If the Yankees win the World Series this season, 2006 will be remembered for a long time in New York. They overcame devastating injuries, they came back from a moderate deficit in the division and Wild Card races at the All-Star Break, and they handed the Red Sox a humiliating five-game sweep in Fenway Park in dominating fashion, exacting a bit of revenge for the humiliation the Red Sox dealt them two years ago. They discovered a solid young outfielder in Melky Cabrera, and thanks to two brilliant deadline deals by general manager Brian Cashman, went into October with a lineup with a legitimate claim to being the greatest ever assembled.
And if they don’t win the World Series, none of that will be remembered. The Yankees still live in the shadow of the 1990s, the second half of which they dominated in a way that few teams have since the last great Yankees dynasty in the mid-20th century. There have been some great moments, but there have been even greater moments in recent memory, none of them tainted with the sour taste of October defeat. It’s not necessarily a sense of entitlement. Rather, a hamburger doesn’t taste as good when you’re used to eating steak.
The Tigers haven’t had steak in a long time. A long, long time. The Tigers haven’t won a pennant in 22 years, or made the playoffs in 19. Their last winning season before this one was 1993, and they’d lost 90 or more games in eight of the last 10 seasons.
And yet, though not to nearly the same degree as the Yankees, how the 2006 Detroit Tigers are remembered will be determined by the postseason.
The Tigers exploded out of the gate, rolling to the best record in baseball while playing in probably the toughest division in baseball. At 76-36, they were already five wins ahead of their previous season total, already assured of their best season since 2000, their first in Comerica Park. And a division title, their first since 1987, seemed certain: they led the White Sox by 10 games, the Twins by 10.5.
And then it all fell apart. They lost the last two games of a home series to the Twins, got swept in Chicago, won two of three from a slumping Red Sox team, lost three of four at home to the Rangers, split four games with the White Sox, lost two of three to the Indians, and then lost two of three in Yankee Stadium—barely avoiding a sweep when Craig Monroe hit a two-out, two-strike, three-run homer in the ninth inning of the second game. Suddenly, on Sept. 1, they were 83-51, just 4.5 up on the White Sox, just five up on the Twins.
Still, they came into the final weekend of the season with a playoff spot assured, and the division title likely, with the Twins facing the White Sox, while they hosted the Royals, who they were 14-1 against. Unless the Twins somehow did better against Chicago than the Tigers did against the Royals, Detroit would win the division.
Do 50 games define a season? Do three? Does one? For the Tigers, 19-31 down the stretch—the worst final 50 games for any postseason team in history—0-3 at home against a 100-loss team, blowing a 6-0 lead on the final day of the season to lose the division—it may well define them. Tigers fans came out of the weekend with a sour taste in their mouths. On Aug. 7, the 2006 season was a triumph, even if they lost in October, even if they lost in the first round. Fifty games later, those first 112 games look like they may have been a fluke, because the Tigers of the last 50 games played like the Tigers of the last 5 years.
And so the next week will come to determine how 2006 is remembered. If the Tigers can make a good showing against the Yankees, let alone beat them, fans can go into the 2007 season knowing that this team really was that good, that the last third of the season, not the first two thirds, was the fluke. That it was worth it.
So far… not so good. The Tigers had a chance early to take the lead on Chien-Ming Wang and the Yankees. In the top of the second, they had first and second with nobody out, but Ivan Rodriguez swung and missed on a hit and run, killing the lead runner, then went on to strike out, killing the rally. The next innin, Brandon Inge failed to advance the leadoff hitter from second to third with no outs, and Placido Polanco ended the threat with an inning-ending double play with Marcus Thames on third.
The Yankees finally broke through in the third. They’d stranded a runner on first in the first, and gotten two on with two outs in the second, but they exploded out of the gate in the third. Johnny Damon reached on an infield single, Derek Jeter doubled to left-center, and Bobby Abreu doubled them both home to give the Yankees the lead. But the relentless Yankees attack didn’t end there. Gary Sheffield singled Abreu home, and Jason Giambi clubbed the ball over the right field wall to open up a 5-0 lead.
The Tigers got back into the game in the fifth, adding to a Monroe leadoff homer with a two-out rally that drove home two more, making the score 5-3, but in the sixth, the Yankees put together a two-out rally of their own. After Damon singled to left-center, Jeter ripped the ball down the left field line to move Damon to third, but instead of throwing to second to keep Jeter at first, Monroe threw towards third, which allowed an alert Jeter to take the extra base and move into scoring position. Abreu’s second 2-RBI hit made them pay for the mistake, and instead of 6-3, it was 7-3.
To their credit, the Tigers never folded. After Mike Myers relieved Wang with two outs in the seventh, Curtis Granderson homered to make it 7-4, and two hits off Scott Proctor put runners on first and third for Magglio Ordonez. But Ordonez, who was the lead runner who was caught stealing on a double steal in the second and who had ended the two-out rally in the fifth, once again killed the rally, flying out to Damon in center. An eighth inning homer by Jeter, his fifth hit of the game, put the final nail in the coffin, and the Yankees won the game 8-4.
Nothing that happened last night does anything to disprove the notion that the Tigers are not as good as their record. Nate Robertson didn’t really pitch terribly, but he didn’t pitch that well, and the Yankees are too good a lineup to let a pitcher get away with that. They hit fairly well against quality pitching, but wasted opportunities to put runs on the board and gave no real indication that they can win this series without getting outstanding pitching, something they’ve had a difficult time providing lately.
However, unlike the other two losers on Tuesday afternoon, the Twins and Padres, they left Game 1 without there necessarily being a special sense of urgency to win Game 2. For one, unlike those teams, they didn’t have home field advantage before the game and a disadvantage after it. They didn’t lose with their best pitcher on the mound like the other two teams did, and more importantly, they didn’t have any great expectation of winning this game. They knew the could win, but to lose hardly deflates them. The Twins and Padres put themselves into near must-win situations, the Tigers simply missed an opportunity to put the Yankees in one.
But still, going into Game 2, this ALDS looks to be going like it was expected, the Yankees were just too much for the Tigers to handle. And while the loss doesn’t really add any pressure to the Tigers, it doesn’t help them redefine their 2006 season. To do that, they don’t need to win tonight. But they do need to make it closer.