A year after a slew of big trades for veteran All-Stars couldn't net the Tigers a postseason berth, a few smaller deals helped bring Detroit within a game of what would've been its first division title in 22 years. Justin Verlander, who tied for the Major League lead in losses in '08 and became the symbol of a struggling rotation, emerged into one of baseball's nastiest starters with the most successful season from a Tigers starter since Jack Morris in the 1980s. Rick Porcello did things on the mound at age 20 that others in the prime of their careers could only imagine. Magglio Ordonez's offense fell off so dramatically that his potential release became a daily subject of debate, but his turnaround became a critical part of Detroit's playoff hopes down the stretch. Brandon Inge not only became an everyday player again, he became an All-Star by popular demand from fans.
In the end, the Tigers fell short -- suddenly, surprisingly, dramatically short -- and they morphed from a team in rebound to a team in transition come winter. Without question, however, 2009 is a season many Tigers fans will never forget.
The Tigers had made most of their offseason tweaks already, but they still had to close out their moves with a closer, which was becoming increasingly tough to find. They were never really in on Trevor Hoffman, and their injury concerns on Jason Isringhausen didn't lead them very far in negotiations on that end. Their search eventually led them back to Brandon Lyon, who had dominated for a half-season in Arizona before being replaced at closer. While Lyon looked like Detroit's best option at closer, Detroit looked like Lyon's best chance to close again, and they eventually came together on a one-year contract just in time to announce at TigerFest. Manager Jim Leyland wouldn't outright name him the closer, but with Fernando Rodney as the only other experienced option, it seemed like a formality, right?
Another veteran reliever came on board with a Spring Training invitation extended to Scott Williamson, but a lesser-known signing ended up having a bigger impact. Fu-Te Ni's signing from pro ball in Taiwan to a Minor League deal in the states signaled Detroit's newly aggressive scouting efforts in the Far East, but it also brought in a lefty reliever who would make an impact in the big leagues by midseason.
With snow on the ground in Detroit for weeks, the Tigers were looking forward to the start of Spring Training long before pitchers and catchers reported in mid-February. It was that miserable of a winter. But the intrigue of spots to fill and names to fill them provided plenty of heat for this year's camp from the start, not the least of which came from two rookies with big league dreams. Porcello and Ryan Perry not only represented the Tigers' two most recent first-round Draft picks, but also two of their best young arms in camp pitching for a manager who has always said he'll take talent first and foremost. So while their chances of making the team weren't good coming into camp, team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski wasn't ruling it out, either.
It was also the first Spring Training with a Major League spot for new pitching coach Rick Knapp, who was uncomfortably at the center of attention in the first few days of camp. He brought with him a plethora of little ideas on how to improve the Tigers at throwing consistent strikes, but he also cautioned that he, too, was learning as he went along. From the outset, Knapp and veteran bullpen coach Jeff Jones proved to be a strong working duo as they teamed up on Detroit's pitching staff.
The Tigers spent most of their Spring Training schedule without a slew of talent thanks to the World Baseball Classic, including their entire starting outfield (Curtis Granderson, Ordonez and Carlos Guillen) and their most prominent slugger with Miguel Cabrera, not to mention their most valuable starter from 2008 in Armando Galarraga. That left plenty of game opportunities for Tigers prospects such as Wilkin Ramirez and Casper Wells, but in hindsight, it also cost players some valuable time. Only Cabrera out of that group had the kind of season he would've liked statistically, while Guillen, Ordonez, Galarraga and Granderson all got off to struggling starts to varying degrees, from which they tried mightily to recover.
While Guillen, Ordonez, Cabrera and Galarraga helped lead Team Venezuela to the semifinals, and Granderson helped Team USA do the same, the Tigers plodded along without them and found plenty more answers to their team than their 15-17 Spring Training record would've suggested. Porcello didn't always dazzle, but his consistency in turning out one productive outing after another helped convince Leyland and other club officials that he was ready to make the jump from Class A ball and gave them a better chance to win than veterans Nate Robertson and Dontrelle Willis. Porcello's Spring Training roommate, Perry, also made the club out of camp on the strength of his pitching. Neither Jeremy Bonderman nor Joel Zumaya emerged from camp healthy, and Willis began the year on the 15-day disabled list with what was classified as anxiety disorder, leaving Zach Miner to take the final spot in the rotation to open the year.
The biggest Spring Training surprise, however, might've been at closer, where Lyon's spot was never quite guaranteed. Once opponents hit him around in Spring Training, including four consecutive Red Sox home runs March 23, his spot was up for grabs. Rodney didn't exactly dominate, but he was good enough to earn Leyland's nod starting out the season, a role he would hold for the entire season.
The Tigers didn't get off to a hot start with their season-opening four-game series at Toronto, but unlike '08, they didn't have to wait a week for their first win, either. Instead, they prowled around the .500 mark for pretty much the entire month, rebounding from losing three of four in Toronto by sweeping the Rangers back in Detroit. Nine of their 21 games for the month were decided by two runs or fewer, including a 2-0 pitching duel they took at Seattle and a 12-10 slugfest they won four days later over the Angels. For a team that has had its share of slow starts in recent years, it was a good enough opening month.
Meanwhile, the roots of the Tigers' summer success were being planted. Leyland outlined his plan to get seven innings consistently out of ace Verlander by the end of the month. Porcello showed better pitching than his 1-3 record would've suggested, though he still showed the growing pains of a 20-year-old. But the best pitching came from Edwin Jackson, who kept the Tigers in low-scoring duels without getting much support for his trouble. And Leyland was getting creative in trying to get as much run support as he could, including two squeeze bunts in the same game at Seattle.
It was also a month in which the ties between the Tigers and their fan base became clear despite tough times in the Michigan economy. Team owner Mike Ilitch dedicated the fountain behind center field to support the Big Three American automakers, and Detroit's home opener April 10 became a sold-out civic celebration that included ceremonial first pitches for workers from each automaker. A false alarm of Comerica Park's emergency alert system provided an odd moment in a nationally televised game against the Yankees on April 29, but the honor with which the Tigers played for their home city was clear. There was still one shocking loss the Tigers family struggled to overcome. Barely a week had passed in the season when Mark "The Bird" Fidrych, whose amazing rookie season made him a superstar in 1976, was found dead on his farm in Massachusetts at age 54.
The Tigers didn't have a whole lot of defining moves during the season, but their mid-May move to take the lead in the American League Central was the best of them. An amazing, leaping catch at the Progressive Field fence by Granderson preserved a shutout for Verlander to start a three-game sweep at Cleveland, but a series sweep to the Twins at the Metrodome halted any momentum. The Tigers returned home from there, however, and ran off seven straight wins with sweeps of the A's and Rangers. Detroit went from a tie atop the division to a four-game lead, setting the stage for the race for most of the summer.
For Verlander, the month was simply dominant. Though his roll began with seven scoreless innings against the Yankees at the end of April, he began May with three straight games of double-digit strikeouts, something no Tigers pitcher had done since Mickey Lolich in 1971. Verlander tossed 19 consecutive scoreless innings in that stretch before the Twins finally plated two runs on him amid his career-high 13 strikeouts that night. He also became the first pitcher in franchise history to win three straight starts while allowing only one run and striking out at least 30 batters in the same stretch.
After taking a no-decision at the Metrodome, Verlander won his next three starts, finishing the month unbeaten with 56 strikeouts. No AL pitcher had done that in a month since Pedro Martinez in 2002, so it was no surprise that league media honored him as AL Pitcher of the Month.
Verlander wasn't the only Tigers pitcher who proved unbeatable in May. Porcello took victories in all five of his starts and allowed two runs or fewer in each of them, highlighted by seven scoreless innings against the Twins May 5 at Comerica Park. He became the second-youngest pitcher in Major League history to go 5-0 with a 1.50 ERA or lower in a calendar month, and he was just the sixth pitcher since 1900 to post four straight outings with one run or less before his 21st birthday. Like Verlander, Porcello ended up a runaway choice for AL Rookie of the Month honors.
On the other side of the pitching picture for the Tigers was Willis, whose return from the disabled list earned him his long-awaited first victory with the Tigers when he went 6 1/3 scoreless innings against Texas May 19 at Comerica Park.
The Tigers ended June with the same lead in the division with which they entered, but they had quite a ride in between. A three-game sweep at home to the Red Sox raised questions about their ability to compete with the league titans. Detroit had a three-game battle with the Angels that wasn't decided until Clete Thomas' go-ahead grand slam capped a five-run eighth inning in the series finale. The Tigers took that momentum with them on the road, where they took a rare series sweep at Chicago from the White Sox with help from another complete game from Verlander and a 10th-inning homer from Cabrera in another comeback. Detroit's recent fortunes in Interleague Play took a turn for the worse in Pittsburgh and St. Louis, but sweeps of the Brewers -- including Alfredo Figaro's first Major League win -- and Cubs back at Comerica Park sent the Tigers on their second seven-game winning streak in six weeks.
Porcello kept on contributing; he not only held the Pirates to a run over seven innings on June 12, but also drove in two runs with a single and an out, becoming the first Tigers pitcher with two RBIs in his own victory since Woodie Fryman in 1972. Six days later, he helped the Tigers avoid a series sweep to the Cardinals and improved his own record to 8-4. Ten days later, Inge's ninth-inning homer off Jose Valverde pulled out a comeback victory at Houston that thwarted a sweep there.
Willis' comeback effectively ended in June once the Tigers put him back on the DL after an eight-walk outing at Pittsburgh, but his diving stop and throw from in front of the mound during his next-to-last start against the White Sox left an impression of how much he was at least trying to compete. Same went for Bonderman, roughed up by the Sox in what ended up being his only start of the season; he came back in relief in September.
The Tigers' first-half success didn't pay off immediately at the All-Star ballot box among fans, but it still paid off big. Granderson, Jackson and Verlander all ended up named to the All-Star team on players' ballots, while Inge's place in the All-Star Final Vote set off a massive voting effort in Detroit that eventually included the Phillies and Shane Victorino. The "Bran-torino" ticket landed both players in the Midsummer Classic.
It was a memorable All-Star Game for many of them. While Inge had the dubious feat of going homerless in the Home Run Derby the night before, Jackson pitched a scoreless inning in his All-Star debut. Granderson tripled and scored the go-ahead run in the eighth inning to help continue the American League's winning ways.
Not long after that came one explanation for Inge's struggles, the revelation that patella tendinitis was causing him pain in both his knees, sometimes excruciatingly so. Inge refused to go on the disabled list unless the medical staff could find a way to fix his knees with just a minimum stay on the DL. The Tigers tried everything short of surgery, which would've cost him six weeks, but nothing made a difference. The impact of Inge's knees on his second half, by contrast, made a huge difference.
On the field, the Tigers were seemingly running out of steam. Four losses in five games to start the month whittled down Detroit's division lead, then a 1-5 skid out of the All-Star break dropped them into a first-place tie with the White Sox heading into a critical four-game, three-day series at Comerica Park. Fueled by a dramatic return from the disabled list by Guillen, Verlander and Eddie Bonine pitched them to a doubleheader sweep to open the series on their way to taking three out of four.
Just a few days later, the Tigers came up with reinforcements, a Trade Deadline deal that brought lefty starter Jarrod Washburn to Detroit for Luke French and prospect Mauricio Robles. For the moment, it seemed like the veteran infusion and rotation depth the Tigers needed to put them over the top.
It was around this time in '06 that the Tigers' formidable lead in the AL Central peaked before slowly evaporating, and in '07 that a slim Detroit lead vanished altogether. This time, the Tigers entered August up 1 1/2 games, then tripled it by the time the month was over. It wasn't for any long winning streak, but the ability to stop losing streaks before they became big. Detroit went 16-13 for the month and lost consecutive games just twice, including a three-game skid during a four-game series in Boston. Verlander and Ryan Raburn shut down those struggles in a 2-0 win in the finale.
A Toledo Mud Hen at the start of the season and a little-used role player for much of the first half, Raburn became a huge cog in August, batting .327 (16-for-49) with four homers and six RBIs. With Guillen limited to DHing and batting left-handed at the time, Raburn filled the gap and then some. It was enough to spark debate on his potential as an everyday player, though most of his success came against left-handed pitching.
The other key contribution came from Ordonez, whose average jumped from .258 at the start of August to .275 at month's end. Three consecutive multihit games against the Twins and Red Sox, including two doubles and a triple Aug. 10 at Fenway Park, finally showed signs that he was emerging from his summer doldrums. His hitting still didn't come with a lot of run production, in part because of RBI opportunities, but it brought up an intriguing situation as he closed in on the plate appearance total to vest his contract option for 2010.
Another late-season reinforcement came over in the middle of the month from Baltimore, where the Orioles unloaded Aubrey Huff for the tail end of his contract year in exchange for relief prospect Brett Jacobson. From the outset, however, Huff struggled in Detroit, going 3-for-34 from his arrival until the end of the month. Washburn, meanwhile, managed only one quality start in six August outings for the Tigers, who pulled out a 1-0 win over Zack Greinke and the Royals on Aug. 14 at Comerica Park behind Washburn's eight scoreless innings.
For all that will be remembered about the Tigers' late-season lost lead, it arguably wasn't blown here. Their 16-12 record in September was their second best, trailing only their May emergence. They had a 3 1/2-game lead going into the month and a three-game lead coming out with four October games to play. The rest is history, but even with the Twins' 16-11 September surge, the Tigers had essentially held their ground.
The problem in that thought process is that their lead stood at seven games on Labor Day after sweeping the Rays at Tropicana Field. Though the Tigers lost Rodney for a stretch after he nearly blew a save in the Rays series opener and then inadvertently threw a ball into the stands that bounced into the press box after the last out, drawing an eventual suspension, Detroit pulled out the three games by a combined margin of just four runs, capped by Inge's ninth-inning grand slam in the finale for a 5-3 win. The Tigers lost five straight from there, including a series sweep in Kansas City that saw them struggle against Bruce Chen, Robinson Tejeda and Lenny DiNardo.
By the time the Twins took the first two games of their showdown at the Metrodome a week and a half later, including a comeback victory against Verlander fueled by a fly ball lost in the lights by left fielder Don Kelly, Detroit's lead was down to two games. When Nate Robertson answered in the finale with five solid innings to salvage a victory, it seemingly saved the Tigers' season, at least until the next Tigers-Twins showdown in the final week at Comerica Park. Verlander's win in the series-opening doubleheader nightcap, plus Bonine victory the next evening, sent the Tigers into October up three games with four left to play. No team ever had that commanding of a position and not made the postseason.
Even in the midst of their postseason fight, though, the Tigers received a stunning reminder that there's more than baseball. While Hall of Fame broadcaster Ernie Harwell commented earlier in the year about the passing of Fidrych and Hall of Famer George Kell, few knew that Harwell himself was dealing with health issues. The cause of the 91-year-old's problems was a worst-case scenario: Harwell had inoperable cancer of the bile duct. He made the announcement in a news article, then made an emotional appearance at Comerica Park in mid-September to thank fans for their support over the years. It was essentially his way of saying goodbye, and it left few dry eyes in the park.
Tigers fans need no reminder about what happened here, and probably never will. Detroit entered October with a chance to clinch the division title with a win over Minnesota in their series finale at Comerica Park. Instead, a big third-inning and a runaway eighth kept the Twins alive heading into the regular season's final weekend. It was a blown opportunity for the Tigers, but seemingly something they could recover from, until they dropped two more to the White Sox by a combined 13-1 margin to move the Twins into a tie atop the Central.
Pressure had reached a fever pitch in Detroit, and it showed in a late-season incident involving Cabrera, the details of which emerged only after Verlander pitched the Tigers to a must-win decision and his 19th win in the finale to force a one-game tiebreaker. As Leyland would say in the offseason, "I think in a lot of ways, we blew it."
It could be forgotten if the Tigers could pull out the tiebreaker in the Metrodome two days later, and for much of the Minnesota evening, it looked like they would. Cabrera answered his critics with a two-run homer to build a 3-0 lead in the third inning for Porcello, but home runs from Jason Kubel in the sixth and Orlando Cabrera put the Twins in front. Ordonez homered to tie it, but his line-drive double play in the ninth with the potential go-ahead run on third summed up the game for the Tigers, who just couldn't get over the top. Once Alexi Casilla singled in the winning run off Rodney in the 12th, the Tigers were going home.
It was a loss that Dombrowski said would impact the Tigers for a while. Few realized at the time how much.
The postseason wrapped up with the Tigers watching at home, but Detroit was already plotting a different path for '10. Speculation began at baseball's GM meetings, when rumors circulated around clubs that the Tigers would listen to offers on Granderson, Jackson and perhaps several other Tigers. Dombrowski denied speculation about a fire sale, but said the team was open to many more ideas than it had been in the past and would have to be wise in its offseason decisions and aware in its dealings of both the economy and its payroll.
There was certainly an awareness of the Tigers in awards season. Free agent Placido Polanco won his second Gold Glove in three years before signing with the Phillies later, while Verlander garnered AL Cy Young consideration before finishing third to go with his Tiger of the Year award. Porcello was an AL Rookie of the Year candidate. Cabrera, despite his late-season struggles, earned the only AL MVP vote that didn't go to Minnesota's Joe Mauer.
Another change came on the coaching staff, and it brought a well-respected former Tiger back to Detroit when Tom Brookens was hired from his Double-A Erie managerial post to become the Tigers' new first-base and outfield coach. The infielder from the Tigers' last World Series championship club in 1984 replaced Andy Van Slyke on Leyland's coaching staff.
What had been speculation about the Tigers' situation heading into December soon became reality. Not only did Detroit trade Granderson and Jackson, it did it in the same deal, a three-team swap that brought the Tigers a budding center-field prospect from the Yankees in Austin Jackson, a mid-rotation starter from Arizona in Max Scherzer, plus relief help with Daniel Schlereth and Phil Coke. In explaining the deal, Dombrowski admitted they had to make "adjustments," but also said they wanted to get back to building a young core group rather than relying on the open market.
Another bullpen reinforcement came with the signing of Australian lefty Brad Thomas to a Major League contract, but most of the other dealings maintained what they had. The Tigers re-signed free agent shortstop Adam Everett and reached a two-year deal with Ramon Santiago barely a week apart.