Editor’s note: Since Kyle Magin wrote this column, Verlander got his groove back against the Indians (because Cleveland is the baseball version of flying to Montego Bay and hooking up with Taye Diggs) pitching seven innings, giving up only four hits and one earned run, walking one, striking out eight and lowering his ERA to 4.73.)
There’s a dearth of phrases describing the last month of Detroit Tigers baseball. ‘Up in smoke’ is a little melodramatic, paradoxically, though, ‘shitshow’ and ‘disaster’ seem light.
On May 18, the Tigers were in 1st place in the AL Central with a 7.5-game lead and a 27-12 record. Nobody in Detroit could remember a hotter team since the 1984 squad that started 35-5, won the old AL East by going wire-to-wire on top of the division and won the World Series.
On June 18, the Tigers were in 2nd place, owners of a 9-19 record the month prior. Fans are shell-shocked; everything that can has gone wrong for the team in that span. They lose in the sort of blow-outs that dismantle the team’s spirit like the discovery of Old Yeller’s rabies. On June 17, they lost first place in the most excruciating way possible, watching nine-figure payday hopeful Max Scherzer cruise through the first inning against Kansas City on 10 pitches before tossing 51 in the second en route to giving up seven runs and the ballgame.
They lose while they finally look like they’ve righted the ship, like the guy who boots a perfect day at the beach by realizing he locked his keys in the car as they’re headed back to town for dinner.
On June 9, it looked like the Tigers had finally righted that ship—they were cruising to a 3-2 victory over the Red Sox after beating them in the first two tilts of the series. It seemed like all the struggles from late May and early June had melted away. Then David Ortiz hit a monster, murderous shot off Tigers reliever Joba Chamberlain. Tigers fans convulsed, feeling PTSD pangs from a similar Ortiz home run in the 2013 ALCS. I stared at a wall for a half hour afterwards. The team locked its keys in the car.
Here the Tigers are, now, with a wrecked bullpen, a deeply flawed ace in Justin Verlander (with a 7.83 ERA in his last 7 starts he’s acting like the asshole all the fans knew him to be but hoped to keep secret) and an offense that finds no middle ground between boom and bust.
I harbor no romantic notions about the thrill of a pennant chase (key caveat: When your team is the one being chased). My personal preference is to Mollywop a division by at least 5-plus games, erasing any question of a tight race. That sort of thing is less common in the AL Central, where more frequently the White Sox, Indians, Tigers, and until relatively recently, Twins (the Royals hold
1st 2nd place presently), are sent heaving over the finish line with a couple games, or less, separating the top dog from the Rust Belt wannabes.
Tight races might be fun once they’re won, but it’s hell on a fan’s fingernails, cardiovascular system, diet, liver, kidneys and dog in the interim. Losing them is something akin to death—you’d rather be 10 games out than look like the Tigers did in 2009 after losing a tiebreaker to the Twins on the last day of the season after coughing up a four-game lead with five to go.
A tight race is an outcome I was hoping the team would avoid this season. Competitiveness is most entertaining when it’s someone else. There’s a lot of baseball to be played, and every game after losing the lead and until they regain it again makes me reach for the Pepto.