RAWR! Bring on the Tigers

   

“Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” – Winston Churchill

There have been a lot of bizarre things happening around baseball these past 24 hours. The Boston Red Sox capped an epic American League Wild Card collapse, falling apart at the hands of the Baltimore Orioles…and maybe their 6-20 month of September.

The Tampa Bay Rays – who rallied back from a 7-0 deficit against the Yankees – stunned the world and captured the AL Wild Card.

It proved one thing: sometimes it takes all 162 games to make the postseason.

Now Boston (the team everyone and their mother picked to be representing the AL in the World Series) is going home for the winter, and the Rays will play the Texas Rangers in the American League Division Series – a rematch of last year’s first round.

Then there are the Yankees, who are the AL East Champions. They finished with a record of 97-65, the best in the American League. The Bombers will square off with the AL Central winners, the Detroit Tigers, in the ALDS.

Right back to where we started on Opening Day.

But the last time the Yanks and Tigers faced off in the playoffs was 2006 – and it did not go well for New York.

The Yankees were predicted to go deep into the playoffs that year; they had a pitching staff featuring 19-game winner Chien-Ming Wang, the tactical and crafty Mike Mussina, and the Big Unit, Randy Johnson.

Game One was easy to watch. The Yanks (with home field advantage) took care of the Tigers in convincing fashion, winning Game One 8-4. Derek Jeter and Jason Giambi both homered – as did Curtis Granderson – but he was on the other side of the field in the other dugout, a member of the Tigers.

After such an encouraging Game One, everything just came unglued.

Game Two was set to take place the night after Game One, but a rainout forced the two teams to play the following afternoon. I can’t say for sure whether or not it halted the Yankees’ momentum, but Joe Torre once said that “playoff rainouts hurt.”

And boy, did the Yanks hurt following that rainout.

Game Two started nicely, but turned into a nightmare. The Yankees had a 3-1 lead after four innings, and it looked as though they were going to be putting themselves in a favorable position: a two games-to-nothing lead going to Detroit.

But the Tigers were able to claw their way back into the game, scoring once in the fifth and once in the sixth. Then in the seventh, they plated a run to make it 4-3, and they never looked back.

The biggest spot in that game came on the shoulders of one Alex Rodriguez. He had been under heavy scrutiny for not putting up the best power numbers in ’06 – although he did smash 35 home runs and he drove in 121 runs. I don’t see what’s so bad about that.

Yet, he had been failing in clutch situations – and all season long, the Yankee fans booed him off the field whenever he didn’t come up big.

Rodriguez was standing in the batter’s box at Yankee Stadium in the bottom of the eighth of Game Two, two outs, the bases loaded, down by one run, and facing the flame-throwing Joel Zumaya.

Talk about pressure; needing to come up big in a huge spot.

Zumaya blew A-Rod away on the first two pitches before throwing a breaking ball, buckling Rodriguez’s knees and puzzling him for a called strike three. As he retreated towards the dugout a torrential shower of boos and jeers rained down on the Yankees’ third baseman.

Rodriguez was booed off the field – at home.

The Yanks were never able to capitalize and home field advantage was taken away from them. With the ALDS tied 1-1, they headed to the Motor City. What happened in Game Three still shocks me to this day.

Detroit sent former Yankee Kenny Rogers to the mound and his numbers against the Yankees were unreal. The lineup Torre posted had 20 home runs combined in their career off Rogers. The analysts all said this was the Yankees’ game to win; they even strategized how Jim Leyland, the Tigers’ skipper, should maneuver his bullpen – because they all believed Rogers was going to get shelled.

Not the case at all.

Rogers dazzled the Yanks, tossing 7 2/3 innings of shutout ball. He allowed five hits and two walks, but struck out eight on the way to a 6-0 Tiger victory.

It didn’t make sense. The Yankees owned this guy, how did they not hand him his rear end?

It was revealed when the Tigers made the World Series that Rogers had grease on his pitching hand – and that grease was on his hand during the ALDS vs. the Yankees (and subsequently the American League Championship Series against the Oakland A’s).

Perhaps his greasy hand was the reason the Yanks couldn’t touch him that night?

From there it was all but over. Torre decided to start Jaret Wright in Game Four and he fell apart in the second inning, allowing three runs. The Tigers eventually went on to win the game 8-3 and claim the ALDS.

With the way the Yankees played that year – full of passion and drive – a first round knockout was not how I envisioned the season ending. What shocked me the most was, instead of New York talking about how well the Mets were doing in the postseason, the Yankees dominated the backs of the newspaper pages.

“Why did the Yankees lose? Is Joe Torre Coming Back Next Year? What Happened to A-Rod?”

Even in defeat, the Yankees upstaged the Mets.

For as many differences I see between 2006 and now, some things look the same.

What’s Different This Time Around

Well, for one, different position players. Granderson was on the 2006 Tigers team and now he is a Yankee. It’s worth noting the centerfielder had a big ALDS against the Yankees: two homers, five RBIs, a triple, he slugged .765 and stole a base.

Instead of doing that against the Yankees, he’ll look to do it for them this time.

Gary Sheffield, Bernie Williams, Bobby Abreu, Hideki Matsui, Johnny Damon, and Giambi for that matter, were all in the starting lineup in the 2006 postseason.

Now, all of those players are on different teams – or retired. And it works both ways.

Some of Detroit’s difference-makers in ’06 are gone. Craig Monroe, Placido Polanco, Ivan Rodriguez, and Sean Casey are no longer on the team.

A lot of the pitchers have also moved on. Our starting three does not consist of Wang, Mussina, and Johnson – and thankfully Jaret Wright is no longer in pinstripes. CC Sabathia (19-7, 3.00 ERA), Ivan Nova (16-4, 3.70 ERA) and Freddy Garcia (12-8, 3.62 ERA) will head up the Yanks’ ALDS rotation.

Aside from the big one, meaning Justin Verlander, the Tigers’ staff has also changed since 2006.

Throughout the season I knew what Verlander had been doing (24-5, 2.40 ERA). But I hadn’t been keeping up with the rest of Detroit’s starting pitching. In fact, the other day I asked myself,

“Who is their number two starter? RoboCop? He’s from Detroit, it makes sense.”

But then I looked up Doug Fister, who is 8-1 in 11 games for the Tigers this year with a 1.79 ERA. Behind him is Max Scherzer, another starter who is not exactly a slouch: 15-9 with a 4.43 ERA.

What works in the Yankees’ favor, though: no funny business or should I say “greasy action.”  

It’s clearly a different corps of players and it’s a different time. But I can’t help but be reminded of what happened in ’06 and parallel it to 2011.

What Looks the Same

The regular season records. In 2006 Detroit finished at 95-67, while the Yankees ended their campaign at 97-65. They met in the ALDS and look what happened.

Fast forward to 2011. The Tigers ended at 95-67; the Yanks at 97-65. They are about to meet in the ALDS, and…well…I am sure the Yankees hope the outcome will be much different, despite the eerie similarity.

There’s also the A-Rod factor.

This year was probably the worst season for Rodriguez. Numerically he failed to hit 30 home runs for the first time since 1997. He hit 16 this year with a .276 batting average and 62 RBIs – and he could not stay off the DL.

Rodriguez was hurt for the majority of the season, and even when he came off the disabled list he could not fend off the injury bug. A jammed thumb, followed by a sore knee – he couldn’t stay healthy.

I have this sinking feeling A-Rod is going to perform poorly in the postseason because of his injuries this year – which in a way mirrors what he did in ‘06. It doesn’t look good for him now, but as they say, the postseason is a new season, and maybe he can come out of his funk and get back to making good contact at the plate.

Once he does that, his power will return.

Along with A-Rod, home field advantage was something the Yankees also had in 2006, which didn’t work in their favor. Splitting the first two games takes home field away from the Yankees. Suppose Verlander outduels Sabathia tomorrow night, but the Yankees answer and get to Fister to take Game Two.

New York would have to go into Detroit and win at least one game – and Comerica Park will undoubtedly be shaking and baking; rocking and rolling. It was difficult for the Yankees to handle in 2006, and expect no difference this year.

Differences and similarities aside, this is looking to be an interesting postseason. Can the Yankees, who most skeptics doubted at the start of the year, win the World Series for the 28th time in their storied history?

If they learned anything from 2006, they certainly have a chance.

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