"I don't think the last game, or the end of the season, is going to be easily forgotten by many of us," team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski said.
It won't be easily forgotten by history. Not until the Tigers had a team led its division or league from May 10 until the final week of the regular season and lost it, nor had a team failed to win after holding a three-game lead with four games to play.
To characterize it as the undoing of a great team, however, might be a stretch. Though the Tigers led their division for more than four months straight, they never quite seemed to command it. It was a very good team that had its own struggle virtually all season long, mainly with an offense that could never quite break out of its doldrums, though it had its moments.
"I never thought we had a powerhouse club," Dombrowski said. "I thought we had a good club, but we had a club that had shortcomings attached to it. To me, our biggest shortcoming was the offensive part of the ballclub."
The Tigers' pitching, centered around the trio of ace Justin Verlander -- who put together possibly the most dominant season from a Motor City pitcher in a quarter century -- trade acquisition Edwin Jackson and 20-year-old rookie Rick Porcello, kept them in a lot of close games. In the end, even their season fate was tantalizingly close.
"I can automatically go in my head and tell you that there were some pitchers this year that we let get away that should've never beat us," manager Jim Leyland said, "guys that were not front-line pitchers, guys that really beat us on a night when they didn't have a whole lot. But we also beat [Zack] Greinke in a tough game, stuff like that.
"It's kind of like the hitter that says, 'Gee, I hit 20 balls hard but I didn't get any hits.' But he doesn't talk about the ones that he flared in, when he got jammed, or broke his bat, or hit a little chopper and got a hit on it. You don't talk about those. It's kind of that same scenario."
When everything added up, Dombrowski said, the team didn't play far off his expectations.
"I really didn't think we'd win a lot more than 86 games this year," he said. "I mean, really, that's really about where I thought our club's capabilities were at the time, in that neighborhood. For a long time, I thought 86 wins was going to win our division. Unfortunately, I was wrong, 87 won. I tip my cap to the Twins. They played great."
86-77, second place in AL Central
Though the Tigers had plenty of moments that could've turned their season one way or the other, the American League Central tiebreaker will be the game everyone remembers. It will also be the game that encapsulated the club's strengths and struggles. Porcello's dominant performance over the first five innings reflected the strong starting pitching that carried Detroit on so many nights. The struggles to drive in runs after their three-run rally included the most memorable of the many Tigers left on base, highlighted by a bases-loaded opportunity thwarted with a line-drive double play.
What went right:
Verlander went from sharing the Major League lead in losses in 2008 to tying for the lead in wins in '09, but victories were just part of the story. With a fastball that returned to his past pop at 100 mph, plus stamina to pitch deep into games consistently over the summer and into the fall, he took two-thirds of pitching's Triple Crown, including a Major League high of 269 strikeouts, most by a Tigers pitcher since Mickey Lolich. Verlander was the frontman for a rotation that ranked among the stingiest in the American League. For three-quarters of the year, Jackson proved to be the No. 2 starter the Tigers needed, propelling a breakout season at age 25. Porcello, meanwhile, rewarded the Tigers for their decision to call him up from Class A ball to the big leagues while monitoring his innings carefully. On the relief side, Fernando Rodney emerged as one of baseball's underrated closers by converting 36 of 37 save chances and mixing his power fastball and devastating changeups for strikeouts and double plays. Catcher Gerald Laird took ownership of the pitching staff upon his arrival from Texas and provided a boost by throwing out better than 40 percent of would-be baserunners, tops among AL backstops.
What went wrong:
As Dombrowski pointed out, virtually no Tigers hitter enjoyed a career year, except for Ryan Raburn. Magglio Ordonez was the Majors' hottest hitter from Sept. 1 on to secure his fourth .300 hitting season in five years, but his .428 slugging percentage was his lowest since his rookie season of 1998, while his .795 OPS was his lowest since 2005. His nine home runs were nine lower than in any of previous seasons with at least 500 plate appearances. Though Curtis Granderson set a career high with 30 home runs, his .249 batting average and .780 OPS were both career lows, including a .183 average off left-handed pitching. Carlos Guillen missed 2 1/2 months to a nagging shoulder injury, then struggled to get back to full strength and switch-hitting once he came back. Where the Tigers hoped to have rotation depth from Nate Robertson, Jeremy Bonderman or Dontrelle Willis, they received lasting contributions from none of them, with all three landing back on the disabled list during the season. Armando Galarraga's breakout 2008 season became a memory once command struggles and elbow soreness haunted him throughout 2009.
Though everyone knew of Porcello's talent, the main reason the Tigers took the chance of promoting him at age 20, no one expected he would show quite that much maturity to handle the big leagues as well as he did. The result was the first 14-win season by a pitcher age 20 or younger since Dwight Gooden in 1985. Porcello was arguably stronger down the stretch than he was at any other point in the season, going 5-2 with a 3.07 ERA from August until season's end.