By Will Burchfield
First came the shouts, loud and exuberant, ringing out of the visitor’s clubhouse. Then came the musty smell of beer and champagne, drifting down the tunnel and dampening the air. It seemed to settle outside the Tigers’ clubhouse, waiting for the players to emerge. They trickled out slowly, like the last drops from a faucet, and then everything must have hit them at once: the sounds, the scent and the simple truth that the Indians own them.
Cleveland beat Detroit for the 14th time in 16 games on Monday night at Comerica Park, clinching its first A.L. Central Division title since 2007.
“It’s tough. Just watching them out there celebrate, I remember thinking in my head, ‘This should be us. We had the team to do it,’” said J.D. Martinez. “Not desecrating them at all, because they’ve had an amazing season, but it could have been us.”
It could have, had the Tigers been remotely competitive against the Indians this season. Instead, they were flat-out incapable. Consider this: Detroit is 81-59 this year against teams other than Cleveland, Cleveland 77-63 against teams other than Detroit. That’s a four-game edge in the Tigers’ favor. Yet the Tribe just locked up the A.L. Central with a week to spare.
“It’s just frustrating because if you take away that head to head, there’s a different team celebrating,” said James McCann. “But that’s not the case. You gotta tip your cap, I guess. That’s all you really can do.”
This is beyond the realm of flukiness. It transcends the randomness of the game. Baseball is a freaky sport, but freakiness can’t account for the Indians taking 14 out of 16 games from an otherwise terrific ball club.
“I don’t know if it’s matchups, I don’t know if its luck, I don’t know if its happenstance, I couldn’t tell you,” said Brad Ausmus. “But the truth is they’ve outplayed us, they’ve outhit us, they’ve out-defended us. It’s simple.”
It started back in April, when the Indians swept a three-game series at Comerica Park, and it crested on Monday night, when they celebrated on a field where they haven’t lost all year. Toward the end of the game, with the crowd growing thinner every pitch, a quiet, mostly-empty ballpark was seized by the fans from out of state. Dressed in red and gray, they congregated behind Cleveland’s dugout and cheered in delight when their team recorded the final out.
The Indians rushed onto the field and converged between second and third base in a jumping, joyous huddle. Some Tigers chose to take it in.
“It’s definitely tough just sitting there watching it, especially when it’s right in front of you,” said Martinez.
“Watch them celebrate? I don’t care about that,” Ian Kinsler scoffed.
But man for man, they all agreed it’s time to turn the page.
“You got to. You don’t have a choice. As much as it pains you to see that, we still got a playoff race to fight for,” McCann said. “We gotta put it behind us and come out tomorrow and these next six games and find a way to get it done.”
McCann’s right, of course. Though the Tigers lost any chance at winning the division on Monday night, they’re still in contention for the second wild card. They trail the Baltimore Orioles by two games, with six games to play. With a sudden hot streak and a little help, the Tigers just may sneak their way into the playoffs.
“You never know, it’s a crazy game,” said Martinez.
“It’s certainly not unheard of,” said Ausmus.
“We’re still going to show up to the ballpark knowing that, hey, this is a game that we’re going to win,” said McCann.
All of it valid. All of it valiant. And all of it likely in vain. Because that red-feathered, blue-eyed, grinning elephant in the room is that three of the Tigers’ six remaining games come against you-know-who.
“We’ve gotta beat ‘em,” Martinez said. “They’ve just played us extremely well all year.”
Martinez sounded defiant, but he looked defeated. He shook his head and sighed as he tried to come up with answers. For the Tigers, there don’t seem to be any left. They’re like a team with a terminal sickness: courageous, but ultimately doomed.
“There’s nothing you can do,” said Kinsler. “You play hard, you prepare, you get ready to play and hopefully it turns around in one particular day and hopefully that day’s tomorrow.”
Just how rare is it to see one team so thoroughly dominate another over the course of a season?
“I don’t remember ever going through something like this,” said Ausmus, who has spent over 20 years in the MLB as both a player and a manger.
That it’s happened to the Tigers, at the hands of the Indians, is more confounding still. In the three seasons preceding this one, Detroit held a 37-19 edge over Cleveland. But the Indians have grown up, while the Tigers have grown old.
“It’s crazy because that was a team that we used to beat up on pretty much,” Martinez said. “I think they’re kind of saying, ‘You know what, it’s our turn. We’re gonna put it to you guys.’”
The Tigers will get back in the ring on Tuesday. They haven’t a choice.
“We might be down, but we’re not out,” Martinez said.
But it was hard to feel that way in the home team’s clubhouse on Monday night, where things were very quiet and very dry. The goggles that so many Tigers have kept in their lockers since the start of the season, seeming motivation for a bubbly celebration, felt out of place on this occasion.
But the t-shirt worn by McCann couldn’t have been more fitting. In white lettering, just above Detroit’s orange English ‘D,’ the team’s stretch-run slogan was slapped across his chest: “Finish Empty.”
Against the Indians, the Tigers did exactly that.