Tigers put skid in rearview mirror
Eight games in, the Tigers as anticipated were on display
BOSTON -- The idea was that when the Tigers finally won a game, they would respond to this development in the manner of professionals.
"It's the old Vince Lombardi thing: 'Act like you've been there before,' " manager Jim Leyland said.
This was precisely how the Tigers conducted themselves in the cramped quarters of the Fenway Park visitors' clubhouse on Wednesday night after their 7-2 victory over the Red Sox. As far as victory was concerned, they obviously have been there before. After all, they won the American League pennant in 2006. It was just that they had not been there this season, in Games 1-7.
There was no general celebration, no hooting and hollering, no spraying of champagne, nothing out of the ordinary. Players dressed, players ate the postgame chow, some watched the Phoenix Suns playing the San Antonio Spurs. The Tigers had become the last Major League team to post a victory in 2008, but celebrating excessively could have been a sign that the first seven losses were somehow legitimate as opposed to a week's worth of games that were mere flukes, aberrations and mishaps.
The standard statistical line that had been applied to the Tigers as the early losses mounted was that this was the worst start since the 2003 Detroit team went 0-9 on its way to 119 losses. The comparison was not particularly useful.
"That wasn't a very good team," said Brandon Inge, who was present for the 2003 streak and who played center field on Wednesday night. "This is a very good team, a very good hitting team that probably had some guys pressing.
"It's always good to get the first one out of the way, but it took a while. That's always the kind of thing that gets a lot of attention."
It drew attention, all right. This 2008 Detroit team has been picked by many people to win everything in sight. This seven-game losing streak to start the season may have lacked entertainment value, but it had plenty of shock value.
Most surprising was the Tigers' biggest failing during the 0-7 start -- hitting. Everyone knew that the Tigers could hit. They had one of the best offenses on the planet last year, then they added another run-producer of the first magnitude, Miguel Cabrera. The only debate was whether this lineup would be very scary or completely intimidating.
But then the Tigers scored a grand total of 15 runs in the first seven games.
"If we don't hit, I'm going to be totally surprised," Leyland said before Wednesday night's breakthrough. "But the one thing I'll feel good about, I'm going to be with everybody else in baseball. I won't be the Lone Ranger. Everybody in baseball thinks that this team can hit."
Leyland said that he had received several calls from fellow managers, supportive calls of the "hang in there" variety.
"They were very nice calls, I'm very appreciative," he said. "But through all the calls, you find out one thing: Not one of them had a cure."
The cure turned out to be a dash of patience, blended with a touch of clutch hitting. The Tigers didn't exactly explode out of their seven-game slump, but they did find a four-run fourth inning. Young Red Sox lefty Jon Lester temporarily lost command of the strike zone, walking back-to-back batters. Add a two-run double by Edgar Renteria and a two-run homer by Marcus Thames, and the Tigers had some runs.
Renteria had even more incentive than the rest of the Tigers to get this thing turned around. In a long and highly productive career, perhaps his least productive season overall occurred in 2005, when he played for the Red Sox. So he was booed at Fenway on Wednesday night. In these circumstances, he got a particular kick out of getting three hits, reaching four times, driving in two runs and scoring twice.
"They don't take time to boo bad players," Renteria said with a smile.
A two-run single by Inge in the eighth and a solo homer by Carlos Guillen in the ninth seemed almost too much the way things had been going, but the Tigers were due in a big way. With this seven-run splurge, they increased their 2008 run total by more than 46 percent, all in one Massachusetts evening. Throw in some sturdy work by the Detroit bullpen, and presto -- victory was not only still possible, but inevitable.
The question is whether the Tigers, now that they have set foot in the victory column, will soar or stumble from this point. It would be ludicrous to expect them to return to a pattern of not scoring for any length of time, beyond the occasional tough night against a really good pitcher, the kind of thing that could happen to anybody.
Leyland was encouraged by the quality of the at-bats and the approaches at the plate that the Tigers had. Beyond that, he, of course, was not going to become all that elated.
"I'm not getting all excited tonight just because we got a win, just like it wouldn't be the end of the world if we didn't get a win," he said. "We're not out of the woods yet, but maybe this will loosen everybody up a little bit."
What Leyland objected to in the glow of victory was another frequent statistical reference point, that no team that started 0-7 had reached the playoffs.
Let's face it, 0-7 teams typically don't have anything resembling the kind of offense that this team has. As unsightly as the 1-7 record seems, the Tigers are five games out of first place with 154 games left to play. They may have been temporarily embarrassed, but they haven't been permanently disqualified.
And they still look pretty good to qualified, objective observers.
"They had the nerve to have a tough first week," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said at the start of this series. "When it's all said and done, every team will be where they're supposed to be, us included. They're going to be a great team. I hope we don't see it."
The Red Sox didn't see that great team in Tuesday's opener, when Daisuke Matsuzaka shut out the Tigers. But on Wednesday night, finally, eight games into the season, the Tigers as expected and advertised were on display.
They returned to winning, yes, like they had been there before. And they put the seven-game opening skid quietly in the rearview mirror.
"It was no big deal," said Inge, "and now it's over."
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.