MINNEAPOLIS – So this is what chaos looks like. Guys enjoying perfectly charred steak and twice-baked potatoes.
Yes, this must be the picture of a sinking ship. Justin Verlander is singing off-key. Curtis Granderson is juggling his Hostess cupcakes like a kid who gets a sugar buzz before he actually ingests the sugar. And Dave Dombrowski, general manager of the Detroit Tigers, the team with the best record in the American League – still – and the team with the best earned-run average in all of baseball – still – is walking around the clubhouse patting everyone on the back.
They're not pats of reassurance nor of the nurturing, we're-gonna-be-OK nature. Because despite the Chicken Littles leaping from their coops to drop flash floods of acid rain on the Tigers' parade toward their first playoff appearance in 19 years, the chances of them actually blowing their five-game lead in the AL Central and their 5½-game advantage in the wild card is unlikely as a gainfully employed Kevin Federline.
Oh. He's guest starring on Entourage next season? Well, anything is possible.
Probable, on the other hand, it isn't, and even though outfielder Marcus Thames admits, "We haven't been good the last month," and even though it seemed awfully curious to cut their No. 3 hitter, Dmitri Young, until leaks revealed he had turned into a clubhouse malignancy, the Tigers, barring a historic meltdown, will make the playoffs. This is no bold prognostication; it's simply a confluence of facts, numbers and history that say so – and that also say the Tigers bear quite a resemblance to the playoff representative from the AL Central last season, the Chicago White Sox, who happened to win the World Series.
"That's just the way it goes," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. "This time of year, you lose a game or two and everyone wants to write the Tigers off."
Now, this is not going to turn into a pontification against disrespect. If the manager wants to draw that card, he can do so. He did, after all, take a Tigers team coming off a 71-91 season – its 12th consecutive under .500 – and build a double-digit division lead. Until a 13-16 August, the Tigers looked invincible.
In early September, they haven't looked all that much better, and so began the flaying, flambéing and talks of the Tigers foundering. History, as research by Booth Newspapers reporter Danny Knobler showed, makes it highly unlikely.
Since 1969, when division play began, 87 of the 90 teams with leads of at least 4½ games coming into September won the division. Two of the teams that lost, the 1978 Boston Red Sox and 1995 California Angels, dropped one-game playoffs for a postseason spot, and the other was the 1969 Chicago Cubs, whose fold-job to the New York Mets was an all-timer.
Which isn't to say that can't or won't happen to the Tigers.
"I understand some of it," Leyland said. "Every time we lose a game, well, you think it's because you haven't been there before? We've been here since February. Some of these guys have been here for five, six years playing baseball.
Whether the Tigers have enough talent to win will reveal itself over the next three weeks, then, presumably, however long they last in the playoffs. To approach 100 victories – a win against the Twins tonight would put them at 87-55, the same record as the '05 White Sox, who finished with 99 – with anything less than a top assemblage of players says Leyland is one incredible manager, a point that, if posited to him, he will turn into a chicken-and-egg argument.
The comparison to the White Sox is a fair one. Neither was expected to contend for the playoffs. Both blazed out of the gates, kept strong in May, posted their best month in June, kept strong in July and came back to earth in August, fueling speculation of historic collapses. The White Sox's ERA through 141 games was 3.63. The Tigers' is 3.66. Chicago pitchers struck out 892 batters. Detroit pitchers have struck out 888. White Sox batters hit 180 home runs. Detroit batters have hit 174. Chicago hitters got on base at a measly .322 clip and still won. Detroit hitters aren't much better, with an on-base percentage of .327. The White Sox finished the season recording outs on 72 percent of batted balls in play, the second-highest figure in the game. The Tigers are at 71.8, best in baseball.
On and on it goes, numbers eerily similar because the teams are eerily similar.
"Maybe it's because people just don't believe or don't think we can hang on," Tigers starter Justin Verlander said. "They can talk about it all they want."
"Bottom line is," closer Todd Jones said, "they're talking about our team going to the playoffs."
That's big news in Detroit, which is why each Tigers loss gets the treatment of a Matt Millen decision: Oh, no, not again.
Panic is a gripping emotion. It sucks out rational behavior. And with level-headedness so important in September, I asked Leyland a simple question – at what point would you start panicking? – that he answered with aplomb.
"I'll panic if my kid flunks math," he said.
It was funny and biting and indicative of how the Tigers do feel, how they need to feel. The sky is falling? Fine. Hold up your arms and balance it until September ends.
The real question, then, was: Can Leyland's son add and subtract?
"He's real good," he said.
Funny. Leyland can say the same thing about his team.