Monday, October 29, 2012

Crimson Tide

Kelly Cooke
With baseball season over, it's time to turn to Princeton women's hockey. They had their first home games of the season this weekend, and the results were not good, losing to Dartmouth 3-1 and Harvard (gasp!) 9-1.

After opening the season on the road with wins against RIT and Robert Morris, I had some hopes for this team, but they were dashed in their performance against Harvard. They did lose to the Crimson in Cambridge last year, 10-1, but I've never the Tigers lay an egg like they did on Saturday at home.

Blame can be spread all around. The defense was particularly outmatched, as Harvard had no trouble keeping the puck in the offensive zone. Princeton couldn't mount much of an offense, either. Even on power plays they couldn't muster an attack. The public address announcer for Princeton, after a penalty is over, says, "The teams are now at even strength." I turned to my friend and said, "The teams now have the same number of players, but they are not at even strength."

Harvard's Lindsey Frye had a hat trick by the second period. The only good news was that Kelly Cooke, now a senior but still no bigger than a minute, continued to be the Tigers' leading scorer. Her goal was something of a fluke, though, as she fired a shot that the Harvard goalie cleared, but the puck struck the crossbar and went in. The news wasn't all good for Cooke, though, as unless my eyes deceived me, one of Harvard's goals was deflected in off her stick. In an event like that, the nearest offensive player to the puck gets credit for the goal, so there's no black mark against Cooke's record.

Tiger fans can only hope that the team needs time to gel, and that Harvard is a buzz saw that no one could beat. I'll keep thinking that--otherwise it will be a long season.

No Joy in Mudville

There's not much to say about the shellacking the Tigers received at the hands of the San Francisco Giants in the World Series, losing four straight, two of them by shutout (the Tigers were only shutout three times during the regular season). Who knows if it was the Giants excellence, or the Tigers acting like choking dogs, or perhaps both?

I listened to this series, except for a half inning or two, on the radio between pizza deliveries, so the entire effect was a little more removed. If I had seen it in person I might be more nauseated--it's almost as if I can pretend it didn't happen if I didn't see it. At least they didn't lose to a team I hate.

The signs were all bad from Game 1, when Justin Verlander laid an egg. I mean, he didn't just lose to Barry Zito, he allowed an RBI single to him! That seemed to deflate the Tigers' balloon, and they responded by being shut out in two straight games, the first time that's happened in a Series since 1966. According to Orel Hershiser on the ESPN radio broadcast, the Giants' pitching was pretty good, but not Koufax-like. He thought the Tigers' batting approach was all wrong.

Then there were just flukes that indicated it wasn't to be. A ball hitting the bag. A bunt single rolling up the line. Prince Fielder thrown at at the plate, and hitting less than .100 for the Series. Then, the final image, triple crown winner Miguel Cabrera, the tying run in extra innings, watching a pitch go right down the middle for strike three to end it all. If the Tigers had supernatural help in the ALCS against the Yankees, it boomeranged on them here.

Perhaps there is something to a team that sweeps a league championship series having big problems when they face a team that went to seven in theirs. The Giants ended up winning seven straight games, even without their pitching rotation sent. I guess the Tigers will only win if they go to seven in their own ALCS.

Still, it was a good year--it's easy to be morose in times like this, but how many teams (I'm looking at you, Cubs fans) would give an eye tooth to even get to the Series? Surely there will be some changes--another bat would be welcome--but I imagine the core of this team will be back, and in the hunt next year. Like their city mates the Pistons, who had to climb the ladder one rung at a time to win the championship back in the '80s, perhaps this is a three-year process.

The baseball season is over. How long until pitchers and catchers report?

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

They Might Be Giants

I was talking to my dad on Sunday about who we would rather face the Tigers in the World Series. Of course, you have to be careful what you wish for, but I wanted the Giants to win, because I thought the Cardinals were one of those teams that were really tough to kill. How wrong that was, as they went out Yankee-like, scoring only one run over the final three games. The Giants are now the team that are a tough out.

The Tigers and Giants, both original-16 franchises, have never faced each other in the post-season. Somehow the John McGraw Giants missed them from 1907-1909, when Detroit lost three World Series in a row (to the Cubs and Pirates). In a way, this race is 25 years too late--many thought that this would be the Series in 1987, but both teams were upset, by the Twins and Cards.

Jack Morris and Jeffrey Leonard are gone, replaced by new stars. The name most bandied about is Justin Verlander--those that pick the Tigers cite him as the biggest reason. But the Tigers face a similar problem to one they had in 2006: a long layoff. Teams that sweep in the League Championship have a hard time with teams that go seven, and I don't know if intra-squad games can make up for it.

But the Tigers have their pitching set up. The Giants will probably go with Barry Zito in game 1, and though Zito had a game for the ages in game 5, he's no Justin Verlander. I've heard a lot of the Giants' home field advantage, but they did lose twice to Cincinnati and once to St. Louis at home.

I'm also worried about the guy pictured, Marco Scutaro, who was an on-base machine. Conversely, the Giants have very little power, especially against right-handed pitching. The Tigers have four top right-handed starters.

The Tigers have the better starting pitching, the Giants the better bullpen (a potentially huge problem for Detroit), and the lineups are about a wash, with the Tigers having more power and the Giants the better singles hitters. I don't dare make a prediction, but I feel confident. Game 1 is huge, because if Verlander loses, that could be confidence sapper.

Friday, October 19, 2012

How Sweep It Is!

I've been remiss in updating this blog, when it comes to the Detroit Tigers (the Princeton women's hockey team gets started this weekend, so I'll be back with game recaps). As an out of town fan, it's hard for me to write things that aren't just parroting news reports I read. But I can't help but comment on the great state of affairs for Motown baseball this year. For the 11th time in their history, the Tigers are going to the World Series.

For the most part, I've been following the Tigers' post-season on the radio. I'm working as pizza delivery guy, but I have Sirius/XM radio, so while driving around town I've caught most of the action. For the Oakland series, I was home for game four, when Jose Valverde blew a two-run lead and extended the series to five games, making me very angry. But Justin Verlander came in to save the day.

For the Yankee series, game one was the fulcrum. I was working, and when I got in the car and turned on the radio I was just in time to hear Raul Ibanez's game-tying homer off Valverde, which made me pound the steering wheel in frustration. I got home and learned that it was the second home run of the inning that Valverde allowed. Manager Jim Leyland earned my enmity for keeping Valverde in after one homer, given his performance against Oakland. But, amazingly, the Tigers were able to win the game, and after that it was fairly easy (though there tense moments in game 3 in the 9th inning).

Listening to New York media, it's all been about the Yankees' lack of hitting, and A-Rod being pinch-hit for/benched. Little credit has been given to the Tigers' pitching, which had historic E.R.A. numbers for starters and limited the Yankees to only two runs for the entire series. That's to be expected, I suppose, but it's also some delicious schadenfreude--this is the third time in seven years that the Tigers have knocked the Yankees out.

The MVP of the series went to Delmon Young, and I can't argue with that--he had the game winning RBI in all four games. But I might give consideration to Phil Coke, who is pictured above in a victorious pose. After Leyland lost confidence in Valverde (and to a lesser extent, Joaquin Benoit), it was Coke he turned to. Listening to New York radio today, they say the Tigers don't have a bullpen. But Coke was brilliant, getting two saves (one of them two innings) and finishing off last night's game (not a save situation). It is true that the Tigers will be hoping for great and deep starting pitching in the World Series, for Coke's magic could run out, but let's give credit where credit is due.

I was thinking about it last night, and this is perhaps the greatest era to be a Tiger fan since the Ty Cobb days, when they went to the World Series three years in a row (but lost them all). They hadn't been in the post-season two years in a row since they were in back-to-back World Series in 1934-1935. They then went to the Series in 1940, and again in 1945, not to go back again until 1968. That team had one last gasp with a division title in 1972, but it would take until 1984 for them to win it all again. Then, after one last gasp from that team in 1987, they would until 2006 (with some awful years in between) between playoff appearances.

But now, under Leyland, they have won two pennants and been to the post-season three times. That may not sound great by Yankee standards, but for the Detroit faithful it's a wonderful era. But Leyland has not won a championship with the Tigers, and it looks good this year. Except--

The Cardinals. They haven't won yet, but it looks like they will. The Tigers have already played the Cards in three of their ten World Series, a statistical anomaly, and have only one once (in '68). The Cards are like what the Yankees were in the late '90s--you've got to put a stake through their heart. They get great contributions from all their players, and they have good pitching (the Tigers didn't hit particularly well in the ALCS until game 4).

For now though, it's time to relax and bask in the victory over the Yankees.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Making Their Move

While at the Hall of Fame last weekend I tried to keep an eye on how the Tigers were doing, as they had a big series against the White Sox. They won the first two games, moving into first place (and accordingly, on the standings board outside the Hall). On Sunday, I was taking the trolley back to the parking lot and a couple behind me were checking the scores on a smartphone. I asked about the Tigers-White Sox score, and was given the good news. A sweep!

So after a first-half of mostly spinning their wheels, the Tigers have now won 15 of 17, and are in a flat-footed tie with the White Sox, the Indians four back. On the ride home I wondered about picking up extra help, especially a fifth starter, which has been held down all year by rookies. Drew Smyly has done well, but has spent a lot of time on the D.L., and Jacob Turner, who won Sunday's game.

The Tigers then threw the switch, trading Turner and a few other prospects to Miami for Anibal Sanchez and Omar Infante. Turner was named a top 10 prospect by Baseball America, so this is clearly a win now move. But Sanchez is a good pitcher, going 5 and 7 so far this year, but with a 3.94 ERA. Infante is an even better pickup, for the Tigers had the worst stats of any team this year at second-base. Immediately they solve that problem, with a lifetime .276 hitter.

The Tigers have traded a lot with the Marlins, probably since Dave Dombrowski worked there. One of the great pickups they made was Miguel Cabrera, who continues to be one of the great hitters in baseball. On Sunday he socked two home runs, the second was his 300th in his career, and he is not yet 30 years old.

If Sanchez can be a reliable starter and Infante can hit decently, the Tigers should be unstoppable in their quest to win the division.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

At the Break

It's been a bit of a ride the last week for the Tigers. After inexplicably dropping two to the last-place Twins, the Tigers came back to the win the last two games of the series, then swept the Royals, heading into the All-Star break with a five-game winning streak. They are now above .500 and 3 1/2 games behind the White Sox, who are also playing very well.

The Tigers sent three to the All-Star game. Prince Fielder was voted to start at first base, and Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander were chosen as well. Verlander was then tapped to be the starting pitcher, perhaps more in honor of his season last year than this, although his numbers this year are right up there.

On Monday night, Fielder was the first Tiger to ever win the Home Run Derby (I find it amusing that this manufactured event now has records and statistics), although it was his second win personally. I find this event kind of boring--how long can you simply watch batters jacking the ball out of the park, but it's made even worse by the baying of the bumptious Chris Berman, who is so in love with himself saying "back back back back" that listening to it is like listening to chalk scrape against a blackboard.

So I was lucky that when I flipped around and fell back to it I saw Fielder, at least in his second and third-round appearances. Eschewing a helmet, which left his dreads floating free, his bulk tightly wrapped in a powder blue jersey, Fielder resembled some sort of space age lumberjack, whacking away at a redwood. He hit the farthest home runs, several landing in the Kaufmann Stadium fountain, and out-slugged Jose Bautista to take the crown, his adorable sons flanking him.

But that would be it for Tiger glory at the All-Star festivities. Fielder would go quietly in his two at bats, and Miguel Cabrera would bounce into a double-play. Verlander would get the worst of it, allowing five runs in his only inning, the key blows being a double by Ryan Braun and a bases loaded triple by Pablo Sandovar. Verlander, never at his best in the first inning, threw heat, but a fastball without movement or precision can be hit by good hitters. He did strike it out two, but both were on off-speed pitches.

I can only hope that Verlander shrugs off this unfortunate display on the national stage with aplomb and goes back to his usual self, and that Fielder continues to hit moon shots. The Tiger bats have heated up, finally. Delmon Young has hit four homers in four days, and Jhonny Peralta was starting to hit. Last year the Tigers were tough outs from spots 1 to 8 in the order, and they've got to get that groove back in order to move into the division lead. They've also got to get consistent starting pitcher, but I think that's working out fine, especially if Doug Fister can come around.

It should be noted that Justin Verlander's greatest achievement this summer, if the rumor is true, is that he is dating supermodel Kate Upton. Maybe that's why he didn't look good on Tuesday.

Monday, June 4, 2012

The Force is Not With Us

After watching the Tigers four times since my last post, I'm a lot more worried than I was then. Yes, they swept the lowly Minnesota Twins, but then went 2-5 against the Red Sox and Yankees, and the one victory I saw felt like a loss.

The Tigers are failing at almost all levels of the game. Only their number three and four hitters, Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder, are hot. Call-up Quintin Berry has proved a nice surprise as he replaces the injured Austin Jackson, and may have found himself a permanent part of the lineup, but otherwise the Tiger lineup is full of outs. They are getting little production from any other spot in the lineup.

Second base continues to be a bugaboo. Ryan Raburn, who after good years as a utility man, finally had a chance to establish a permanent starting position,  but hit beneath his weight and was sent down to AAA. Danny Worth has proved to be no better. The Tigers haven't had a reliable bat at the keystone position since Placido Polanco left.

The bullpen is dreadful. In Saturday night's game, the only win of the four games I watched, I had to endure Jose Valverde, who was 49 for 49, blow his third save of the year, and it was only the second of June. He came in after Octavio Dotel had blown a lead, only to be saved when Cabrera launched his second moon shot of the night into the centerfield ivy (the second one actually went into the camera well). Then Valverde came in and promptly hit two batters and walked two more, tying the game. Interestingly, with the bases loaded and the Tigers still ahead, Jim Leyland did not remove Valverde when he faced Robinson Cano. He could have gone to a warmed up lefty, Duane Below, but stuck with Valverde, who seemed to have no clue as to where the strike zone was. Amazingly, he sawed off Cano and got a pop out, but then walked Mark Texeira.

The Tigers won the game in the bottom of the ninth, finally getting some help from the bottom of the order. Brennan Boesch singled, Jhonny Peralta singled him to third, and Omir Santos, the third-string catcher who could not be pinch hit for because he was literally the only player on the team who was able to catch, and had already committed two errors in the game, managed to get good wood on a pitch from the Yankee reliever and hit a sacrifice fly to right. The Tigers were all smiles, and the little-played Santos will have that game to remember, but was one of the ugliest wins you're likely to see.

What may be most troubling is that I saw Justin Verlander pitch twice, and he was hittable both times. He got a bit roughed up by the Red Sox, with one key pitch being a 3-2, bases loaded fastball to Daniel Nava, who lined it down the left-field line to clear the bases. Verlander then lost his third straight start, which he hasn't done since 2008, to the Yankees on Sunday, giving up a home run to Derek Jeter on the first pitch and walking the next two batters. Verlander has historically had bad first innings, and complained about a delay from a ceremony honoring Magglio Ordonez, but that couldn't be used later in the game when Alex Rodriguez homered off the brick wall, just under Hank Greenberg's retired number. Verlander may be throwing hard, but a major league hitter can turn on a 100-mph fastball if it's in his wheelhouse. Verlander is not locating his pitches well, and hasn't won since his near-no-hitter against the Pirates.

The Tigers are in danger of falling out of this quickly. They are six out after a torrid recent stretch of games by the White Sox. They certainly have the talent to bounce back, but they just aren't gelling. Defense and fundamentals are a problem, and without a reliable closer this may all be for naught.

As to why Darth Vader was throwing out the first pitch on Saturday night, I know not. It isn't fitting to have a representative of the Empire on the field while the team in the opposing dugout is Major League Baseball's Evil Empire, the Yankees.