Greg Eno

Archive for October, 2011|Monthly archive page

Life Without Lidstrom Terrifying Thought For Red Wings, Fans

In Hockey on October 30, 2011 at 2:56 pm

Nick Lidstrom doesn’t block shots. He doesn’t body check anyone. He’s never thrown an elbow. His next fight will be his first.

The greatest hockey defenseman of his time—or maybe of any time—isn’t supposed to be so mild-mannered. He isn’t supposed to be less physical than a second baseman.

Lidstrom, the Red Wings‘ all-universe defenseman, is 41 years old. In human years.

In hockey-playing years, he’s closer to 30, because he hasn’t used his body as a battering ram or for someone else’s target practice.

Lidstrom plays hockey like Bobby Fischer played chess and Minnesota Fats played billiards—literally. No one has seen that 200’x80’ sheet of ice better than Lidstrom, who is always a move or two ahead of his opponent. He’s the geometric hockey player—using the puck’s caroms and angles like Fats used those green felt rails.

There hasn’t been a defenseman like him, before or since he entered the NHL in 1991. I’ll put up a batch of my wife’s Pasta Fagioli that there won’t be one like him after, either. Ever.

He’s 41 and despite his lack of wear and tear, Lidstrom is on the back end of his career. Only a delusional fool would believe otherwise.

The topic came up Monday night on “The Knee Jerks,” the podcast I co-host each week with Big Al Beaton of The Wayne Fontes Experience.

What will life be like, we wondered, when Lidstrom neatly folds his sweater and hangs up his skates?The word “terrifying” came up, more than once.

 

It’s an annual question—one that we ask without really wanting to know the answer. You ask the question and then bury your face in something, shivering.

Last spring, Nick made us sweat a little bit more than normal. It took several weeks after the Red Wings were once again eliminated in the second round of the playoffs by the San Jose Sharks for Lidstrom to consent to play his 20th season.

They could hear the sighs of relief from Detroit all the way to, well, San Jose.

It’s not just that Lidstrom has played 20 seasons, or that he’s played them flawlessly, or that he’s the perfect teammate or that he seamlessly took over as captain from Steve Yzerman, no less—which is like a singer stepping onto the stage right after a set by Sinatra and no one noticing.

No, it’s that Lidstrom has done all that while hardly missing a game.

His games-played column reads like an early-summer thermometer: 76, 78, 80, 77, 79, 80, 81.

The spooky notion of no more Nick Lidstrom is just as much the fear of the unknown as anything else.

We don’t want to think of the Red Wings without Lidstrom because we haven’t really seen the Red Wings without Lidstrom since before he was a Red Wing.

It’s History 101.The last time a Red Wings roster didn’t list Lidstrom’s name, George Bush The First was President. The Pistons were the defending NBA champs—but they were the Pistons of Isiah and Dumars, not Chauncey and Hamilton.

 

There was no Internet.

The kids graduating high school this year were still two years from being born.

Need I go on?

Lidstrom’s longevity is one thing; his durability is quite another.

As much as Yzerman is revered in Detroit—and he should be—Steve wasn’t exactly an Iron Man, unless you count his days spent in those hyperbaric chambers. Stevie Y was more Iron Lung than Iron Man.

Yzerman missed games in chunks, due to various injuries. He was the anti-Lidstrom, in a sense.

There was a serious knee injury in 1988. But that wasn’t the worst of it. As Yzerman got older, his body broke down more frequently. He played the 2002 playoffs on a knee so mangled that he managed to report to work for just 13 games the following season, recovering from the knee’s reconstruction.

There was more time lost in the 2005-06 season, Yzerman’s last as a player.

So we had heaping spoonfuls of Red Wings life without Steve Yzerman, making his retirement no less sad—just less of a shock to the system.Not so with Lidstrom, who has played with mind-numbing consistency and Lou Gehrig-like durability.

We have not been prepped for Lidstrom’s retirement.

 

If the Red Wings fan base thinks that another Lidstrom is being groomed, or that he can in any way be replaced, forget it. Not going to happen.

This is no affront to Niklas Kronwall or Brad Stuart or Jonathan Ericsson or to any of the prospects in the Red Wings’ system.

Players like Nick Lidstrom come by once in a franchise’s lifetime—if that.

How will the Red Wings ever replace him?

Did the Boston Bruins replace Raymond Bourque?

Yzerman, for all of his Hall of Fame worthiness, was in the process of being phased out by the time he retired in 2006. The cache of forwards the Red Wings employed made Stevie’s departure easier to digest.

All the Red Wings can do when Lidstrom finally bids farewell—and it’ll be sooner rather than later—is take a deep breath, exhale and hope that they have a defensive corps that can band together and do one of those “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” kind of things.

Because if you think he’s going to be replaced, you’re mad.The Red Wings have had four—four—players who’ve played 20-plus seasons for them: Lidstrom, Yzerman, Gordie Howe and Alex Delvecchio.

This is significant.

The Montreal Canadiens, for all their history and Stanley Cups, have had just one player—Jean Beliveau—play as many as 19 seasons for them.

 

The Toronto Maple Leafs have had only George Armstrong play 20 seasons wearing the Leaf.

The New York Rangers have no 20-plus-year men.

The Boston Bruins have only Bourque, who played a tad over 20 in Beantown.

The Chicago Blackhawks had Stan Mikita for 21 years. That’s it.

The Red Wings have had four such men. It’s significant.

The most recent of the Red Wings’ 20-plus-year men might leave a void that none of his predecessors left—not even Howe, for Gordie “retired” with the team well on its way to being miserable for an entire decade.

How do the Red Wings replace Nick Lidstrom?

They don’t.

I guess he’ll just have to keep playing until we figure something out.

Will Seven-Year Itch Doom Babcock, Red Wings?

In Hockey on October 23, 2011 at 3:06 pm

It’s hockey season in Detroit again. Time to put up with another 82-game grind. In our self-ascribed “Hockeytown,” it’s considered par, not impolite, to look past the months of October through March so that we can worry about playoff match-ups.

The 82-game regular season is something we tolerate. It’s a longer opening act than a bad comedian.

We actually had to pay attention, a little, to the regular season two years ago, when the calendar turned to 2010 and the Red Wings were still monkeying around, trying to secure a playoff spot. But that drama was short-lived and by the end of February, order was restored as the Red Wings distanced themselves from the bottom feeders.

It’s never a matter of if the Red Wings will make the playoffs. It’s, “How far will they go?”

The 2011-12 season is just underway, but I submit that this campaign might, just might, provide a legitimate sidebar.

Mike Babcock, the steel-jawed, facially scarred coach, is into his seventh season helming the Red Wings. Yes, seventh.

That’s longer than any Red Wings coach since Jack Adams, with two exceptions: Sid Abel (11 years) and Scotty Bowman (nine years).

The fear is this, simply: will the Red Wings get a seven-year itch with Babcock?

Is seven years, in this day of modern pro sports, too long for one coach with the same team?

I suppose we’re about to find out.

Coaching and longevity are fickle partners. You can be a coaching “lifer,” but that’s typically done with a whistle in one hand and a road map in the other.

The coach who stays put in one city for any longer than three years is, frankly, usually a “dean” in his division.

Terry Francona just had a rather messy break-up with the Boston Red Sox. All Francona did in his eight years as Red Sox manager was make the playoffs just about every year and win two World Series—ending the franchise’s 86-year drought with the first one.

Yet a bad September this year proved to be Terry’s death knell.

The seven-year itch inDetroitwhen it comes to Babcock and his players might just be the warped bleatings of a worry wart sports blogger.

Yet I suggest that the Red Wings are entering into a potential danger zone with Mike Babcock. And it has nothing to do with whether he’s the best coach in the entire NHL—which he is.

It won’t matter how good of a coach Babcock is if he can’t get his players to keep him tuned in.

The coach’s voice starts to grate after a few years, depending on the character of the team involved.

Which makes it a decent bet that my Chicken Little hand-wringing over the Red Wings and their seventh-year coach is much ado about nothing.

The Red Wings are veteran-laden. Their captain is 41 years old and his face doesn’t look a day over 30. They have worked in some younger players over the past several years but their core is still Nick Lidstrom, Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk and Tomas Holmstrom—not a spring chicken among the group.

Hey, is Chris Chelios still on the team?

He may as well be.

The greatness of the Red Wings organization is that, for them, familiarity hasn’t bred any contempt.

They’ve had the same owner since 1982.

They’ve had the same GM since 1997.

They’ve had the same assistant GM since about that time, too.

They’ve had the same VP since 1990—and he started in 1982, too.

They’ve had the same trainers, equipment guys, masseuses and probably even the same mechanic for the Zamboni machine for years.

And, of course, they’ve had the same players, for the most part.

When you play for the Red Wings, you skate for them until they pull the sweater over your head and tell you that enough is enough.

Oh, they do it in a nice way, but Chelios, Kris Draper, Kirk Maltby and Chris Osgood have all departed in recent years, and in every instance, they were pretty much stared down by management.

In a nice way.

But the flip side to that is that when you’re done as a player wearing the Winged Wheel, you stay with the organization in some capacity. The Red Wings reward their fully-vested employees almost as much as Bob Ficano does inWayneCounty.

The ex-Red Wings, in addition to the aforementioned—who all have jobs with the club—dot the org chart.

There’s Mark Howe, who heads the advanced scouting department.

There’s Aaron Downey, who works in strength and conditioning.

There’s Jiri Fischer, whose domain is player development.

To name a few.

Yet the coach, Babcock, is the one we should keep an eye on. It’s always the coach, isn’t it? That is, if it isn’t the goalie.

Babcock brought in two new assistant coaches this season, perhaps as a nod to the concern of the players hearing the same voice, being preached the same thing in the same fashion.

The seven-year itch.

It didn’t get Bowman, who lasted nine. But they weren’t exactly nine blissful years. Just ask Steve Yzerman, or Brendan Shanahan. Two Hall of Famers, each who would have liked to jam a puck down Scotty’s throat from time to time.

Babcock, in six seasons as Red Wings coach, has delivered a Stanley Cup, two Finals appearances and three conference final appearances.

But the two most recent seasons have seen the Red Wings bumped out of the playoffs in the second round—to the same team.

This is Hockeytown, which is theBronxof the NHL. A season that doesn’t end with the Red Wings raising the Stanley Cup over their heads is a season wasted, followed by a summer of consternation.

It’s been that way since Bowman re-instilled a level of excellence that had been missing for decades.

Now Babcock is the keeper of that flame. He’s going on seven years of being on the job. That’s a mighty long time, anymore.

Just something to chew on, as you bide your time waiting for the playoffs.

Burning Questions After Game 6 of the ALCS

In Baseball on October 17, 2011 at 7:45 pm

Burning Questions in the wake of the Tigers’ 15-5 loss to the Texas Rangers in Game 6 of the ALCS:

OK, you’ve had a couple days to chew on this. Thoughts?

I’d actually rather talk about the burning questions this spawns for the off-season in general, rather than re-hash Game 6. How much can you say about a 15-5 shellacking?

Fair enough. First, how about an overview of the ALCS overall?

The Tigers, in the end, were simply outgunned and too hurt to compete with a team as deep and robust as the Rangers. The Tigers would have needed almost perfect pitching performances from Max Scherzer and Doug Fister to have a shot. But Scherzer was just blown out.

The other thing that strikes me is how old and mediocre the Tigers looked against Texas. In fact, I can’t believe our boys got by the Yankees in the ALDS.

Too many guys from Detroit failed to show up: Austin Jackson, Alex Avila, Victor Martinez to a degree, and the starters beyond Verlander and Fister were so-so.

Also, the Rangers drove runners in, while the Tigers didn’t, so much. Too many wasted opportunities. Game 2, early, in Texas against Derek Holland stands out.

Let’s face it: the Rangers were the better team, by far.

Was series MVP Nelson Cruz the only reason the Rangers won?

Of course not. Cruz was amazing, but the Rangers’ attack was more diverse and more guys got into the act than did on Detroit’s side.

Looking ahead to the off-season: what do the Tigers need to take the next step toward a World Series title?

I’m not going to tell you anything you don’t already know, most likely. But I’ll say it an yway!

The Tigers need a second baseman and probably even a third baseman. Too much revolving door stuff going on at those positions. It’s amazing that a team in the ALCS didn’t have a regular starter at the so-called “keystone position.”

The third base situation isn’t much better. You can win the whole thing with a revolving door at one infield position (read: the 1984 Tigers at 3B), but not two.

It’s also time someone took Austin Jackson aside and made him a reclamation project. AJ regressed from his rookie year, and not insignificantly, either. His average dropped over 40 points, and his strikeouts didn’t go down at all.

Defensively he was brilliant in the regular season but pedestrian in the playoffs.

The Tigers can’t put Jackson at lead-off; he should be batting ninth—at least for now.

Ideally, the Tigers will acquire a second baseman who can also bat lead-off.

This may sound crazy, but the Tigers might want to consider Brennan Boesch to bat lead-off. The California Angels, in the mid-to-late 1980s and into the 1990s, used DH Brian Downing at the lead-off spot quite a bit. Downing was certainly not a “traditional” lead-off hitter, but it worked for the Angels.

The Tigers just need someone to get on base, and if it’s someone with some power, all the better. Boesch isn’t a great OBA guy, but I have greater confidence in him starting a game off on the right foot than I do with Jackson.

How deflating is it to constantly see Jackson start games by trudging to the dugout, a strikeout victim?

How about the pitching?

I’d like to see a lefty starter, as I’m sure everyone would, including manager Jim Leyland. Not sure if Andy Oliver, the youngster, is ready for that role, however.

The bullpen is a question mark, before Phil Coke, Joaquin Benoit and Jose Valverde. Al Alburquerque’s post-season meltdown, which actually began after he returned from his concussion, suddenly makes him an unknown entity again. Which Al-Al is he, anyway?

The rotation seems otherwise set, except for maybe Brad Penny’s slot. I wonder if he’ll be back in 2012.

Anything else?

Yeah. I don’t think we’ll see Magglio Ordonez or Carlos Guillen back, either. They make too much money and their bodies are too unreliable.

Brandon Inge comes back, but not sure about Wilson Betemit—which is ironic, since the Tigers acquired Betemit to essentially replace Inge!

Final thoughts?

It was a great year. By the end, the Tigers were put together with glue and bailing wire. I believe Justin Verlander tired out. Avila was broken. The Tigers didn’t have Boesch, Guillen and Ordonez by the end.

It’s a shame. Too bad the Tigers couldn’t field their best, playing at their best, against the deep Rangers lineup.

But the Tigers WILL be heard from again in 2012. This team is young enough that it’s not going away anytime soon. This wasn’t a one-year wonder thing.

(thanks to everyone who faithfully read “Burning Questions” during the post-season and “Monday Morning Manager” during the regular season! You guys [and gals] rock!)

Cabrera’s Ricochet Might Bag Tigers a World Series Berth

In Baseball on October 15, 2011 at 3:21 pm

I’d like to be writing this after Game 7 of the ALCS, after the Tigers completed their comeback from a 1-3 deficit to oust the defending American League Champion Texas Rangers. But I do not have a crystal ball, so I write it now.

This is going to be either something you chuckle at and shake your head, filing it under another one of Eno’s silly rants, or it’s going to be wonderfully prophetic.

First, some background.

The 1968 World Series was becoming a St. Louis Cardinals field day. After four games, the Cards led the series 3-1 and twice they had vanquished the Tigers’ 30-game winner, Dennis McLain.

Then the Cardinals jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the very first inning of Game 5 at Tiger Stadium. The World Series was turning into a laugher.

But the Tigers had clawed to within 3-2 whenSt. Louis’s Lou Brock stood at second base in the fifth inning. What happened next is something any Tigers fan worth his salt knows of—and I don’t care how young you are.

Julian Javier singled to left field and Detroit’s own Willie Horton, who grew up playing baseball on the sandlots on the city’s west side, fielded the ball at his waist on one hop. Willie fired the baseball toward the plate, the speedy Brock tearing for home.

The ball and Brock arrived at almost the same time. Catcher Bill Freehan, who was one of the best at blocking the plate, stood his ground. Brock, perhaps with too much hubris, eschewed a slide. Freehan tagged Brock as Lou zipped by.

Brock’s problem? He missed the plate, by a sliver of dirt.

Home plate umpire Doug Harvey got it right, as so many of them do, without the benefit of TV replay, like their football counterparts so often need.

OUT!

The series, they say, turned on the Horton-to-Freehan erasure of Brock.

The Tigers went on to win Game 5, 5-3, and then returned toSt. Louisto complete the stunning comeback.

If the Tigers pull off the barely thinkable—swiping three straight games from the Rangers to advance to the World Series, I submit that a square, white hard pillow that sits in manager Jim Leyland’s office will be looked at as the turning point of the ALCS.

It was another Game 5, another series where the Tigers trailed, 3 games to 1.

Miguel Cabrera, the Tigers’ best hitter and maybe the best hitter in all of baseball, was at the plate in the sixth inning. There was a runner, the much maligned but vindicated Ryan Raburn, standing on first base.

Only due to a Houdini act by Tigers starter Justin Verlander in the top half of the inning, in which Verlander escaped a bases loaded, one-out jam with a double play, was the game still tied, 2-2.

So it was, that when Cabrera stood in the batter’s box, where just minutes earlierComericaParkhad turned library-esque as the Rangers threatened, the ballpark was rocking.

Cabrera swung and sent a hard grounder toward third base. Literally, as it turned out.

Rangers third baseman Adrian Beltre, one of the slickest glove men in the game, awaited Cabrera’s worm killer. If you’d have been able to freeze the baseball and read it, next to Bud Selig’s signature you would see, “DOUBLE PLAY.”

But then the baseball hit third base. Not dead on, but enough to cause the ball to skip unnaturally over Beltre’s head. Beltre stood stunned, looking like someone out of the audience of a magic show whose shirt had just been removed.

The baseball bounded into the left field corner and caromed around long enough for Raburn to score easily, breaking the tie.

Cabrera’s shot off the third base bag was the domino that caused the Rangers to fall. After Cabrera’s double that was disguised as a double play ball, Victor Martinez tripled to right, his opposite field drive eluding Rangers outfielder Nelson Cruz.

Martinezruns like a car on blocks, so to misplay a ball that enables Victor to steam into third base standing up isn’t an easy feat. But Cruz pulled it off. Cabrera scored, and it was 4-2,Detroit.

Delmon Young was next, and he tomahawked C.J. Wilson’s pitch over the left-center field wall for a 6-2 lead. The Tigers went single, double, triple, home run—in that order—and turned a tenseComericaParkinto a carnival.

Of course, the Rangers and their ferocious offense made a game of it, falling by the uncomfortably close score of 7-5, leaving two men on base in the ninth inning.

Leyland, after the game, made no bones about the part third base played in the Tigers’ go-ahead rally.

“I have that bag in my office right now,”Leyland told reporters after the game about the base itself. “And that will be in my memorabilia room at some point.”

Could Cabrera’s ricochet off third base be the turning point of this year’s ALCS?

Could it join the Horton-to-Freehan play? Could it be in the same category as Nick Lidstrom’s goal from center ice againstVancouverthat jump-started the Red Wings in the first round of 2002?

Both the ’68 Tigers and the ’02 Red Wings won championships in their respective sports.

It’s too early to tell, of course, whether Cabrera’s baggie will mean a hill of beans in this series. It could just be an isolated incident in a series whose breaks have gone mostlyTexas’ way.

But if the Tigers come back and steal this series, it would be derelict to look at the sixth inning of Game 5 as a whole—and Cabrera’s groundball specifically—and say that it had nothing to do with sparking the comeback.

It’s part of the magic and mystique of playoff baseball—when in a flash moments can occur that have an impact on a series in ridiculously inverse proportions.

It may sound nuts to say that a ground ball off the third base bag in Game 5 will determine who wins the 2011 ALCS.

But this is baseball, and that kind of play is just crazy enough to turn a series upside down.

We’ll see, won’t we?

 

Burning Questions After Game 5 of the ALCS

In Baseball on October 14, 2011 at 4:57 am
Burning Questions in the wake of the Tigers’ 7-5 win over the Texas Rangers in Game 5 of the ALCS:
 
It wasn’t classic Justin Verlander, was it?

Well, we really haven’t seen that Verlander in several starts now. The lights out, will-he-throw-a-no-hitter Verlander hasn’t been present in quite some time. That Verlander has been replaced by a gutsy, grind-it-out version.

Which is fine; it’s all about giving your team a chance to win. And that’s what JV did in Game 5, despite some anxious moments. The final pitching line wasn’t magnificent, but it was good enough.

He threw too many pitches on a night when Jim Leyland’s bullpen was taxed, but if anyone can exceed his normal pitch count and thrive, it’s Verlander.

Still, 134 pitches was above and beyond, which true aces sometimes need to do, especially in the playoffs.

How about that sixth inning?

Finally the Tigers caught a couple breaks.

It started in the Rangers’ half, when they loaded the bases with one out in a tie game, 2-2. You could hear a pin drop in Comerica Park. It was as if the fans were seeing the Tigers’ season flash before their eyes.

Then, after walking no. 9 hitter Mitch Moreland on four pitches, Verlander, with one more pitch, got out of everything. Ian Kinsler slapped a ground ball to Brandon Inge, who stepped on third base—a bag that would play a big role minutes later—and threw to first to complete the inning-ending twin killing.

In the bottom half, Miguel Cabrera must have won a big stuffed teddy bear, for he skipped one off the third base bag, like it was a carnival midway game. It went for a run-scoring double. Victor Martinez tripled, when his drive to right eluded Nelson Cruz.

Then Delmon Young homered. In a flash, the game switched from looking like the Rangers might break it open, to the Tigers breaking it open with a natural cycle: single, double, triple, homer. Just like that, they led 6-2.

The game seemed over. Did you think so?

Not on your life. Even with Verlander on the mound. The Rangers’ lineup is relentless; frankly, it scares me more than that of the New York Yankees.

I was fully prepared for the game to come down to a hairy finish, and I wasn’t disappointed.

Leyland’s bullpen was spent. He said before the game that he hoped to go with Verlander and Phil Coke and that was it. But Brad Penny was warming up. Did you think Penny might get tabbed for an inning?

Actually, yes. Penny was warming in the Tigers half of the sixth. After they extended the lead to 6-2, I thought Leyland might sit Verlander down. You know, to perhaps make JV available for relief in a potential Game 7. Penny for the seventh, then Coke for the eighth and ninth.

But Leyland stuck with Verlander for 134 pitches and into the eighth inning. I guess he meant what he said before the game.

Delmon Young hit two homers. Not bad for a guy who Detroit News columnist Terry Foster said shouldn’t be playing at all due to his injured oblique, huh?

That’s what makes sports such great theater. Frankly, I really can’t blame Foster for writing that. Young did look like he was laboring in Game 4—both at the plate and in the field.

But Game 5 was another day. In Foster’s piece, he quoted Leyland as saying he was not about to remove Young from Game 4 because, “He’s my no. 3 hitter.”

Actually, Young has been Leyland’s no. 5 hitter lately, but we got the drift.

Young was back in the lineup for Game 5 and he delivered.

And how about Alex Avila, who had a home run?

I was actually tracking the game at that point on the Internet. When I saw the score change to 1-1, I immediately clicked on the play-by-play to see how the Tigers tied it. When I saw that Avila had slammed a homer, I was flabbergasted.

But I was also ecstatic. If anyone needed a pick-me-up, it was Avila. This may not be what catapults him out of his funk, but at least he got to feel good about himself after one at-bat.

Just another reason why this series has been unpredictable and kind of wacky.

Why is Nelson Cruz suddenly Babe Ruth and Reggie Jackson rolled into one?

Sometimes this happens in the post-season—guys get inexplicably hot. Or, in Cruz’s case, nuclear meltdown kind of hot.

He has five homers in five games in this series. Clearly, he’s the ALCS MVP—maybe even if the Rangers lose it.

Again, as I pointed out before, Cruz had one hit in the four-game ALDS against Tampa Bay. Before the ALCS began, baseball people—and the Rangers—were openly concerned whether Cruz was going to find his stroke.

Imagine that.

OK, let’s bottom line this. Can the Tigers pull this off?

You asked me that—sort of—after Game 4. I said a three-game winning streak was hard to fathom. Now, just because the Tigers won Game 5, doesn’t mean I’ve changed my mind.

It will take two outstanding pitching performances from Max Scherzer and Doug Fister in order for the Tigers to complete the comeback. The Rangers lineup is deep, multi-faceted and filled with power. They won 96 games for a reason.

I’m inclined to say the Rangers will prevail. The Tigers are just too beat up, and the Rangers bullpen is the better of the two, by a smidge.

But just remember that I did say there would be a Game 6.

Quit bragging.

Just sayin.’

(Come back here in the hours after every Tigers post-season game to read me answer the “Burning Questions”)

Burning Questions After Game 4 of the ALCS

In Baseball on October 13, 2011 at 2:49 pm

Burning Questions in the wake of the Tigers’ 7-3 loss to the Texas Rangers in Game 4 of the ALCS:

This game was a second guesser’s dream. Let’s look at some decisions. First, how about Jim Leyland bringing in Al Alburquerque in the seventh inning?

He didn’t have much of a choice, unless Leyland wanted to run Brad Penny out there. It’s a tough call but I think Leyland was trying to find out if Al-Al could be counted on, once and for all. Because as you know, Al’s performances against the Yankees left a lot to be desired.

The four-ball walk to Ian Kinsler wasn’t good, and when Al fell behind 2-0 to Elvis Andrus you could hear the 37,000+ guts churning inside Comerica Park. A bases loaded walk looked imminent.

But Alburquerque recovered to get Andrus on a weak grounder.

OK, how about Rangers manager Ron Washington and his decision to walk Miguel Cabrera in the eighth with one out and nobody on base, in a tie game?

Curious.

Yes, Cabrera is the Tigers’ best hitter, but why put the go-ahead runner on base if you don’t have to? If Cabrera gets a hit in that situation, more power to him. But you should always make the go-ahead (in this case, potential winning run) run earn his way on base.

The move almost backfired, as Victor Martinez followed with a base hit, putting runners on 1st and 3rd with one out.

Then Delmon Young hit a would-be sacrifice fly to Nelson Cruz in right field. Cabrera was out by six feet at home plate. Another second guessing opportunity here; actually, two of them: a) pinch-run for Cabrera; and b) hold him at third base?

OK, let’s take “a” first.

If Cabrera was on second base, I’d have considered the pinch runner. Why? Because a base hit likely scores a pinch-runner but not as likely Cabrera.

But with Cabrera on third, if you remove him for a runner, you’re essentially removing your best hitter for one shot: Young hitting a deep enough fly ball. Anything else, you don’t need a pinch-runner. A base hit scores him, an error scores him. So you’re basically taking Cabrera out just so Young can hit a fly ball. I don’t like that.

Now, as for sending Miggy, I don’t have a big problem with it, and I know I’m in the minority.

It has to do with who was up next: Alex Avila.

Avila is basically a pitcher at the plate right now—an automatic out. Holding Cabrera would have then necessitated Avila getting a clutch, two-out hit. That was as likely as Cabrera beating the throw.

By sending Cabrera, at least you force Cruz into making a good throw. Who knows? Maybe he throws it up the line or gets too anxious, seeing the slow-footed Cabrera on the run, and grips the ball too tight and he skips it home. Maybe catcher Mike Napoli fumbles the throw. Any number of things can happen. The ball was hit, in my mind, deep enough to take the chance.

The end result looked bad, but I have no problem sending him—mainly because Avila was up next.

OK, how about sending Austin Jackson to steal on the first pitch in the 10th inning?

I probably wouldn’t have done it, but that’s not a no-brainer. Plenty of base stealers run on the first pitch. As it was, Napoli had to make a perfect throw because of the location of the pitch. He did, and Jackson was out. Sometimes you just have to tip your hat, you know?

Finally, Leyland ordered Adrian Beltre walked in the 11th, with the score tied and first base open with one out, to face Napoli. Thoughts?

Well, clearly Jim was thinking double play. But anything shy of that and the red-hot Nelson Cruz would come to the plate. Beltre is banged up. Maybe going after Beltre and Napoli, straight up, would have been the better decision. That would have left Cruz in the on-deck circle.

That move couldn’t have backfired any worse, sadly; Napoli singled home Josh Hamilton, and Cruz crushed his fourth homer of the series to salt the game away.

So this series is over, right? How come?

Well, you know better than that; teams have overcome 1-3 deficits before. Witness our 1968 Tigers.

But frankly, the Tigers are simply outgunned right now. They are being decimated by injuries at the worst possible time. The team even admitted that Avila is battling a sore knee.

It’s too bad that the Tigers can’t be fielding a healthy lineup, because when they’re on all cylinders, they can compete with anyone.

But you look at who Leyland is running out there, and that half the guys are either slumping or hurt or out altogether, and he just doesn’t have the weapons.

Justin Verlander is good enough to pitch the team into a Game 6 in Texas, but it’s hard to fathom a three-game winning streak right now.

So I was right! It’s over!

I said “hard to fathom.” I didn’t say impossible.

In fact, see ya in Arlington on Saturday night.

(Come back here in the hours after every Tigers post-season game to read me answer the “Burning Questions”)

Burning Questions After Game 3 of the ALCS

In Baseball on October 12, 2011 at 5:54 am

Burning Questions in the wake of the Tigers’ 5-2 win over the Texas Rangers in Game 3 of the ALCS:

The key to this one?

Why, it came in the very first inning. The Rangers, despite not hitting the ball very hard, put the first three batters on base and had a 1-0 lead before all the fannies were in their Comerica Park seats.

It could have gotten really ugly at that point. The crowd was already out of the game—a game the Tigers needed desperately. And here were the Rangers, on the heels of their walk-off win in Game 2, with a run in and looking for more.

But Tigers starter Doug Fister limited the damage—getting Michael Young to ground into a difficult 6-4-3 double play, then striking out Adrian Beltre. The Tigers had escaped, down just 1-0.

Yeah, but the offense looked sluggish again. Did you have bad thoughts, despite Fister’s escape act?

Well, sure. The Tigers have been scuffling since Game 4 of the Yankees series. Miguel Cabrera was looking ordinary again. The crowd was still lifeless. The Tigers got men on base in the second inning and stranded them. It looked like an act that we’re growing weary of.

I smell another key, right?

Well, not so much a key as maybe a sign that the breaks would finally go the Tigers’ way.

It happened in the top of the third inning, with Ian Kinsler on first base. He was running on the pitch, and Elvis Andrus bounced one up the middle. But Jhonny Peralta was covering second on the steal attempt, and was Jhonny on the Spot, fielding the grounder, touching second base, and throwing to first to complete the DP.

Had Peralta not been covering, Andrus’ grounder goes into center field and the Rangers have runners on the corners and another rally brewing.

At that point I thought, “Maybe the breaks will start to go the Tigers way now.”

And the next inning, Victor Martinez snaps out of his slumber and slugs a game-tying homer. But he got hurt, it looked like. Maybe the breaks weren’t done going against the Tigers?

The Fox cameras caught V-Mart hurling his helmet down the runway in the Tigers dugout, indicating that he was in some pain, as was evidenced by his oh-so-slow home run trot. But we’ll just have to wait and see how serious his injury is.

The Tigers hit three home runs and got some hits with runners on base, eventually. Is the offense back?

The Tigers better hope so. Their fortunes look less bleak now, but as I said after Game 2, baseball and momentum have a tempestuous relationship.

But it was nice to see Cabrera and Martinez bust out a bit, and Peralta slamming a third home run. Maybe this will settle the team down—they had to have been pressing a bit.

Then there’s Alex Avila. Are you sick of being asked about him?

Well, it’s not a pleasant discussion but it needs to be discussed. The Tigers can’t really give him a blow right now—even with a day game after a night game. Jim Leyland isn’t going to start Omir Santos, that’s for sure.

The Tigers are the only playoff team that doesn’t really have a viable no. 2 option at catcher. Now, with Avila possibly worn out from a long year, the Tigers are stuck.

Surprised to see Jose Valverde in the game, after pitching two innings the day before?

Yeah, a little bit, with two more games on successive days on the docket.

I thought Leyland might try to pitch Joaquin Benoit in the eighth AND ninth, frankly, giving Papa Grande a day’s rest. And Leyland might have, if the Tigers had a four-run lead headed to the ninth—the dreaded non-save situation.

Is this a new series now?

Sure, but in less than 24 hours it can be a new series again—the wrong way. The Rangers can still take a 3-1 series lead on Wednesday, which would pretty much cancel out tonight’s Tigers win.

Any words about Doug Fister?

Like all top drawer starters, Fister proved that if you don’t get to him early, you could be in for a long night. Jack Morris was a classic example of this. The Cat was noted for having rough early innings then settling down.

After wriggling out of the first, Fister was terrific. Just what the doctor ordered for the Tigers on a night where their offense arrived late but as they say, “Better late than never”!!

One more for you. Did you miss Terry Francona in the Fox booth, as Tim McCarver returned following his heart procedure?

I’m going to surprise you and say no. After all, the Tigers are 0-2 with Tito as Joe Buck’s partner and 1-0 with old “Second Inning” behind the mike.

“Second Inning”?

Um, yeah. Apparently that was McCarver’s nickname when he was briefly with the Red Sox at the end of his career. Seems every game he played, in the second inning, McCarver would head for the clubhouse restroom and, um, relieve himself in a no. 2 kind of way.

Too much information!

Good thing Game 4 is a day game, to take your mind off it quickly!

(Come back here in the hours after every Tigers post-season game to read me answer the “Burning Questions”)

Burning Questions After Game 2 of the ALCS

In Baseball on October 11, 2011 at 7:14 am
Burning Questions in the wake of the Tigers’ 7-3 loss to the Texas Rangers in Game 2 of the ALCS:

What got into Nelson Cruz? He didn’t do a thing against Tampa Bay in the ALDS.

Just goes to show you that momentum does NOT carry over from series to series. It rarely does day by day, frankly.

In 2006, Placido Polanco was the ALCS MVP and didn’t even get a hit in the five-game World Series that followed.

Cruz has been poison to the Tigers in just two games.

More blown opportunities by the Tigers, especially early on against starter Derek Holland. What’s up?

Just a really bad time to hit a team-wide batting slump. The Tigers can’t buy that key hit right now.

When a guy walks four in the first two innings, as Holland did, and none of those walks score, that’s certain to haunt you in the later innings. They say walks will kill you. But walks that never come around to score can be a death knell to an offense.

So Delmon Young is back. What the hell?

It’s called desperation. I’m not comfortable with bringing Young back, just a couple days after he was declared done for the series. I mean, what if he reinjures his oblique and is done for the season?

Of course, the way this series is going, that could be moot.

But the Tigers are desperate. They’ve already lost Brennan Boesch and now Magglio Ordonez is done with a broken ankle. The options are few, especially for a right-handed batter.

Speaking of Maggs, is he done—forever?

Well, he admitted to some reporters a few days ago that he contemplated retirement mid-season because his ankle wasn’t responding. So yeah, this could be it—if he doesn’t want to put himself through anymore rehab.

This was almost worse than the initial injury, which occurred in July 2010, because no one saw this one coming. Ordonez had recently gone on record as saying how great he felt. It’s a big blow, and maybe a sad one. We’ll see.

Complete this sentence: “After two games, the story of this series is….”

…the Rangers stars are showing up, and the Tigers’ aren’t.

Guys like Cruz and Adrian Beltre have come up big for the Rangers, along with Ian Kinsler and David Murphy.

Though he had a double in Game 2, Miguel Cabrera has been mostly invisible this post-season, as has been Victor Martinez. Twice, V-Mart had bases loaded opportunities to wash away his bad post-season, and both times he failed.

I hate to say it, but Cabrera/Martinez are making me recall the struggles of Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira for the Yankees in the ALDS.

The Tigers need the big bats to start bopping, and quick.

Did you feel some relief when Ryan Raburn smacked his three-run homer?

Kinda. But see above.

Tigers get out of a bases loaded, no out jam in the bottom of the ninth. Usually that comes back to haunt the scoreless team, doesn’t it?

You’re right—except when that scoreless team is up against one whose offense is in the toilet right now. The Rangers somehow got themselves back into the same position in the 11th, and Cruz then launched his no-doubter.

The game-winning rally was aided by some confusion between CF Austin Jackson and newly-inserted RF Andy Dirks. What happened out there on Mike Napoli’s drive to right center?

Not sure, but it looked like the two of them played, “I got it, you take it,” as Red Wings analyst Mickey Redmond would say.

Frankly, the Rangers may have scored anyway, but that horribly timed miscue didn’t help the Tigers’ cause, that’s for sure.

In the Tigers 10th, leadoff man Raburn walked. Jhonny Peralta was up next and bunted. Right call?

Well, I can see the logic, except that with a slumping Alex Avila and then Dirks coming up next—Dirks’ first post-season AB—maybe you swing away Peralta and hope for some action.

As it was, Jim Leyland was basically asking an .050 hitter and a rookie in his first post-season AB to get a big hit in extra innings. That’s a tough request. I might have hit away with Peralta there. But the “Baseball for Dummies” handbook says bunt in that situation, so there you have it.

So are the Tigers done?

So much seems to be working against them right now—the injuries, the slumps, the heating up of Nelson Cruz at the worst possible time. The baseball gods’ sense of timing isn’t helping the Tigers right now.

But you know what? We’ve all seen post-season series change in a heartbeat. And sometimes a change of venue does the trick.

It doesn’t look good now, but in 48 hours this series could be much, much different.

Yeah, or OVER!

Hey—that wasn’t a question. No fair.

Sorry.

Apology accepted. Enjoy Game 3.

(Come back here in the hours after every Tigers post-season game to read me answer the “Burning Questions”)

Tigers’ Win Over the Yankees Nice, But Not the Brass Ring

In Baseball on October 8, 2011 at 2:18 pm

It’s tempting to say that this is as good as it gets—that the moment is so savory as to be incapable of being eclipsed.

The problem with beating the New York Yankees in the first round of the playoffs—on the Yankees home field in a do-or-die game that boils down to the fate of the last batter, indeed the last strike—is how easy it is to feel like nothing can be tougher.

Or that nothing could be better.

As sweet as the Tigers’ 3-games-to-2 victory was over the Yankees in the American League Divisional Series (ALDS), it doesn’t change the fact that the Tigers are still just one-third of the way toward their post-season goal.

Only now are they in Major League Baseball’s version of the Final Four.

You’d think there’d be a bigger payout to beating the vaunted Yankees than to merely be 33% of your way to the garish trophy with all the pennants on it.

Tigers-Yankees, 2011 ALDS was finesse vs. brawn. It was the jabber against the slugger. The Tigers pulled some Rope-a-Dope on the Yankees.

In the two Yankees wins, they outscored the Tigers, 19-4. The Tigers, meanwhile, managed just an aggregate 13-9 margin in their three victories.

The Yankees won big and lost small.

But the Tigers won the biggest of them all—the series, and now they move on to Step 2 in this three-step process to becoming World Champions.

Actually, it’s a four-step program; you have to make the playoffs, first. But in the post-season there are three distinct levels, and the Tigers did nothing more than clear the first hurdle.

There’s a danger, in my mind, that maybe they think they’ve done enough already.

The Tigers beat the Yankees, at Yankee Stadium, with 50,000+ pairs of leather lungs bellowing. The mighty Yankees, with their perennial, it seems, Murderer’s Row lineup. But the Tigers beat more than Robinson Cano, Alex Rodriguez and the rest.

Isiah Thomas, while in the prime of his NBA career, spoke of how difficult it was for the Pistons to beat the Boston Celtics in the playoffs. This was in the late spring of 1988, while the Pistons and Celtics duked it out yet again in the Conference Finals.

The quote is lifted from Jerry Green’s marvelous book, The Detroit Pistons: Capturing a Remarkable Era.

“To beat the Celtics,” Isiah said, “you have to beat more than a team. You have to beat a mystique.”

He was right. The ’88 Pistons weren’t just going up against Bird and McHale and Parish; they were also up against the creaky Boston Garden and its ghosts. The Pistons, like it or not, were also playing Havlicek and Russell and Cousy—even the smoke from Red Auerbach’s victory cigars.

That’s why there was such a rollicking celebration that night in June ’88 at the Silverdome, when the Pistons finally—FINALLY! —put away the Celtics for a right to face the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals.

The court flooded with fans, delirious in the moment. It wasn’t clear what they were happier about—their team making the Finals, or beating the Celtics. I wouldn’t take that bet.

The 2011 Tigers have done more than beat this year’s Yankees in the ALDS. They’ve done something that only two teams in the history of baseball have done—beat the Yankees twice in a row in the playoffs.

2006 seems like a million years ago in a way, yet it also can be recalled vividly.

But the 2006 Tigers eliminated the Yankees in Detroit, in the so-called “friendly confines” of Comerica Park. It’s one thing to beat the Yankees when there are no ghosts and when all the leathered lungs are on your side.

Thursday night’s series-clinching win in New York had even the staid manager Jim Leyland in tell-all mode.

At the podium afterward, while his players whooped it up down the hall, Leyland pulled something from the now-it-can-be-told file.

“I would be lying,” Leyland said, “if I said that beating the Yankees in New York wasn’t something special. And I mean that with no disrespect; I mean it with respect.

Moments later, Leyland added, “This is one of those games that I will remember for the rest of my life.”

Then Leyland got emotional as he spoke of utility man Don Kelly and the memories Kelly created for himself after slugging a home run in the first inning that got the Tigers started and was the best of icebreakers.

“It couldn’t have happened to a better kid,” Leyland said, choking up.

Tigers President/GM Dave Dombrowski told FSD in the locker room after the game that beating the Yankees in New York to win a playoff series was “special.”

Owner Mike Ilitch, 82 and still with an unquenched thirst for a World Series title, sidled up to Dombrowski, amidst the celebrating and, according to the Detroit Free Press, told his Prez/GM that Thursday was “one of the greatest days of my life.”

The hierarchy was giddy with the moment, from Ilitch to Dombrowski to Leyland. The button-downed brains had popped.

Yet the Tigers have done nothing more than give themselves a chance to play for the World Series, let alone win it.

There are still eight victories and two teams standing between the Tigers and their fifth World Championship.

This post-season run is just one-third finished.

Yet here you have the owner, president and manager, no less, each putting a premium on the series victory over the Yankees that surely wouldn’t be placed on any other vanquished team.

The Tigers beat the Yankees in the ALDS, in New York. Congratulations.

That’ll get them an “attaboy” and a date with the Texas Rangers, another ferocious team, less than 48 hours after eliminating the Yankees.

That’s all.

These are the playoffs, not charity.

Burning Questions After Game 5 of the Tigers-Yankees ALDS

In Baseball on October 7, 2011 at 5:56 am

Burning Questions in the wake of the Tigers’ 3-2 win over the New York Yankees in Game 5 of the ALDS:

Did you ever think three runs would be good enough in Yankee Stadium?

Absolutely not, and what’s worse, the Tigers left some runners on base early, then couldn’t even get a base runner late. It just had the makings of a come-from-ahead loss.

How much of a relief was it to score two runs in the first inning?

It was great—for about an inning. Then the Tigers had a runner on third base with less than two outs in the second and didn’t score. From that moment on you just knew that this would be no laugher—the Tigers would have to gut one out.

Speaking of the first inning, how about DON KELLY?

What’s the Michigan Lottery slogan? “Play a hunch, win a bunch”?

That was Jim Leyland with Donny Kelly tonight. In the post game presser, Leyland said that “sometimes these things just work out.” Well, yeah, but he also knows that Kelly has been swinging a clutch, if inconsistent bat since Labor Day. Kelly’s average may not be great, but he seems to get hits when they matter most.

Don’t forget—Kelly hit a homer in Oakland the night the Tigers clinched the division, too.

Besides, Wilson Betemit looked God awful in Game 4 and with a right-hander starting (Ivan Nova), Leyland was unlikely to start Brandon Inge at third base. As for hitting Kelly second, that may have been the hunch part. That, and Ramon Santiago belongs at the no. 9 spot, anyway.

Surprised that Yankees manager Joe Girardi pulled Nova after two innings?

Of course, and I’m not sure I buy the “his forearm was tight” thing, not that it really matters.

I think Girardi wanted to empty his well-rested bullpen before the game started and give the Tigers a lot of different looks. But that’s my take in retrospect. So, yeah, I was very surprised when I saw Phil Hughes take the mound in the third inning.

And doesn’t Girardi know what Victor Martinez’s batting average is this season after a Miguel Cabrera walk? Yet Girardi walked Miggy in the fifth inning anyway.

But still the right move. As good as V-Mart has been this season, the old adage is that you never let the other team’s best player beat you, if you can prevent it.

Look at it from the other side: had Girardi pitched to Cabrera with first base open, and Miggy burned him, Girardi would never have lived it down.

Sure, V-Mart came through (again) with what ended up being the winning RBI, but you NEVER let an MVP candidate hit with first base open.

The Yankees loaded the bases twice with only one out and only came away with one run, on Joaquin Benoit’s walk of Mark Teixeira. Think they’ll be talking about that in New York for awhile?

As well they should talk about it. The Yankees don’t leave runs on the field like that very often, especially at home.

This game sort of reminded me of an underdog NHL team, on the road, trying to sit on a one-goal lead for the entire third period.

The Tigers played dump and chase with the Yankees from the sixth inning on. The Tigers at-bats were short and the Yankees would come back with pressure-packed half innings. It was unreal.

What can you say about Jorge Posada and Brett Gardner?

You mean besides, “Good riddance!”?

Posada was amazing, and so was Gardner. That’s how it goes sometimes in the playoffs. It wasn’t Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez who were poison—it was Posada and Gardner.

The Yankees got all sorts of infield hits in this series, and would have had another if Posada didn’t have square wheels. The Tigers finally got him out in the nick of time, but the pesky Gardner slapped one more hit in the eighth and was moving on Derek Jeter’s fly out to end the inning.

That ball that Jeter hit would have been a routine out at Comerica Park, right?

A routine fly ball just about ANYWHERE.

That new Yankee Stadium is ridiculous in right field, but so was old Tiger Stadium, I suppose, with that 10-foot overhang.

But Jeter hardly smacked the ball, yet it took Don Kelly to the warning track.

How ironic that Jose Valverde had a 1-2-3 ninth against Curtis Granderson, Robinson Cano and Alex Rodriguez, huh?

Yeah, because Papa Grande catches grief for not having very many stress-free saves.

The ball that Cano hit to center field went as far as I’ve seen any broken bat hit go; I was sure it was destined to drop in for a hit.

The key, of course, was getting Granderson out, and after that it just felt like everything would be OK, even with Cano coming up.

As for A-Rod, I wasn’t worried at all. Just as in 2006, Rodriguez was a non-factor the entire series. I’d have been more worried to see Posada or Gardner up in that situation.

So did you think Valverde was going to strike A-Rod out to end the game?

I certainly wasn’t surprised.

OK, the series is over. What was the key to the Tigers’ victory?

Pitching in the clutch. The Yankees’ two victories were blowouts, and the Tigers’ three wins were by a combined four runs. That tells me that the Tigers pitchers made more big pitches than the Yankees did.

Game 5 was a perfect example. First Doug Fister—who was pretty good, by the way—then Benoit wiggle out of bases loaded jams with just one run scored total. Max Scherzer makes a rare relief appearance and is effective. And Valverde does what he does best—close games.

Real quick: right decision NOT to use Justin Verlander out of the bullpen?

Yes. If he pitches he can’t throw Game 1 of the ALCS. And the Tigers didn’t need him, frankly, with Scherzer available and rested more.

Have you given any thought to the Texas Rangers yet?

Only this one: the player who scares me the most isn’t Josh Hamilton; it’s catcher Mike Napoli, who had a monster year and followed it with a good series against Tampa Bay.

Worried about Delmon Young’s tweaked oblique?

That sounds cute, actually.

But seriously? Sure; Game 1 is Saturday. But he told FSD Detroit’s John Keating that he expects to give it a shot. So we’ll see

Who’s your series MVP?

Young. He had three homers and two of them mattered: the solo shot to regain the Tigers’ lead in Game 3, and the follow-up to Kelly’s dinger in the first that gave the Tigers a two-run lead early.

Ready to do this all over again come Saturday?

Do I have a choice?

Didn’t think so. See ya in the ALCS.

(Come back here in the hours after every Tigers post-season game—played or not—to read me answer the “Burning Questions”)