This is what I was afraid of, if you want to know.
The 2008 Tigers, I feared, would be under such a cinder block-heavy weight of expectations and pressure; you know, to score 1,000 runs, to flick opponents off their shoulder like gnats, to be the Yankees (or the Red Sox) of the Midwest. And that weight, I fretted, would lead to playing tight, especially out of the gate. If the Tigers could getaway with relatively little trouble, say going something like 7-3 in their first ten games, then a lot of that heaviness would go away.
The Tigers could still go 7-3, but they’d have to rip off seven straight wins to get there, thanks to their opening sweep at the hands of the seemingly improved Kansas City Royals — a team that suddenly looks like it has the pitching staff to be taken seriously.
Already, manager Jim Leyland had his first meltdown. Only took three games for Leyland to toss around words like “dead” and “not professional” and “not prepared.” Twenty-nine innings for him to wonder about his team’s toughness. Maybe this really IS New York, Great Lakes version. Even the Yankees didn’t get this kind of a tongue-lashing from The Boss after three games.
“We’ve got a target on us,” Leyland said. “We’ll find out how good we are. We’ll find out if we are tough enough. I haven’t seen enough toughness in the last few days. I’m very disappointed in that.”
I’m not sure if it’s a lack of toughness so much as it is wanting too badly to burst out to a roaring start. I think a lot of folks — Tigers players included — had visions of 11-3, 9-2, and 8-1 wins over the Royals to start the season. But these Royals starters came into town and poured water all over the Tigers’ book of matches. There was more life at a funeral home than there was out of the Tigers during the Royals series. So far, the highlights have been two solo HRs — one by Miguel Cabrera in his first game, and the other by Carlos Guillen, which tied the Opening Day game in the 8th inning. That’s pretty much been it, folks.
Magglio Ordonez and Placido Polanco, who hit .363 and .341 respectively in 2007, are clueless. Cabrera sat out yesterday’s game with an injury, though he hopes to play today. And Gary Sheffield hurt his finger badly, and the thoughts of Sheff sitting for any length of time ought to give you chills. This offense is already anemic with him IN the lineup.
Still, it’s only three games — which in a 162-game season is not even two percent of the schedule. The concern, though, comes from the worry that this 0-3 getaway could get crazy and be 2-8 in a heartbeat — as the Tigers get more and more frustrated and play as tightly wound as the core of the baseballs that they are failing to strike with any authority at the moment.
In 2006, Leyland had his famous meltdown on Easter Sunday after the team looked listless and uninterested in a game against the Indians. That has been hailed as a turning point in that surprising season. This year’s outburst — to the media (the ’06 rant was levied privately to his players) — beats ’06’s by several games. No coincidence, as the stakes and the expectations are exponentially higher now.
The Tigers haven’t worn a target — Leyland’s word — this bright and big in years. It didn’t take long to wonder how it would look on them, did it?