World Series contender: Detroit Tigers

Tigers first baseman Prince Fielder (right) celebrates a home run against the White Sox with...

Tigers first baseman Prince Fielder (right) celebrates a home run against the White Sox with teammate Miguel Cabrera at U.S. Cellular Field in Chicago, Ill., Sept. 12, 2012. (JEFF HAYNES/Reuters)

KEN FIDLIN, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 12:42 AM ET

Given the pre-season opportunity to select the one team out of 30 in Major League Baseball with the very best chance to make it to the playoffs in 2012, it’s hard to imagine anyone overlooking the Detroit Tigers.

Coming off an AL Central Division title and an ALCS berth, there was a lot to like about Detroit’s chances. For starters, they had the AL MVP and Cy Young winner in Justin Verlander to anchor a strong starting rotation that included Max Scherzer, Doug Fister and Rick Porcello. They had also signed one of the most sought-after off-season free agents in slugger Prince Fielder to go with perennial MVP candidate Miguel Cabrera. On the downside, they had lost one of their best hitters, Victor Martinez, for the season with a knee injury.

More than that, they had only to be better than what seemed a mediocre AL Central field to get back to the playoffs. The Chicago White Sox had lost Mark Buehrle to free agency, traded away their closer Sergio Santos, as well as slugger Carlos Quentin and seemed saddled with unwanted contracts such as those of Adam Dunn and Alex Rios.

The Twins, the Royals and the Indians gave no indication of being in the same competitive realm as the Tigers.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the coronation.

The White Sox were far better than anyone expected they’d be and the Tigers, with all their star power, have been one of the most frustrating outfits in baseball. This was a team that came down the stretch with 20 wins in September of 2011 — including a string of 12 wins in a row — to sweep away the opposition.

In 2012, the Tigers have managed a couple of six-game win streaks, but have been unable to sustain any long periods of dominance, even though Verlander, Cabrera and Fielder have all had exceptional seasons.

Now they are facing a harsh reality. Tuesday, they began a crucial three-game series at home against Oakland, another surprising contender which has control of the No. 1 wild card spot in the American League. The Tigers started that series three games behind the White Sox. If they are to make the playoffs, the Tigers will likely have to do it as the Central Division champions because they are not at all close in the wild-card standings. That could change, however, if they are able to do some business against the A’s.

After they’re finished with the Athletics, the Tigers will have 13 games remaining, all of them against the Minnesota Twins and the Kansas City Royals, the AL Central’s two worst teams. So far this year, Detroit is 14-9 against those two teams, so there is hope.

A year ago, the Tigers were 45-36 on the road. This year they are 34-41 to this point. In 2011, they were 29-17 in one-run games, this year they are 17-26. Some of that difference rests with closer Jose Valverde, who was a perfect 49-for-49 in save opportunities in 2011. This year he is a more realistic 31 of 36 in saves. Likewise, setup man Joaquin Benoit has been somewhat less effective, with a 3.35 ERA as opposed to 2.95 a year ago.

Martinez’s absence is probably reflected in the fact that the Tigers have scored .38 fewer runs/game this year. That may also reflect the poor season that catcher Alex Avila has had this year, relative to 2011. Avila hit .295 with 19 HR and 82 RBI in 2011 and even got a couple of MVP mentions. This year, his batting average is 50 points lower and he has just eight homers and 43 RBI.

If you include the Tigers, there are five teams vying for two wild card spots, including the Orioles, Angels and Rays. The Tigers are at the bottom of that grouping, five games back of the Orioles, who own the No. 2 wild card spot right now.

This week, the Angels face a tough three-game series against the Rangers.

The Rays, meanwhile, might have the easiest task, with three against the disappointing Red Sox.

It’s not to say, of course, that the AL Central race is over. The White Sox are off to play the Royals, who have won 10 of the 15 games in the season series. Chicago also gets three more against the Angels and four against the Rays, while the Tigers are facing the dregs of the AL Central.

Hope still exists in Motown, to be sure, but there’s no denying this is a far, far different September picture facing the Tigers than anyone envisioned back in April.

MIGGY CABRERA FOR MVP

In his 10 years in the big leagues, Miguel Cabrera has averaged 32 home runs and 111 RBIs. He has a career .318 batting average and an OPS of .955, playing half his career in a pitcher-friendly ballpark in Detroit.

He has not yet won an MVP and even though his numbers are once again off-the-charts good in 2012, he’s up against the Legend of Mike Trout.

Tigers manager Jim Leyland told some Detroit reporters earlier this week if Cabrera doesn’t win the MVP “it would blow my mind.”

“In this case, I’m not being partial,” Leyland said. “Sometimes we are. And I think you should be if it’s your player; you’re going to stick up for him more than somebody else’s player first. But this time, I’m not even being partial towards Cabrera.

“In this case, I don’t have to lobby. It’s right there in front of everybody.”

Cabrera is tied with Josh Hamilton of the Texas Rangers for the league lead in RBIs (123). Cabrera has 38 home runs, four behind Hamilton. He also leads Trout .330 to .329 in batting average.

Trout leads the league with 116 runs scored and 45 stolen bases for the Los Angeles Angels. He has 27 home runs. Trout also has a big lead on Cabrera in WAR (wins above replacement), a modern stat that combines a shopping basket of offensive and defensive metrics into one number.

BIG RALLIES

It’s not over ‘til it’s over. How five recent comeback teams were doing on September 18.

2011 Tampa Bay Rays: Trailed Boston by two games but won the wild-card berth on the final at-bat of the regular season.

2011 St. Louis Cardinals: Trailed Atlanta in wild card race by 3.5 games. Won playoff berth in extra innings on final day, won World Series.

2010 San Francisco Giants: Were a half-game behind San Diego. Qualified for playoffs on last day, won World Series.

2009 Minnesota Twins: Trailed Tigers by three games. Forced a playoff on season’s final day, won Game 163 in 12 innings.

2007 Colorado Rockies: Three games out of wild card. Went on a 19-1 run that took them to the World Series, swept by Boston.


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