In reviewing the history of the Detroit Tigers, I often think about the best seasons to be a Tigers fan. So, I am writing a series of posts listing the top 20 seasons in Tigers history. There is no specific formula for determining the best seasons, but there are some criteria which I consider carefully. Playoff appearances, especially those leading to world championships are, of course, important. Team dominance as measured by winning percentage and run differential also carries a lot of weight.
While most of the teams on the list did win a lot of games, this is
not simply a ranking of the best teams statistically. Sometimes, a
non-winning season stands out because of great individual achievements
or because the team was unique in some way. I wanted every decade to
be represented and since the Tigers have had a couple of poor decades,
this was a challenge. However, the Tigers have managed to put
together at least one campaign each decade which was memorable even if
it was not a great year in terms of wins and losses and some of those
seasons will also be included.
The entire list of 20 seasons can be found here.
The end of the 1987 regular season may have the most fun I've had watching the Tigers in my 43 years as a fan. The Tigers were just a half game back with 11 games to play entering a four-game series with first-place Blue Jays. Toronto won the first three games of the series, all by one run margins. That left the Tigers 3 1/2 games back and it was looking bleak.
The Tigers were down 1-0 in game four and the season seemed to be pretty much over. Then Kirk Gibson blasted a dramatic game-tying solo homer in the ninth. The Tigers went on to win 3-2 with Gibson getting a game-winning single in the top of the 13th inning. There was now a ray of hope for the Tigers.
The Bengals then took just two games in a four-game series versus the Orioles. Fortunately, the Blue Jays were swept by Brewers at the same time. That left the Tigers one game back prior to a season-ending three-game series versus the Blue Jays.
The Tigers took the first game 4-3 behind the pitching of late-season acquisition Doyle Alexander and closer Mike Henneman and home runs by shortstop Alan Trammell and outfielder Scott Lusader. The two teams were now tied for first.
The Tigers then moved into sole possession of first-place by winning the second game 3-2 in 12 innings. They got nine strong innings from right-hander Jack Morris and three innings of scoreless relief from Henneman. Trammell knocked in the game winner with a single in the bottom of the 12th.
The Tigers clinched the division title on the final day of the season when Frank Tanana out dueled Jimmy Key 1-0 in a battle of southpaws. The Tigers scored their only run on a solo homer by Larry Herndon in the first inning. After seven games between the top two teams, ALL decided by one run, the Tigers finished on top.
The Tigers seemingly used up all their energy in winning the division
though. The Twins easily eliminated them in the playoffs four games to
one. That would be the first of many disappointing series versus the
Twins over the next couple of decades.
The Tigers finished with a record of 98-64 and led the league in runs scored thanks, in part, to one of Trammell's best seasons. Trammell batted .343 with a 155 OPS+, but mysteriously finished second in the MVP balloting to Toronto outfielder George Bell. Rookie catcher Matt Nokes , first baseman Darrell Evans, center fielder Chester Lemon and Gibson all contributed OPS+ of 130 or above.
Morris, Tanana and Walt Terrell carried the starting rotation for much of the year and Henneman came out of no where to solidify the bullpen in his rookie season,. The big key though was Alexander, who went 9-0 with a 1.53 ERA after being acquired for minor-league pitcher John Smoltz in August.
We know how Smoltz's career went after that, but for those who experienced the greatest divisional race of their lifetime, it seemed worth it. After all, given how bad the Tigers would be over the next 18 years, would Smoltz have made a difference anyway?
Some of data for this article were gathered from Baseball-Reference.com and Retrosheet.org