And assuming he pitches well, Justin Verlander takes his rightful place as the pre-eminent big game pitcher of this era and perhaps the greatest pitcher in Detroit Tigers history.
Tigers lose? Leyland is gone. Sorry, but you can’t bring him back after all the turmoil this season and after a collapse like this. It’s not his fault that Valverde imploded last night. But the Tigers will have taken a step back after advancing to the ALCS last year, and the time for a change will be here. Dombrowski might not be safe either. Tigers owner Mike Ilitch might look at the payroll of the team that knocked his team out, then look at his payroll and then have a question or two for his GM.
And then there’s Verlander. If the Tigers ace were a U.S. President, his approval rating among his constituents would be about 95%. Most fans realize his true greatness and appreciate that perfection is rather hard to find in a starting pitcher. But there are some fans that wonder about his average numbers in the postseason (4-3, 4.96 ERA). And they wonder about his tendency to over-pitch in the first inning of big games in big moments. If for some reason that happens tonight, and the A’s are able to square up some Verlander fastballs in the first inning, some Tiger fans will turn on their ace in a big way.
I think that’s unfair. I think his tepid postseason numbers are more a product of bad weather in 2011 and rookie inexperience in 2006. But baseball is a numbers game and the critics will always have the numbers. And I fully understand that this is only a small slice of fans. Most believe in Verlander and know that he represents the Tigers best chance to get to the World Series either this year or beyond.
But a three game losing streak to end the season in the ALDS will lead to ugly reactions. And Verlander might not be able to avoid the bulls eye. (There’s also the extremely good chance that Verlander will pitch a good game, and the Tiger bats will stay quiet against Jarrod Parker and company. Memo to Miguel Cabrera – NL MVP favorite Buster Posey of the Giants hit a grand slam in today’s Game 5 against the Reds. Might want to think about duplicating that.)
It’s also a big night for Tigers pitching coach Jeff Jones who better spend every moment between now and the first pitch reminding Verlander that he’s more than a fastball pitcher. Don’t try to throw 115 in the first. Mix you pitches. You might even hear Jim Price say that Verlander needs to use his entire arsenal in the first inning. And he’d be right. We’ll know early on what kind of JV we’re going to get. If those first few pitches are into triple digits, we could see trouble.
Playoff baseball was never supposed to be easy. (I think I wrote that yesterday.) It IS supposed to be fun (which sounds preposterous after last night). The A’s do have a funky, fun thing going here which is awfully scary. But the Tigers have Verlander. And given the choice, I’d always take what the Tigers have. How he performs tonight could very well dictate the next five or ten years for this franchise. Think that’s too dramatic? Just watch and see.