Monday, January 02, 2012

Tigers Top 20 Seasons: #18 1972

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 season can be found here.

Under normal circumstances, a Tigers team that won a division title and had an exciting playoff series would rank higher than 18 on a list of best seasons.  Unfortunately, 1972 was the year of the first league-wide work stoppage in MLB history.  It only lasted from April 1-13, but that seemed like forever to a nine-year-old boy who didn't understand why they weren't playing baseball games.  That disappointment knocks this season down a few notches, but it still has to be included in the top 20.

As it turned out, the strike may have helped the Tigers win the American League East division title.  Because of games missed to the strike, the Tigers wound up playing one more game than the Red Sox.  That one game proved to be the difference in the race as the Tigers beat out the Red Sox by a half a game.

Going into the final weekend, the Red Sox led the Tigers by one half game as the two teams met in a three-game series.  The Tigers won the first two games of the series to clinch the division title. The Red Sox won the final game to pull within a half game, but it didn't matter.  The final records were:

Detroit 86-70  .551  ---
Boston 85-70 .548  1/2

The 1972 season was the last hurrah for an aging Tigers team which had won a championship in 1968.  The offense was led by two players in the twilights of their career - first baseman Norm Cash and right fielder Al Kaline, both 37 years old.  Other holdovers from the '68 team included catcher Bill Freehan, second baseman Dick McAuliffe and outfielders Gates Brown, Willie Horton, Jim Northrup and Mickey Stanley.  They finished only fifth in a twelve team league with 558 runs scored.

The strength of this team was pitching.  Fiery manager Billy Martin worked his top starters - left-hander Mickey Lolich and right-hander Joe Coleman - very hard.  Lolich won 22 games and posted a 2.50 ERA and 250 strikeouts in 327 innings.  Coleman won 19 games and had a 2.50 ERA and 222 strikeouts in 280 innings.  The final piece was not added until late in the season though.  On August 2, the Tigers acquired pitcher Woodie Fryman off waivers from the Phillies (who thought the southpaw was all done).  Fryman was magnificent down the stretch with a 2.06 ERA and 10 wins, including the division clincher.      

The Tigers then faced the heavily favored Oakland Athletics in the League Championship Series and gave them a good battle.  The A's took the first two games of the series at home, but the series then went to Tiger Stadium for three games.  The Tigers took the third game of 3-0 behind a complete game, 14 strikeout effort by Coleman.

The fourth game was one of the most memorable in playoff history.  The score was tied at one after nine innings, but a two-run tenth put the Athletics in front 3-1.  The Tigers then mounted a dramatic three-run rally in the bottom of the inning to win it 4-3.  The tying run scored on a bases-loaded walk to Cash by reliever Dave Hamilton.  The game winning hit was a single by Northrup scoring Brown.

Oakland eliminated the Tigers with a 2-1 win in game five as Blue Moon Odom and Vida Blue held the Tigers to just four hits.  One of the hits was a one-out single by Northrup in the ninth, but the Tigers could not score him.

This would be the Tigers last post-season game for 12 years.

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