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Tigers fall to Orioles in ALDS, could signal end to an era

DETROIT – The Baltimore Orioles finished their sweep of the Detroit Tigers Sunday and we have another week or three to talk about how great the Orioles are, how well Buck Showalter manages, and how cool this is for Baltimore. That city could hold a parade soon.

In the meantime: A eulogy.

The Tigers are dead for the 2014 season, and possibly (though not definitely) for an era. Since they surprised baseball with their run to the 2006 World Series, the Tigers have won four division titles and made five postseason appearances. They contended for a playoff spot in seven of the last nine years. And it looks more and more like their legacy will be that they played great baseball but never won a World Series.

If 2014 ever seemed like their year, it was only because they were due. The bullpen was lousy, and it cost them the first two games against the Orioles, surprising nobody.

The lineup was imposing but not versatile.

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The Tigers started three Cy Young Award winners in this series -- Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander and David Price -- but Verlander hasn’t pitched like an award candidate since 2012, and the pitcher slated to start Game 4, Rick Porcello, had a 6.20 ERA in September.

And again: that bullpen. If the Orioles didn’t beat the Tigers, somebody else surely would have.

So you can understand why, as the Orioles sprayed each other with champagne in the visitors’ clubhouse at Comerica Park, Tigers outfielder Torii Hunter said he knows his championship ring is slipping away.

"I can feel it," Hunter said. “But right now, I’m emotional."

Hunter is considering retirement. He has played on enough contending teams in Minnesota, Anaheim and Detroit to know he could have two or three of those rings by now.

"What you do during the season, the numbers you have during the season … the slate is wiped clean. Even if you hit .100 during the season, it doesn’t matter. I remember Adam Kennedy hit [seven] home runs during the [2002]season and hit three in one game during the postseason," Hunter said. 

"Anything can happen. Anybody can become the hero. And that’s the way it goes. You saw [the Dodgers' Clayton]  Kershaw the other day -- lights-out all year and he gives up all those runs."

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This may surprise you, but Kennedy hit those three homers against Hunter’s Twins. This is why Hunter remembers. For Hunter, it was an early lesson in the random heartbreaks of the postseason.

"You got people saying, ‘Ah, they should be the favorites,’ but you just don’t know," he said.

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"It sucks."

A few feet away, Scherzer gave heartfelt but smooth answers to people wondering if he will leave Detroit as a free agent.

"I just hope I’m back," said Scherzer, though nobody is betting he will be. "I love the way everybody competed. I played with some really, really tough competitors in the clubhouse.

"[The Orioles] just had big hits in tough situations. They got big hits when they needed to … that’s something you can’t always guard against."

Scherzer famously turned down a $144-million contract last offseason, and while he wouldn’t bite on free-agency questions (he is too smart for that), the Tigers are faced with only bad options. Give Scherzer the required $180 million or more, and they will be on the hook for another enormous contract for a player in his 30s. They already owe Miguel Cabrera and Verlander a combined $400 million in future seasons. Verlander turns 32 in February and Cabrera turns 32 in April. They may dominate in 2015, but they won’t be great forever (and Verlander hasn’t been great in a while). You can overpay a couple guys, but you can’t overpay everybody.

Lose Scherzer, and … they lose Scherzer, one of the best pitchers in baseball. And that could kill the 2015 season.

The Tigers would not have won the American League Central this year without Victor Martinez, who had the best year of his career at age 35. Now, he is a free agent. If the Tigers give Martinez a three- or four-year market-value deal, where does that put the 2016 and 2017 Tigers? And if they let Martinez walk, who replaces him next year?

Owner Mike Ilitch has shown a willingness to spend and spend, and general manager Dave Dombrowski has routinely restocked his roster when people said he couldn’t. But this is how windows close: Some players leave, others get paid too well as they age, and other franchises slip ahead in line.

Ask the Phillies. Or the Yankees.

Maybe Dombrowski can pull off a rebuild on the fly, the way he did after a devastating Game 163 loss to the Twins ended the 2009 season. That offseason, Dombrowski shipped popular center fielder Curtis Granderson and starter Edwin Jackson away in a deal that landed Scherzer and center fielder Austin Jackson. Dombrowski never said he was rebuilding, but 2010 looked and felt like a transition year for the franchise, starting in spring training.

In 2011, the Tigers were back in the playoffs, thanks largely to Scherzer and Jackson.

Dombrowski could deal Price for young talent this offseason, like he did with Granderson. But franchise dynamics make that difficult. Ilitch is 85. All he wants is to win the World Series. He is probably not interested in taking a step back to take two steps forward. Price has one year left on his deal, and logic says the Tigers will try to sign him after they failed to sign Scherzer. But that creates more payroll pressure on future Tigers teams.

The Tigers can angle and scheme to get back to next October, and they might even pull it off. But this hard truth hangs over the Tigers:

They should have won the World Series last year.

When the history of this Tigers era is written, you might as well start with the evening of Oct. 13, 2013, when they held a 1-0 American League Championship Series lead over the Red Sox. They led Game 2 in Boston 5-1 with four outs to go.

You know how that finished: David Ortiz hit a hanger out of the park for a grand slam and the Red Sox went on to win the World Series.

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Tigers manager Jim Leyland retired believing his team should have been in that World Series. He always will.

The moment when Ortiz hit that grand slam sums up baseball’s modern era as much as any. The Red Sox were 18 games under .500 over the last three seasons, but they won a World Series championship in that stretch. The Tigers were 56 games over .500 in the last three seasons, and they won their division three times. But they never won the World Series.

Baseball’s championship is not decided simply by who has the best team. That helps, obviously. But the championship is determined largely by who comes through at the few pivotal moments that define a postseason.  And when you do have the best team, you need to come through in those moments, because otherwise you might return the next year, with a shoddier bullpen and get swept.

You have to cash in those chips when you have a big pile of them, and the Tigers’ pile shrinks every year. If 2013 wasn’t their year, then 2012 should have been. The 2012 World Series may not seem like a missed opportunity for the Tigers, because the Giants swept them, but consider: Barry Zito and Tim Lincecum combined to allow one run in 10 1/3 innings. Verlander and Scherzer combined to allow eight runs in the same number of innings.

Zito and Lincecum were not, by any measure, better than Verlander and Scherzer that year during the regular season. Zito was just about finished as a major-league pitcher, and Lincecum had been demoted to the bullpen, while Verlander was coming off a Cy Young-award winning season and Scherzer was on the verge of one.

But Zito and Lincecum were better in that World Series. The Giants’ portly slugger, Pablo Sandoval, was hot at the right time. Last year, David Ortiz was hot at the right time.

This year, Nelson Cruz was hot at the right time, and an aging, limited Tigers team paid for it.

Scherzer said he is lucky he played with guys who put in so much work and wanted to win so much. They did. But it looks, more and more, like we will look back on these Tigers teams and think: Somebody else was always hot at the right time.