10/18/06 12:19 PM ET
Tigers' run similar to that of White Sox
Detroit's regular-season end, playoffs resemble 2005 champs
By Scott Merkin / MLB.com
Cleveland had come into U.S. Cellular Field for a three-game series to begin the second-to-last week of the season and claimed an exciting 7-5 victory in Game 1. Exciting, that is, if you were rooting for the Indians to finish off their improbable division comeback.
When Paul Konerko popped out to second baseman Ronnie Belliard with two runners on base, the South Siders watched their season-high 15-game lead in the American League Central at the start of August slip to 2 1/2 games on Sept. 19. Yet, there was Konerko, the team's calm and cool leader, standing in front of his locker and putting forth a postgame statement that would become prophetic just one week later.
"Just because we lost all that ground, it doesn't mean that two weeks from now we have to be on the losing end," Konerko said. "I believe we are going to do it, and if we do, I believe we will be dangerous after that's done."
On Sept. 29, the White Sox clinched the AL Central title in Detroit -- marking their first playoff appearance since 2000. It was their second straight victory in a string of 16 wins in 17 games, which produced the franchise's first World Series title in 88 years. The White Sox appeared to be creeping to the finish line during the regular season, only to race past the competition with an 11-1 postseason mark.
If this scenario sounds somewhat familiar, it's only because the same situation could be playing out just a 4 1/2-hour drive from Chicago starting this Saturday at Comerica Park in Detroit. The Tigers' 2006 regular-season effort bore a striking resemblance to the White Sox of 2005, in that they took early control of the Central, built up a 10-game lead on Aug. 7, a 5 1/2-game lead on Sept. 1 and then tried to hold off a red-hot challenger in the form of the Minnesota Twins.
Detroit didn't stick entirely to the previous script, losing their final five games and falling one game short of the division title. That streak of futility included an almost inexplicable three straight losses to the last-place Royals to close out the regular season at home, a stretch during which the Tigers blew a five-run lead and six-run lead, respectively. When the Yankees beat up on Nate Robertson and Detroit in the first game of their Division Series at Yankee Stadium two days later, one of the great success stories from 2006 looked as if it could end with eight straight losses.
Instead, the Tigers now are working through a one-week hiatus after sweeping Oakland in the AL Championship Series, extending their win streak to seven and reaching the World Series for the first time since 1984. Jim Leyland's crew is living proof of the old adage that it's not how you start, but how you finish.
One word ultimately describes the reason for both of these teams producing October runs of invincibility -- and that word just happens to be "pitching." Mark Buehrle, Jon Garland, Freddy Garcia and Jose Contreras threw four straight complete games to close out the Angels in the 2005 ALCS, an effort that might never be duplicated.
The Tigers, meanwhile, have ridden one solid start after another from Kenny Rogers, Justin Verlander, Jeremy Bonderman and Robertson to knock out the favored Yankees and sweep the A's. Power arms dot the Tigers' entire staff, with relievers such as Joel Zumaya, Fernando Rodney, Wilfredo Ledezma and Todd Jones helping Leyland shorten the game for the starters.
It's a situation which seemed to be virtually impossible when Bonderman was knocked out early by the Royals in the season finale, and Rogers was pulled from his Game 1 playoff start in order to try to lock up the Central in relief. It's a run that White Sox general manager Ken Williams, the architect of last year's World Series champions, even admits is a bit surprising.
Having settling forces such as Ozzie Guillen and Leyland at the helm certainly contributed to these teams' quick turnarounds. Guillen talked about quitting after 2005 if the White Sox went all the way, trying to deflect the attention from his struggling team, while Leyland quickly refocused his charges on winning as a Wild Card after the final series disappointment.
They both understood the basic concept that just getting to the playoffs is the first necessary accomplishment to win a title.
"I've won it with a few teams all the way to the end," Guillen said after his team clinched the Central. "But this first step is a big step."
Each team also had a jumping-off point, so to speak, turning the futility into almost instant greatness. For the White Sox, it was a regular-season ending three-game sweep at Jacobs Field, exorcising the demon of Cleveland. For Detroit, it was a rainout after the Game 1 loss at Yankee Stadium, seemingly giving the Tigers time to step away from the game and get back to what made them successful.
But as much as the White Sox and Tigers struggled down the stretch, they have nothing on the 2000 Yankees. Joe Torre's squad lost its final seven games and 15 of its last 18, yet advanced as the AL East champion.
That Yankees squad won the championship in five games over the Mets, after disposing of the Mariners in six and the A's in five. The 2005 White Sox tied the 1999 Yankees for the second-best postseason mark in baseball history, and in a little under two weeks, the Tigers hope to complete their October explosion and take their place among baseball's great titlists.
Scott Merkin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.