Tigers conditioned for playoff pressure
Trying regular season helped prepare Detroit for tight situations in ALDS
DETROIT -- When they won it it in the bottom of the ninth inning Sunday afternoon, the Detroit Tigers rushed from the dugout and surrounded Don Kelly for a celebration that seemed to symbolize something larger.
These Tigers have had to scratch and claw for everything they've gotten. They didn't clear .500 for good until the 85th game of the season and didn't take over first place until the 155th.
They were pushed hard by the Chicago White Sox in the American League Central and were a long time getting the pieces in the right place. Three prominent players -- Doug Fister, Alex Avila and Austin Jackson -- spent time on the disabled list. Detroit's second basemen and right fielders were among the least productive in baseball, so manager Jim Leyland kept searching.
He started five different players at second and seven in right. General manager Dave Dombrowski made changes on the fly, acquiring both a starting pitcher (Anibal Sanchez) and a second baseman (Omar Infante) at the Trade Deadline.
The outfield wasn't settled until 21-year-old Avisail Garcia was summoned from the Minor Leagues on Aug. 31 to form a productive platoon with Quintin Berry, who has found a home with his fourth professional organization.
The Tigers never gave in. They kept plugging along, keeping the White Sox close and reflecting the mentality of their manager and their leaders -- Justin Verlander, Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder.
"I think it made us stronger," Jackson said.
Anyway, as Fielder said, what's done is done.
"It's the playoffs," he said. "I don't care about the regular season. That's over."
The Tigers just happen to be playing their best baseball at the most important time of the year. They're getting terrific starting pitching, and there's enough offense around Cabrera and Fielder. Their bullpen isn't always pretty, but it has gotten the Tigers to a good place.
Detroit finished the regular season on a 15-7 run, and on Sunday afternoon, it came from behind three times to beat the Oakland Athletics, 5-4, in Game 2 of a best-of-five American League Division Series.
"That's what it's going to be like when you're playing good teams," Fielder said. "Sometimes, you have to come back. Sometimes, things are going to have to fall for you here and there. I'm just glad we got the win."
The A's have scored in five innings in the first two games, and each time the Tigers have come back to erase the lead in the bottom of the same inning. Now they're up 2-0 and will go for the clincher Tuesday in Oakland.
As for that party that started on the field when Kelly's sacrifice fly got Infante home with the winning run, it continued in the clubhouse.
The Tigers were thrilled that Kelly, who was sent back to the Minor Leagues this season, got a moment on stage. They were pleased with another solid effort from Fister. Mainly, they were happy to be a victory away from going back to the American League Championship Series for a second straight year.
At the moment, everything is working. Cabrera and Fielder had four hits and a walk. Detroit's first and second hitters have gotten on base six times and scored four runs. The Tigers also got lucky, with two runs scoring when A's center fielder Coco Crisp dropped a fly ball in the seventh.
"It was great," Cabrera said. "We fought the whole game. That's what it's all about. It's not about one guy. We need everybody."
They're not preparing any victory speeches.
"Hopefully, we can get this thing over with as quickly as possible," catcher Gerald Laird said. "You give them a win here, a win there, and they get some momentum and you never know what can happen."
Leyland used three pinch-hitters and a pinch-runner in maneuvering through the late innings. That pinch-runner, Danny Worth, stayed in the game at shortstop and made a big defensive play on a Cliff Pennington grounder in the top of the ninth inning of a tie game.
And there was Kelly, who got just 113 at-bats during the regular season, driving in the winning run with that bases-loaded sacrifice fly.
"That's why he's on the team," Fielder said. "That's why you've got 25 guys."
As Laird put it, "Skipper relies on you. If you're on the roster, you're going to play. He has faith in you."
All in all, a difficult regular season might have prepared the Tigers for the tension of the playoffs. After 18 innings, the Tigers and A's have been separated by more than two runs at any time.
"Our regular season conditioned us for right now," Jackson said. "We've been able to come through a few times like this."
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.