Hometown boy Mike Ilitch has his fingerprints all over downtown Detroit. The man who made millions upon millions as a pizza magnate and later real estate tycoon, has tried to transform the city in many ways, most visibly through sports.
It’s fitting that Ilitch, who owns both the Detroit Red Wings and Detroit Tigers, has a playoff baseball team in 2012 that’s built in the image of his great hockey clubs who won four Stanley Cup titles in 12 years starting in 1997.
With the still relatively new (and evolving) expanded playoff format in baseball, the Tigers are built like a hockey club geared for a Stanley Cup run. It’s not how you start the season or how many games you win or even where you finish in the standings, it’s about how healthy and balanced you are once the “second season” begins.
That “second season” is the MLB Playoffs with a wild card round and 10 teams out of 30 making the post-season dance. The Tigers are a fine example of a team that’s built to do damage in the round-by-round competition of the post-season.
Ask any Tigers fan (just start with me) how the 2012 season went, and you’ll get a worrisome look, a sweating brow, and a sheepish grin. “Well, we made it through,” they seem to want to say.
The Tigers were far from world beaters in 2012, though they were picked by many to run away with the AL Central crown. Instead, Miguel Cabrera won a different crown, and the Tigers eked their way into the playoffs by winning 8 of their final 10 in the regular season.
But in reality, the Tigers are a team built for the Stanley Cup… er, MLB Playoffs.
Their ace is the best pitcher in baseball, armed with a 101 MPH fastball and a curveball that makes grown men wet their jocks. He’s like the goalie that NHL teams covet for the Cup run – he gets hot and you ride him to a championship. Already, Verlander has shown that he’s locked in at the most important time of the year: over his last four starts of the regular season and his first start in the ALDS, the right-hander struck out 38 batters in just over 35 innings, while allowing a scant five earned runs.
We’ve seen in recent years that a team can ride the arm of their ace to the World Series. The 2008 Phillies (Cole Hamels), the 2009 Phillies (Cliff Lee), and the 2010 Giants (Tim Lincecum) all had lock-down starting pitchers who lugged them into the Fall Classic.
The Tigers have an even greater advantage: they have two (or possibly three) aces up their sleeve. Max Scherzer pitched like, well Justin Verlander during the second half of the season, and he finished second to his teammate in K’s. He’s #1A in this rotation, while Doug Fister, who allowed just one run in seven innings in his first playoff start, is #1B. All of these pitchers (and #4 starter Anibal Sanchez) have gotten hot at the right time.
Cabrera and Prince Fielder give the Tigers two of the most feared offensive players in the game. Cabrera is probably the best hitter in baseball, a consistent hitting machine who grinds up pitchers and uses them as fertilizer to produce .330/35 HR/100 RBI seasons annually. He won the Triple Crown, of course, which only cements his status as a certain Hall of Famer. He’s reached base in every post-season game he’s played in for Ilitch, 14 and counting through Tuesday’s Game Three of the ALDS. He practically dismantled the Texas Rangers last season in the ALCS when he clubbed three homers in six games, and would have done more but pitchers started to just walk him intentionally. With Prince standing in the on-deck circle behind him, Cabrera won’t see quite as many walks (intentional or not) this post-season.
With mega stars Verlander, Cabrera, and Fielder, the Tigers are built to smother opponents with overwhelming talent. Ilitch and Co. are banking that their stars will rise to the occasion and pummel the enemy in short five-game and seven-game series. Smart hitters like Cabrera can exploit weaknesses in opposing teams when they face the same pitchers for 6-7 straight days. Like a hockey club that deftly adjusts their lines in a grueling seven-game Stanley Cup battle, the Tigers have the ability to wear down the opposing team. With their stars and supporting cast healthy and churning come playoff time, it makes for the Perfect Storm for a Tigers championship run. It’s a strategy that works well on the ice, and now translates to the diamond as well.
No one knows this more than Ilitch, who saw some of his greatest teams fail to win the Stanley Cup. In 1996 his Red Wings set a record for wins and points in a season, but were bounced in the playoffs. Indeed, the first two times Ilitch’s hockey team hoisted the trophy, they were second-place teams in the regular season.
Increasingly, Major League Baseball is morphing itself into what the other three big-time pro sports have been for a long time – a free for all, wide open, any team can beat any other team on any given day operation. A league where close to, if not more than half of the teams make the playoffs, where seeding makes little difference, and where the hot hand is king. Just look at the St. Louis Cardinals of 2011 – a team that finished second but knocked off teams with much better records at every stage of the post-season. The Marlins have won two World Series without ever having finished in first place.
Yes, old school baseball fans, MLB is on track to keep adding more rounds of playoffs, more one-game wild cards, more inter-league play, more expansion teams, and more shifting of divisions in the future. It’s bound to happen, just like it continues to occur in the NFL, NHL, and NBA. A future awaits us where a team with a losing record makes the post-season (it’s already happened in the NFL and NHL). How you start and where you rank in the standings matters less and less. What matters most is what weapons you have that can inflict damage in the post-season, if your team is healthy, and if you have superstars who can shine on the big stage.
The Tigers may not win the World Series title in 2012, but if they do, it wouldn’t be inappropriate for Ilitch to insist that they skate it around the diamond at Comerica Park, raised triumphantly by each member of the team, one-by-one. Perhaps a fan of the Tigers this October should throw an octopus on the field?