Tigers show they are a playoff contender at start of tough week against AL’s best

The Detroit Tigers took the first two games of this week’s series against the New York Yankees, with scores of 7-2 Monday night and 6-5 Tuesday night. Two big victories, especially given the opponent.

This week has shaped up to be a potential playoff preview for the Tigers, with four games against New York and three at Texas. As nice as it is to compete and chase division titles, the Tigers’ roster and management have been on a mission to capture a World Series championship this season, and the Yankees and Rangers are two of the big contenders that stand in their way. If these seven games turn out well, the discussion of October will get louder and more optimistic.

Monday night’s game was Justin Verlander Night, as his starts typically are destined. Every Verlander start has something memorable about it, from the anticipation of a potential no-hitter to late-game 100 mph pitches. The chance for something memorable is always there, and those hopes are usually fulfilled. Monday night was no exception.

Justin Verlander struck out 14 Yankees, a performance that is up there statistically with almost any. Verlander’s 14 strikeouts are the most against the Yankees since Boston’s Pedro Martinez in 1999 (the only other pitcher that I’ve ever seen that compared to the excitement of a Verlander start), and tied the Tiger record for most K’s against the Yankees with Hal Newhouser and Jim Bunning. Verlander is only the second pitcher in history to throw 14 strikeouts against New York without giving up an earned run, with the Angels’ Chuck Finley in 1995 getting 15 K’s and no earned runs. These are amazing figures, adding more and more lines to Verlander’s remarkable resume.

On Monday night, Verlander was basically untouchable. Three strikeouts each from Curtis Granderson, Mark Teixeira, and Ichiro. Hitting the desired corners of the strike zone, with inside and outside pitches. His fastball looked great, his breaking pitches looked great. Everything was on fire, all ending with three consecutive strikeouts to end the eighth inning. This wasn’t just a dominant performance, this was a message-sending performance, that this is what awaits the Yankees and anyone else in October. After two bizarre losses, Justin Verlander came back to form with a breathtaking start.

As Verlander carved his way through the Yankee batting order, almost everything else worked out for the Tigers. Both Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder hit home runs. All nine players contributed in some way to a run, as Tiger hitters repeatedly hit Yankees pitcher Ivan Nova hard. Even Jose Valverde had an uneventful 9th inning for the save. Everything went according to plan on Monday night, a relatively perfect game for Tigers fans to hope for in October. When it’s your night, you have to win, and every Tiger came through Monday. Come playoff time, when every game really matters, these are games that you expect to win.

Of course, sometimes things do not go your way. Sometimes, things are not perfect, especially in a short series. Some nights are nights to fight back. Tuesday night was that kind of night for the Tigers.

Rick Porcello, despite his great games, still does not have everyone’s full confidence yet. When Porcello is not on his game, things can go from bad to worse within an inning. That seemed to be the case on Tuesday.

After three innings, neither the Tigers or Yankees had much offense. 0-0 game, with a couple scattered hits for both teams. In the 4th, the Yankees struck first. After a double play erased Derek Jeter’s single, Mark Teixeira singled, Eric Chavez homered to left to give New York a 2-0 lead, and Nick Swisher hit a deep double to right. Normally, this is where the meltdown occurs. At this point, some were probably expecting it. But Raul Ibanez popped out to third, ending the inning.

Right after that, the Tigers bats started hitting around Yankees starter Phil Hughes, tying the game with 2 runs in the 4th, taking the lead with a two-run Miguel Cabrera double in the 5th, and scoring again on a third rally in the 6th. Every inning had great at-bats, solid rallies, and the Tigers simply overwhelmed the Yankees. I pointed out in my preview column that this game might come down to a weak starting pitcher, but the Tigers not only knocked out Hughes, they knocked around everyone the Yankees could throw out there. Any Yankees pitcher that could stay out there for a full inning left with at least an earned run. It was another excellent night at the plate, against the New York Yankees, perennially the presumed American League champion.

The only rough spot for the Tigers was Jose Valverde, who is always one or two blown saves from becoming “embattled closer Jose Valverde.
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” The Yankees hit well off of Valverde, with three hits and two runs scored before Valverde could coax Curtis Granderson into popping out. It wasn’t his best night, but it was just enough to win. And on a night where every potential weak link could have screwed up the night, those players did just enough to beat the Yankees.

If this actually were October, the Tigers would be coming back to Detroit with a two-games-to-none lead, needing one or two wins to advance. It isn’t October yet, but these two games are showing Detroit what’s possible for the Tigers this year. The Tigers are a very good team, but we don’t have a great team, not one that we can have unfettered confidence in yet. Baseball’s a different game, and anything can happen, making every postseason game a nailbiter. After these first two games though, Tiger fans might not have to worry as much.

Tonight could change things a bit. Anibal Sanchez is pitching for the Tigers, in his third start as a Tiger, with CC Sabathia on the mound for New York. Sabathia is in the Cy Young discussion once again, and Sanchez is still a question mark. The Tigers have won six straight, with the Yankees struggling through a 6-12 stretch. Could tonight keep those streaks alive, or will everything turn around for both clubs? Game time is 7:05.

Gordie Fall

Gordon Fall has been around the Detroit sports scene for his entire life and even entered the world with a Red Wings hockey stick in hand. With a variety of connections around the Detroit area, Fall will be presenting the unspoken, yet optimistic truth of our city’s sports scene.