DETROIT -- After their sweep of the Yankees on Thursday night, thousands of Tigers fans took to the streets to revive an old Motown hit by Martha and the Vandellas. The baseball team, not to be outdone or out-danced, swayed in a clubhouse hosed down with champagne, and they didn’t need any music.
These are fun times in the gritty city, now home to the 2012 American League champions, but don’t let Thursday night’s celebration fool you. All it takes is one look at the Tigers and what they’re bringing to the Fall Classic to know they’re serious.
“This team,” said Prince Fielder, “is totally ready for what’s coming next.”
Pitching? Suddenly, there’s plenty of that. Justin Verlander has heat and can’t be beat -- not yet in the postseason anyway, where his ERA looks like Alex Rodriguez’s batting average. But it doesn’t end with the ace. Max Scherzer was in a Verlander zone in Game 4, when he shut down and sent home the Yankees. As for the pen, we see a new development, as the Tigers are now having a (Phil) Coke and a smile come the ninth inning.
Hitting? The Tigers released some pent-up offensive frustration Thursday by clubbing four homers, two against Yankee ace CC Sabathia, one by Mr. Triple Crown -- you knew Miguel Cabrera would do it eventually. The MVP of the ALCS, however, was Delmon Young, who constantly came up with hits that either finished a rally or started one.
Managing? Jim Leyland is going to his third World Series and trying to win with his second team. You don’t get 21 years on a big-league bench by being a fool. There isn’t anything in baseball Leyland hasn’t seen, and you know he’ll be ready for the upcoming series.
But here’s what makes Detroit and the Tigers suspect it could be 1984 all over again: They’re heating up. They’re rolling on. They’re spinning toward something special, a bit surprising because a month ago they were almost left behind. As you know, the so-called best team doesn’t always win the championship. The hottest team does, the one with the gleam and the shine, the team riding downhill without a brake pedal.
Doesn’t that look like the Tigers right now?
All they lacked in the ALCS was suspense, which of course is a good thing. Other than a brief scare in Game 1, the Tigers were never seriously challenged by the Yankees, who now plunge into an offseason of injuries and A-Rod issues. Detroit pitching was simply too much, and when that happens, the result is what you saw: a four-games-and-out blitzing that completely changed the Tigers’ October outlook. Is there any reason not to expect something similar in the next round from a rotation that had the third-best ERA in the AL?
In 27 1/3 playoff innings, Tigers starters allowed two earned runs. Collectively, they couldn’t be more dominant right now, more in control. The Yankees have the strikeout burns to show for it. It was Verlander and Scherzer and Doug Fister and Anibel Sanchez, and to be honest, the way things went, the Tigers probably didn’t even need Verlander.
“We’re going to have to talk about those two earned runs,” grumbled Leyland. With a smile.
And Verlander. Wow. Just when you think he can’t get any more intimidating, he goes into the World Series having pitched 24 1/3 innings in three playoff games, with 25 strikeouts and two earned runs and an 0.74 ERA. He was massive in Game 5 against the A’s, shutting them down and out before waxing the Yankees. If the Series goes seven games he’ll have to be beaten three times. Well, he’s lost only three times in his last 14 games.
The big -- and really the only -- question is, what to make of Jose Valverde. The regular closer, after his Game 1 meltdown, hasn’t been heard from since. Leyland turned to Coke, who saved two games.
“Nobody knew it would play out this way,” Leyland said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen from this point on. It was a spontaneous thing, we put him in there, he really didn’t have a lot of time to think about it, and he reacted unbelievably.”
Anyway, the Tigers were supposed to be a hit-heavy club, and that side of their personality finally appeared in the ALCS clincher, when they scored eight runs. Their hitters are a strange bunch; the Tigers can go for long, frigid stretches where their key guys come up weak. Remember the late summer months, when the Tigers couldn’t seem to bring runners home? That’s why they were locked in a late-season death-match with the White Sox.
But that’s all way back in their sputtering, confusing and inconsistent past. Right now, the team that threatened to fall apart in early September is putting it all together, at precisely the right time. The Tigers were never a perfect team, were never confused with being the best team. But there’s little question about their temperature right now: It’s 90 degrees and humid in October.
They haven’t won a championship since 1984. In the 27 years since, they built a new stadium, bid a tearful farewell to Ernie Harwell, absorbed some rough times, had some heartbreak, lost to the Cardinals in 2006 -- and are now banging on the door of opportunity.
“We’re committed to getting it done,” said Verlander. “We’ve got momentum on our side.”
They arrived here when Fielder playfully and frantically waved everyone off to squeeze the final out of the ALCS, giving the green light to pandemonium. Coke slammed his glove on the pitcher’s mound. Outfielders sprinted home, caps flying. The human pile of Tigers grew in seconds as Comerica Park shook in delight.
The symbol of the night was the sight of billionaire owner Mike Ilitch, the 83-year-old pizza baron, frail but still frisky in his own way, accepting the AL pennant. Ilitch spent freely on this team, including giving Fielder a $214 million contract, because he wants to win a championship before it’s too late.
Former Tigers catcher Pudge Rodriguez, who threw out the first pitch, said: “It’s time for him. It’s the year for him to have the trophy in his hands. He’s going to feel very good about that.”
Actually, he feels good already. So do the people of Detroit. They can see it, sense it about this team. Whether the next task is beating the Cardinals or the Giants, Motown thinks it can be done. Ain’t no mountain high enough.