So, the Tigers are still playing, right?
For all the drama, hubbub, and finger-pointing in the Bronx, it might be easy to forget that, you know, the Tigers actually beat the Yankees, rather than the Bombers simply losing. Amidst all the talk of Joe Torre getting fired, Alex Rodriguez getting traded, and Gary Sheffield letting it all loose, perhaps we spent too much time this past weekend asking where the Yankees go from here instead of where the Tigers go from here.
A completely opposite direction for sure, but isn't almost a bit insulting to their accomplishment to saturate the news with the now familiar postscript of another Yankee October demise?
Funny, we didn't spent the past three days wondering how the LCS might have been different had Francisco Liriano been healthy. And to be frank, the Twins might have pulled a bigger choke job than the Yankees did based on the strength of their pitching staff, a strength the Yankees obviously know nothing about. I got a kick out of watching Steve Phillips on ESPN yesterday morning insist the only way to fix this is for the Yankees to sign Barry Zito AND Jason Schmidt in the offseason. What better way to solve the mess you're in by throwing more cash at free agents. Because that's worked so well so far.
Meanwhile they were given the beatdown by a team with a complete opposite approach of building its core from within, with a certain concentration on its pitching staff. Justin Verlander, Jeremy Bonderman, and Joel Zumaya are a trio of young hurlers who are getting some national TV recognition finally (can't wait for Lou Piniella tonight on Fox with "Timmy" McCarver).
We should have known. Everybody who universally picked the Yankees did so with a predisposed predication that cash would win over kids who had struggled to finish the season, giving up the Central division on the last day of the year. Did the White Sox teach us nothing? Last season, a lot of folks supposed Chicago was done for in the playoffs after nearly coughing up the division to the Indians. They only went on to dominate the playoffs.
So, here is the latest conspiracy theory. Did Jim Leyland knowingly blow the division?
Likely? No. But think about it for a moment. Minnesota's Torii Hunter was already on record saying that the Twins had a better shot of beating the Yankees in a short series, and the Tigers just proved why. Once the Yankees threw Chien Ming Wang, Mike Mussina posed the only additional threat in the rotation. The Tigers were able to pull off a win in Game 2, and then pounded an ineffective Randy Johnson and an awful Jaret Wright to advance. In a seven-game series, the Yankees are able to counter with Wang once again, and then could have turned to Mussina to possibly force a Game 7.
Instead, they are home with changes sure to come. You think the Red Sox face a challenging winter; you could write a thesis on how the Yankees are going to accomplish a shift in their organizational philosophy.
Tonight, the A's and Tigers face off in Game 1 of the ALCS, a matchup that zero percent of America predicted back in March. Maybe the Oakland part of the equation, but nobody in their right mind would ever have dreamed Detroit would be in this situation, particularly when Leyland took the job a year ago and admitted he didn't recognize most of the names on the roster.
This Tigers club reminds me a lot of the 1991 Atlanta Braves, a team that kicked off an historic run of winning the NL East, a streak that ended just this season. Twenty-five-year-old Tom Glavine (in the postseason 15 years later again with the Mets) was coming off a 10-12 season in 1990 but the Braves stuck with him, and in '91, Glavine turned into a Cy Young Award winner. John Smoltz came from the Tigers in a deal for Doyle Alexander three years earlier. Charlie Leibrandt played the part of grizzled veteran.
In Detroit, Justin Verlander could win either the Cy Young, Rookie of the Year or both. Jeremy Bonderman, who was 6-19 three years ago, has like Glavine, put it all together and was filthy in his first playoff start Saturday afternoon. Kenny Rogers is Leibrandt, and coming off a "wow" performance in his Game 3 win Friday night. Ivan Rodriguez is Terry Pendleton. Leyland is Bobby Cox, with a team that feels like the one that prematurely ended his seasons with the Pirates two straight Octobers.
This is what patience will reward you with. Perhaps there is a message there for Yankee and Red Sox fans, who are demanding immediate gratification instead of long-term competitiveness. Tossing cash around everywhere on the field to create what Theo Epstein has referred to as an "uberteam" won't work, as the Yankees have ultimately proven. There's a reason why the A's were competitive yet again despite a budget less than that of the New York infield.
Pitching. Pitching, pitching, and pitching. You'd figure it wouldn't take until now to drill this into our heads. Pitching wins championships. Duh.
And yet, we sit here in awe asking how the Yankees could have possibly choked. The answer doesn't get any simpler. They didn't have the pitching. The Tigers did. End of debate.
Tonight Detroit plays in its first ALCS since 1987, the A's in their first since 1992. Both teams are here on the strength of their pitching staffs which means everybody is going to predict a long, tense, even series. But these things are difficult. Look at the Twins and A's, a series built on the strength of both staffs, won with ease by Oakland. And considering I went 0 for 4 in my LDS predictions, I'm keeping my mouth shut.