NEW YORK – Here is what America does not understand about the Detroit Tigers. They will not die.
A country obsessed with the Yankees’ glamor does not grasp the Tigers. America fell, early this autumn, for the long-haired sluggers from the Oakland and the war paint on Bryce Harper’s face. It chased the Orioles, Reds and Giants, but somehow forgot the Tigers.
Once again, the Tigers proved this is a mistake. They were done Saturday night, broken in the first game of the American League Championship Series. A 4-0 ninth-inning lead disappeared. It disappeared on the sometimes-erratic right hand of closer Jose Valverde, who failed to get a split-finger fastball to drop and the ball instead met the bat of Yankee Raul Ibanez and flew into the right field-bleachers on a two-run homer. Tie game.
Almost any other team would have been finished, because in playoff baseball a blown lead like this to a team like the Yankees is essentially death. Twitter blazed with angry messages, hateful messages, racist messages all directed at Valverde. But inside their dugout, the players shrugged and talked about winning. Eventually they did and maybe now America will understand the resilience of the forgotten team in these playoffs.
“I think there were a lot of people who thought that we were cooked a lot of times this year,” infielder Don Kelly said. “You know what? When these things happen it doesn’t matter. It’s what the guys in this clubhouse think. It’s what we believe.”
Some teams are just built for October. There’s a reality to this. They have starting pitchers who are better than those in other rotations. They have enough hitters to produce runs. And they have a clubhouse filled with players who don’t crumble in the worst of moments.
It was just hours before that the St. Louis Cardinals came back from a 6-0 deficit to beat the Washington Nationals in the deciding game of their Division Series. There’s a lot that is similar about the Cardinals and the Tigers, including the aforementioned starting pitching, productive offense and resilience. In much the way the Tigers clapped in their dugout expecting a victory after one had been yanked from their hands, the Cardinals had similarly brushed away the burden of being behind 6-0 in the third inning.
“They’re very similar,” Tigers reliever Octavio Dotel said of his team and the Cardinals, whom he played for last season. “Both are young teams and both are confident.”
Dotel sat at his locker in Yankee Stadium. It was approaching 2 a.m. on Sunday, with Detroit’s 12th-inning victory in the bag. He pulled out what appeared to be women’s flesh-colored, calf-high stockings that he called: “my grandma socks.” A shoe salesman had given them to him earlier in the day to use while trying on shoes, and now he thought the stockings felt good.
Dotel laughed as he slipped his stocking-covered feet in a pair of Prada lace-up shoes. He was asked what is different about this team, what makes it suddenly dangerous now three wins from the World Series. He paused.
“This team totally has good confidence,” he finally said. “People probably don’t understand that and they don’t see that. We had a tough year but we are all together. That’s very important.”
With the presence of Justin Verlander and the offseason signing of Prince Fielder, a lot was expected of the Tigers. This was especially true when third baseman Miguel Cabrera roared off toward a Triple Crown. But something happened to the Tigers too. They struggled. At times, they looked lost. Verlander was brilliant, but others were not. They had trouble scoring runs. There were many moments they didn’t seem like a playoff team. Then they were.
Disaster has nearly caught them several times in the playoffs. They lost two games in Oakland and needed Verlander to pull them from the abyss in Game 5 of their ALDS. On Saturday, they needed Dotel and a procession of relievers to keep the Yankees from scoring until someone could find a game-winning hit.
That turned out to be Delmon Young, whose double in the 12th gave Detroit its lead again. Back in April, he was arrested here in New York for yelling anti-Semitic slurs at a man wearing a yarmulke on the street. He was suspended seven games. Much like his team, his season could have been ruined.
All that seemed forgotten in the Tigers clubhouse early on Sunday morning. The talk was about winning. The talk was about enduring. The talk was about grinding just a little bit more.
By the end, early on Sunday, the team that was supposed to have been broken the moment Ibanez’s home run flew over the right field fence, was very much alive.
Dotel, his shoes pulled on, stood up. He was asked if he thinks this is a team built for October. He threw his head back and laughed. He clapped his hands.
“That’s a very good question,” he shouted. “I’ll tell you this: if you get to October with adrenaline coming through, you are going to do well. You see what happened to us. We came along at the right time.”
Then he laughed again. Here the team that had died so many deaths this postseason was the team that looked the healthiest on Sunday morning. The Yankees seemed old and broken down with holes riddling their lineup. Their leader, Derek Jeter, was carried off the field with a broken ankle. Alex Rodriguez had to sit when it mattered most again.
And the Tigers just kept on living.
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