Last night, my wife and I went to see the Detroit Tigers play their penultimate game of the season. The contest, against the Chicago White Sox at "The Cell," was pretty much what we expected — a chilly evening in a largely empty ballpark, featuring two teams struggling to stay out of the AL Central cellar and claim "We don't suck quite as badly as you do" bragging rights. And, true to form, an unimpressive Tigers lineup and an inept Tigers bullpen wasted another strong outing from Justin Verlander, thereby sealing the team's place in the division basement.
It's been a rough season for the Tigers and their fans, many of whom are outraged by the team's first sub-.500 finish since 2008. Winning four division titles in a row can warp your perspective like that, and make you forget that the Tigers only logged one post-season appearance from 1989 to 2010. I'll admit that I picked the Tigers to win the division again this year, but I'll also admit that it was a prediction borne out of sentimentality and wishful thinking (and my severe underestimation of the Kansas City Royals' ability to contend again this year) than anything approaching reality. After all, the 2014 Tigers barely made it into the post-season last year, and were eliminated with little more than the annoyed flick of a hand by the Baltimore Orioles in the ALDS; and even with the addition of Yoenis Cespedes, there was no way that the 2015 roster was better on paper than the 2014 edition, even before the injuries and age started kicking in. This was always going to be a far cry from the team that should have won it all in 2013.
Aside from the six straight wins they rattled off at the beginning of April, the Tigers were maddeningly inconsistent during the first half of the season, a team that never quite managed to fire on all cylinders despite being loaded with expensive parts. David Price didn't really got hot until June, and you could never be sure which Anibal Sanchez was going to show up for his starting assignments. Verlander, who didn't even make his first appearance until the middle of June, didn't start pitching like "Justin Verlander" until about a week before the team waved the white flag at the July trade deadline. With Max Scherzer gone, it was up to the undistinguished likes of Alfredo Simon (who wound up leading the team with 13 victories, despite posting a 5.05 ERA), Shane Green and Kyle Lobstein — and once things really got ugly in the second half, Matt Boyd, Buck Farmer and 38 year-old scrapheap artifact Randy Wolf — to patch the holes in what was once, not too long ago, the greatest rotation in baseball. And oy, that bullpen... But hey, here's some perspective for ya: Just think of how much worse the team's record would have been this year if Joe Nathan had actually stayed healthy, and Brad Ausmus had been forced by the guys upstairs to keep him in the closer's role...
The pitching staff's combined ERA (4.67 as of this morning) was the worst in the American League this year, which would have made it difficult for the Tigers to contend, even with a completely healthy offense. But the absence of Victor Martinez's bat — even when he was present in the lineup — was just too much to overcome, especially with nagging injuries cutting into Miguel Cabrera's power numbers. Much blame has been heaped upon Brad Ausmus for the Tigers' misfortunes this season; but while he hasn't exactly been the second coming of Sparky Anderson, I highly doubt that even ol' Spark would have been able to squeeze 80-plus victories out of this crew, especially given the team's glaring lack of depth.
Still, we love our Tigers, so we continued to watch them regularly this summer — at least until the process of moving to Chicago from Los Angeles in July mercifully distracted usfrom the garbage fire on the field, and from the painful deadline deals that sent Price and Cespedes to actual contenders in Toronto and New York. Since then, I've mostly just checked their box scores to see if J.D. Martinez had hit another home run, or if Miggy was still tops among the AL batting leaders. My wife and I did manage to catch the August 19 slugfest at Wrigley where the Tigers beat Jon Lester and the Cubs 15-8, and we rejoiced in Alfredo Simon's one-hitter the following night. After that, though, we've been too busy getting our life together in the Windy City to pay much attention to what the Tigers were up to — and frankly, that was probably for the best.
But when a friend offered us a free pair of tickets to last night's game on the South Side, we had to take him up on it, if only to celebrate the excellent years from Ian Kinsler and J.D. Martinez, cheer for personal favorites like Anthony Gose and Rajai Davis, bid a likely farewell to Alex Avila (who probably won't be back next year due to declining production and the emergence of James McCann as a more-than-capable catcher) and see Verlander and Cabrera in action one more time this season. JV, pitching with a competitive fire that apparently eliminated the need for a long-sleeve undershirt despite temps that hovered in the high 40s and felt much colder, struck out nine hitters in six innings while giving up only two runs. And Miggy (whom I snapped at the plate seconds before he blasted a two-run homer off of Erik Johnson) went 3-for-4 to finish the season with a .338 average and claim his fourth batting title in five years, which puts him squarely in Tony Gwynn/Wade Boggs/Rod Carew territory. It was really an honor to see his final game of the season in person.
And you know what? I'll take it. As a devoted Tigers fan since 1976, I've followed some egregiously shitty Tigers teams that gave me a whole lot less to cheer about than this one did. And while it's entirely possible that the Tigers have missed their World Series-winning window, I still feel profoundly grateful to have experienced that string of four division titles from 2011-2014, and the exciting post-season runs that followed three of them. Maybe this season is an aberration; maybe it's the beginning of another long dry spell. Either way, I'll proudly sport my 1970s Tigers road cap again next season.
So say goodnight, Tigers. Get some sleep, get healthy, make some smart off-season moves, and get ready to roar again in the spring. We'll see ya then.