Saturday, October 28, 2006

Magical Season Comes to an End

The World Series loss to the Cardinals was certainly a rough ending to the Tigers' 2006 season. It's not so much that they lost but the way they played. They batted just .198 and put on one of the worst fielding displays in post-season history. The pitchers alone made 5 errors and most of them were embarrassing. What I wanted to see most from the series was for the country to see the Tigers at their best. Instead the Tigers played their worst. However, too many good things happened this season for me to dwell on the final series.

Regardless of the ultimate outcome, it was a magical season which Tiger fans will never forget. Their 95-67 record was a 24 game improvement over 2005 and an astounding 52 game turn around from their historically bad 119 loss season in 2003. It was their first winning season in 13 years, their first playoff appearance in 19 years and their first World Series in 22 years. After years of focusing on player development, Tiger history and just trying to enjoy baseball in general, the actual Tiger games became an important and exciting part of our lives again.

Even the most optimistic of Tiger fans were surprised by what the team accomplished this season. Most of us were hoping for a .500 season and some progress from the young players. This would have been regarded as a stepping stone towards future contention. But as the season unfolded it became more and more evident that this was a special team. After going 16-9 in April, they kept winning and found themselves in first place with a 25-13 record on May 16. It was a lead they would keep for most of the season. They were almost unbeatable through most of the summer and spent much of the season with baseball's best record. On August 8th, they were an amazing 76-36 and 10 games out in front of the best division in baseball. It was a surreal experience for Tiger fans.

They stumbled down the wire going 19-31 and lost the division title but they weren't done yet. The American League Wild Card team lost the first game to the Yankees but then stunned the baseball world by shutting down the "best line-up ever assembled" and taking three straight. They then swept the Athletics rather easily and went into the World Series as heavy favorites for the first time all year. Then, for some reason, the magic ended and they settled for an American League Championship.

It was a team built around pitching and they led the majors in ERA for the first time in team history. Kenny Rogers, the 41 year old free agent acquisition, held off father time and had one of his best seasons culminating in a historic post-season scoreless streak. 23 year old Justin Verlander was the best Tiger rookie since Mark Fidrych and the likely Rookie of the Year. Another 23 year old, Jeremy Bonderman, lowered his ERA for the third straight year, pitched 200 innings for the first time and finished second in the league in strikeouts. Left-hander Nate Robertson developed into one of the most consistent pitchers in the league.

The bullpen was just as strong. Another rookie, 21 year old Joel Zumaya, wowed the league with a 103 MPH fastball and became one of the leagues most feared relievers. Free agent acquistion Todd Jones was adventurous as always but was one of the most reliable closers in baseball. Fernando Rodney proved to be a valuable setup man and was a capable closer when Jones was injured in April. Jamie Walker turned in his best season as a lefty specialist.

Their pitching staff was supported by one of the league's strongest defenses. Pudge Rodriguez, as usual, completely shut down the opposition running game and was one of the best defenders at any position in the game. Brandon Inge was arguably the best defensive third baseman in the league displaying outstanding range and a rifle arm. Virtual rookie Curtis Granderson proved himself to be one of the best center fielders in the league. Placido Polanco was also a near flawless defender at second.

Offensively, they were led by a now healthy Carlos Guillen who quietly put up numbers comparable to Derek Jeter. Magglio Ordonez was also healthy again and he approached the numbers of his prime years with the White Sox. He then hit the 3 run walk off homer which propelled them into the World Series. Craig Monroe hit cluch home run upon clutch home run and added 5 more in the post-season. Brandon Inge and Marcus Thames became two of the teams best power hitters and Monroe/Thames/Inge formed one of the best 7-8-9 combinations in the majors. Chris Shelton started off the season with an awesome power surge which attracted media attention from around the country. He later crashed to earth but the season may never have happened without his great start.

This combination of youth and veterans was put together mastefully by general manager Dave Dombrowski. Manager Jim Leyland also did an excellent job keeping everything together and getting the most out of all the talent. I don't think even Dombrowski and Leyland expected so much success so soon but just about everything went right all year long and all the pieces fell into place almost perfectly. It all ended with an American League pennant and a season of memories that will last a lifetime.

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