Tigers prove they belong after all
Doubters shown legitimacy of club's dominant regular season
NEW YORK -- Those people who warmed up for the postseason by speaking of the Detroit Tigers as mere victims must now change their tunes, or at least amend their declarations of October disaster.
In Game 2 of this American League Division Series, the Tigers played like the team that won 95 games, fourth best in the Majors in the regular season.
They did not play like the team that won only 19 of its last 50 games and none of its last five, and dropped the AL Central title on the last day of the season.
The postseason is a new season, and the Tigers used the occasion of Game 2 to remind you why they were here in the first place. In a 4-3 victory over the New York Yankees on Thursday, each and every strength of this club was on display for a world heavily populated with doubters of the Detroit team.
This didn't necessarily change forever the shape of this series. The mighty Yankees, the heavily favored Yanks, are still mighty and still heavily favored. Certainly, much of the known world believes that the Yankees will prevail. But the Tigers, by regaining their form and tying this series at 1, showed clearly that they belonged in this October neighborhood.
"We believe in the team, the players that we put out there every day," left fielder Craig Monroe said. "When people say, 'Oh, they shouldn't be here,' well, I'll tell you what: To come in here and beat a good team, an All-Star-caliber team, and go home with a chance to really do something special, it makes you feel proud."
There has been plenty of reason for the Tigers to feel that way. This was a ballclub, after all, that was 76-36 in early August and being hailed as baseball's best. It did not play four-plus months of terrific baseball by accident. It had the AL's best team ERA. It had the fundamental strength that makes for a successful baseball team -- pitching.
It had that strength again on Thursday afternoon. Starter Justin Verlander surrendered a three-run home run to Johnny Damon, but apart from that, the Yankees had no answer for him. He accomplished the starter's basic task, keeping his team in the game, departing with a 3-3 tie in the sixth.
Then, the Tigers bullpen answered the call. Crafty left-hander Jamie Walker pitched a scoreless inning, then Joel Zumaya took over, with stuff that was overpowering, eye-popping and just generally awe-inducing. With fastballs rocketing toward the plate at speeds as high as 103 mph on the Yankee Stadium radar gun, Zumaya retired all five Yankees that he faced, striking out three.
After the game, Zumaya was expressing all sorts of admiration for the New York hitters. He was asked if he thought that now the Yankees might respect him, and he responded.
"If they want to respect me, that's their decision. I'm just a rookie."
On the other, less self-effacing side of it, Zumaya knows exactly what he has going for him. "I'm not going to back down," he said. "I'm going to throw my fastball -- it's my best pitch, set up my breaking ball. I want to be intimidating. I want to go right at hitters."
After Verlander threw in the high 90s and Zumaya reached into triple digits, Todd Jones came in for the ninth, throwing much more like a mortal man, but still recording the save.
"Justin and Joel have a very good common denominator," Jones said. "It's called velocity. What I don't have in velocity, maybe I can make up in location."
No matter how this game turned out, it was a first-class postseason contest. It was well-pitched, well-played and the tension mounted as the afternoon shadows extended. The Yankees were up early, the Tigers were up late, the drama was pervasive -- every pitch held a consequence.
It takes two playoff teams to create one special postseason game. The Detroit Tigers qualified.
"This was just a great playoff game," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. "I think the thing that I'm happiest about is the fact that I hope -- and I'm sure we haven't convinced everybody, because obviously nobody knows how this thing is going to play out; it's 1-1 -- but I hope in my heart that everybody realizes that we are a playoff team, and I hope that we at least proved that today.
"To do what we did today with those kids pitching and everything and the way we played that game, I hope at least everybody believes that we're worthy of being in the playoffs, because I'm not sure everybody believed that."
If seeing is, in fact, believing, the people who saw the Detroit Tigers win on Thursday against the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium would have to believe that, yes indeed, the Tigers are a legitimate postseason team.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.