10/04/09 8:30 PM EST
Playoff-hungry Tigers return to dome
Detroit set for challenge of winning in Minnesota
By Jason Beck / MLB.com
Two weeks after the Tigers bid farewell to the Metrodome, less than a week after they hoped they'd seen the last of the Twins, it's time to head back one more time. And Tuesday's American League Central tiebreaker, live on TBS at 5:07 p.m. ET, could bring out a tougher atmosphere than Detroit has seen there before. Win and the Tigers will be headed to New York for the American League Division Series. Lose and they will endure an offseason of heartbreak.
"You might want to put your earplugs in," third baseman Brandon Inge advised. "It gets loud. That's OK, though. We're looking forward to it."
Considering the alternative was to go home for the winter, the Tigers will take their chances.
"Every pitch," manager Jim Leyland said, "will be a roar."
Leyland speaks from experience; he was a spectator there for a postseason game during his early years of managing. Now he gets to experience it from field level, with the challenge of trying to hold down Minnesota's run-manufacturing offense on his mind.
It was an intense atmosphere there when Detroit came to town for three games with a four-game lead to protect a few weeks back, with big crowds out to see the final weeks of baseball in the Metrodome. However, it wasn't the same as an elimination game. The Tigers arrived talking about taking the series and putting the Twins away for good, but after losing the first two games, their main goal reverted to simply not being swept.
That, obviously, is no longer an option. On the other hand, at least the Tigers don't have to worry about trying to take two of three at a place where they won just two times in nine tries this year.
"We still have a heck of a chance, obviously, to win this division," Leyland said. "After 162 games, we are in first place, and I think that's probably more than most people expected. I'm not trying to indicate that we're satisfied. I'm just saying that at the beginning of the season, I can't remember anybody picking us to win the division. And we haven't, but we are in first place after 162 games."
That was the message that resonated in the Tigers' clubhouse as players packed for a road trip that could either continue to New York or end the season. If someone had told them heading out of Spring Training that they'd have a one-game chance to win the division, the thought process goes, most of them would've taken it.
"It's one game," said Justin Verlander, who will be watching from the dugout after pitching the Tigers into the tiebreaker with a win Sunday. "Strap it on. May the best team win. Let's go play some baseball."
That view, obviously, requires a short memory. It doesn't include the three straight games the Tigers lost with a chance to eliminate the Twins. But that's the point. Part of their challenge between now and Tuesday is to put that all in the past.
"I think everybody's going to be prepared to win," catcher Gerald Laird said.
It was Laird who said Saturday night that he still considered the Tigers to be "in the driver's seat," even after all that happened. It was the same phrase he used coming out of the Twins series. As he also pointed out, the Tigers have a knack for winning when they've absolutely had to, whether it was the second game of Tuesday's doubleheader against the Twins or Sunday's must-win vs. the White Sox.
If someone had told the Tigers they'd be pinning their chances on the right arm of a 20-year-old rookie, well, that might've been a tougher concept. But as Rick Porcello has shown, he can step up in big situations and give his team a chance.
Porcello gave the Tigers opportunities twice against the Twins in September, taking a shutout loss at the Metrodome on Sept. 18 before suffering a no-decision in a late-inning rally Tuesday afternoon at Comerica Park. Tuesday's makeup game from a Monday rainout led to his assignment in this one, since he couldn't pitch Saturday. If not for that, either Eddie Bonine or Nate Robertson would've been in line for this start.
Both of Detroit's losses to Minnesota behind Porcello came down to offense, but the club's ability to hit Scott Baker in past starts, even to a lesser degree in Thursday's loss to him, gives the Tigers a shot. To improve their chances, look for Leyland to tweak his lineup a bit with an extra right-handed bat or two, given Baker's splits. That will include Ryan Raburn, whose two-homer game powered Detroit on Sunday.
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.