The Tigers? Believe It

Detroit raced to the best record in the majors thanks to the old fire that burns in their new manager and a flamethrowing young pitching staff. Motown is in love again
June 04, 2006

Detroit Tigersleftfielder Craig Monroe was wolfing down a pregame bowl of some brownishhomemade coagulant called Frito pie last Friday night, when manager JimLeyland, making one of his usual pulse-taking sweeps of the clubhouse, told himto go find whatever substance he had consumed the day before, when he bangedout four hits. "Mr. Dombrowski and Mr. Ilitch, their computers were blowingup with the arbitration numbers you're putting up," Leyland said, referringto general manager Dave Dombrowski and owner Mike Ilitch. ¶ Monroe let out abelly laugh and went back to shoveling in the mixture of beef, chili, nachocheese sauce and corn chips, which had the consistency of freshly churnedcement. Life these days for the Tigers is one big bowl of Frito pie: They'vegot a little bit of everything, and the end result is better than you think.They are stick-to-the-ribs good. ¶ So good are the Tigers that on their way toan 8-3 win over the Cleveland Indians later that day, a fan raced down afield-level aisle at Comerica Park holding a sign that read, WHEN DO PLAYOFFTICKETS GO ON SALE? Said Leyland, "My cigarettes have filters on them. I'mnot sure that guy's cigarettes have filters on them." ¶ Actually, the fandid have a lucid point. At 35-15 through Sunday, Detroit became only the 45thteam in major league history to win at least 35 of its first 50 games and onlythe third to do so after losing 90 games the previous season. All but six ofthe Tigers' 44 predecessors went on to the playoffs.

Detroit hasn'tsniffed the playoffs since 1987 and hasn't had a winning season since '93 in atown that has fallen hard for the Pistons and the Red Wings. But Tigers fansawoke last Saturday to find this bit of news splashed across the front page ofthe Detroit Free Press: IT'S A BASEBALL TOWN AFTER ALL.

"They deserveit, after the misery this town has been through with baseball the last 15years," closer Todd Jones says. "Mr. Ilitch told me, 'You think theymake the whole Hockeytown thing a big deal here? You wait until the Tigers win.It'll blow that away. And you won't even be able to lug around the rings we'llget.'"

Amid the gush ofoptimism, however, there are rumblings of doubt. Of Detroit's first 35 wins,skeptics point out that only five came against teams that had winning recordsat week's end, and even those teams, the Cincinnati Reds and the Texas Rangers,don't qualify as heavyweights. Beginning on Memorial Day, however, Detroit wasscheduled to play 13 consecutive games against the three AL East contenders(the Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees and Toronto Blue Jays) and the team hoton its heels in the AL Central, the defending world champion Chicago White Sox."I disagree with the people who say, 'Now we'll find out if they're forreal,'" Leyland says. "We're for real. Are we going to keep up withthis torrid pace? No. People will think it's because of the teams we play. No.We can't keep up this torrid pace no matter who we play. But we're legit. We'renot some fluke team."

They may not befluky--not with the best pitching staff in baseball (3.36 team ERA)--but theTigers are oddly fascinating. Powered by Frito pie, KitKat bars, two rookieswho throw 101 mph, a lineup that leads the league in home runs and strikeouts,and a chain-smoking manager who is as apt to weep on camera, as he did afterthe Friday night win, as he is to publicly rip his team, as he did in aninfamous postgame blowup on April 17, the Tigers are Cinderella on a nicotinejag. "The manager is the one who makes this whole thing work, like theyeast that makes everything rise," says first base coach Andy Van Slyke, aPirates outfielder during Leyland's stint as Pittsburgh skipper from 1986through '96.

Adds Jones,"I knew he was a good manager, but I never knew the difference a managercould make. He's won at least 10 games for us, not just with decisions ingames, but mostly in how he runs this team. He has a knack for pushing theright buttons."

Leyland, 61, hadnot managed since quitting after a disastrous and dispirited one-year, 90-lossrun with the Colorado Rockies in 1999. A scout for the St. Louis Cardinalsafter that, Leyland was rejected in favor of Charlie Manuel for thePhiladelphia Phillies' managerial job following the 2004 season. "If Inever managed again, I would have been happy," he says. "But I missedthe competition. The job is an incredible grind that only managers canappreciate, but the best part, the most fun, is still the three hours when thegame is played."

Dombrowski calledLeyland after last season, when Alan Trammell became the third Detroit managerfired in a five-year period during which the team averaged 100 losses.Dombrowski and Leyland had won a championship together in Florida with the 1997Marlins. Dombrowski promised Leyland the Tigers had money to spend--the G.M.would sign free-agent pitchers Jones and Kenny Rogers--and young arms on therise. Leyland liked the idea of being close to his Pittsburgh home and to hisPerrysburg, Ohio, roots while returning to the organization that signed him tohis first pro contract, in 1963. (Leyland hit .222 as a minor league catcher,never rising above Double A.)

It didn't take long for Leyland to see that rookie pitchers Justin Verlanderand Joel Zumaya could help him immediately. "If you can throw 98, 99 inLakeland, you can throw 98, 99 in Detroit," he says.

Two and a halfweeks before Opening Day, Leyland told Zumaya, an 11th-round draft pick in '02,that he had made the team as a reliever, but he ordered the 21-year-old not totell anyone because he wanted the other pitchers to think they were stillcompeting for roster spots. "I had to bite my tongue," Zumaya says."Every day I would talk to my mom and dad, and they'd ask me how thingswere going. I couldn't tell them."

Meanwhile, the23-year-old Verlander, the second player picked in the 2004 draft, nailed downthe fifth spot in the rotation despite having made only 20 starts in theminors. Both Zumaya, a solid 6'3" and 210 pounds, and Verlander, a rakish6'5" and 200, have been clocked as high as 101 mph this year.

"Look athim," Zumaya said as Verlander walked past him before his start onSaturday. "I don't know where it comes from. His body is ...rubbery."

"KitKats," Verlander replied as he scarfed one of the candy bars."That's how I do it."

"The only guywho wears sleeveless shirts with no guns," cracked fellow starter JeremyBonderman, who is the same age as Verlander but is already in his fourth seasonwith Detroit. "Cover up those chicken wings, will ya?"

Zumaya (3-0) andVerlander were a combined 10-3 with a 2.72 ERA, and Zumaya had struck out 27batters in 22 1/3 innings while holding hitters to a .184 average. He got thedecision in last Thursday's 13-8 victory at Kansas City, which stands as theteam's signature win of the season. The Tigers had fallen behind 6-0 after oneinning of what was a day game following a night game on the last day of afour-game trip--the perfect scenario for mailing in the rest of the afternoon."Instead," Van Slyke says, "in the top of the second everybody wastalking about playing [hard] all nine innings and seeing what could happen. I'mtelling you, I got chills listening to them."

Says thirdbaseman Brandon Inge, "That attitude comes from the manager. It's about 100percent team effort. Last year this team was selfish. Very selfish. Guys wereworried about individual numbers so they could get paid. Now it's aboutwinning. It's team first."

Leyland hammeredhome this attitude adjustment in his April 17 tirade after a 10-2 loss toCleveland. "There was nothing wrong with the physical effort," herecalls. "It was the mental effort. Guys were giving away at bats. It wasas if they were saying, We've got no chance. I'll just swing, and if thepitcher makes a mistake with a fastball, maybe I'll get something. I snapped,and I'm glad I did. It sent the message that there is a right way to play thegame, and I'm not going to tolerate it if we go about it the wrongway."

Detroit lost thenext night, too, dropping to 7-7, but then ripped off 28 wins in its next 35games. Verlander went 6-1 with a 1.62 ERA in that stretch. If there is anyconcern about him, it is that he's been too good; Leyland plans to periodicallyuse six starters in the second half to guard against overworking the rookie."One of the best arms on a starting pitcher that I've seen," Indiansrighthander Paul Byrd, a 12-year veteran, said after he lost a 3-1 duel toVerlander on Saturday. "You don't see too many starters throwing 100 milesper hour."

Said Indiansthird baseman Aaron Boone, "I thought I was right on a couple of hisfastballs, and I fouled them back. I guess that's the kind of fastball he'sgot: one with late movement that seems to jump at the end."

Verlander wentundrafted out of Goochland (Va.) High before attending Old Dominion, where headded velocity, refined his still rough-edged mechanics and honed the samepitching-with-his-pants-on-fire urgency he exhibits as a major leaguer."Our coach had a saying: 'Take 13 seconds from the pop of the mitt to the[next] pop of the mitt,'" Verlander says. "But I was even way underthat. He'd always tell us, 'Work quickly, except you, Verlander. You slowdown.'"

The Tigers nearlywalked away from negotiations with Verlander in 2004, then signed him to afive-year, $4.5 million deal. In his first 32 pro starts Verlander was 18-7with a 2.06 ERA. At week's end only Boston's Curt Schilling (8-2) had won moregames in the AL this year than Verlander, and only Chicago's Jose Contreras(1.83) had registered a lower ERA in the league. If he keeps this up, Verlandercould become only the second Tigers rookie to win more than 15 games since 1924and to have an ERA under 3.00 since 1942, joining Mark (the Bird) Fidrych (box,opposite). "Verlander and Zumaya, as young as they are, it's like they'regoofing around, not knowing how hard this is supposed to be," says Jones."It's because they have that much talent."

Just threeseasons after losing a franchise-record 119 games, the Tigers believe everynight "somebody, somehow, is going to do something to win us the game,"Inge says. Leyland, with his patrols of the clubhouse before and after gamesand of the outfield during batting practice, stokes confidence as if tending afurnace. "I don't like teams that hang their heads in their lockers afterlosses and turn the music off like it's a funeral, like you're not going to winthe next day, either," Leyland says. "Good teams go about theirbusiness knowing that a loss only means you go home and come back tomorrowexpecting to win."

The Tigers,however, have won at such a furious rate--on Saturday they joined the 1911 and'84 teams as the only Detroit clubs with a 15-1 run--that even the crustyLeyland, who is so old school he manages in metal spikes, can get emotional. OnFriday, Leyland choked up and his voice cracked as he blubbered to reporters,"It's not fair to Alan Trammell. He didn't have these players. I've beenblessed, I'll tell you that."

He waved hishands, abruptly dismissing reporters, saying, "I'm done."

With that, fullyvested again in the consuming business of winning games, an appreciativeLeyland officially was back. So too, even more improbably, were the Tigers anda summer in Detroit when baseball matters again.

Birds of aFeather

THIRTY YEARS agothe Tigers were struggling to stay above .500, but that team had a rookierighthander, Mark Fidrych (below), who was making headlines. The Bird became anational sensation in 1976, going 19-9 with a 2.34 ERA, selling out ballparksand winning the AL Rookie of the Year award. But due in no small part to his 24complete games and 8.6 innings per start that summer, the slightly builtFidrych won only 10 games after his magical rookie year and was out of themajors by 1981. This year Justin Verlander (above) has been handled morecarefully, and through his first 10 starts of 2006 has comparable stats. Here'show the two pitchers stack up.

  FIDRYCH VERLANDER
SEASON 1976 2006
AGE 21 23
HEIGHT 6'3" 6'5"
WEIGHT 175 200
W--L 9-1 7-3
ERA 1.87 2.55
K'S PER 9 INNINGS 3.9 5.2
K/BB 1.9/1 2.4/1
IP/START 9.1 6.7
COMPLETE GAMES 9* 1
SHUTOUTS 1 1


Source: Baseball Prospectus *Includes two 11-inning starts

SI.COM

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"We can't keep up this torrid pace no matter whowe play," says Leyland. "BUT WE'RE LEGIT. We're not some fluketeam."

PHOTOJohn BieverSTREAKING Verlander pitched seven innings of one-run ball against the Indians last Saturday, getting his fourth straight win and the Tigers' 15th victory in 16 games. PHOTOANDY ALTENBURGER/ICON SMI (ZUMAYA)MUCH TO ADMIRE Leyland (above) likes what he has seen in Zumaya, a 21-year-old whose fastball has been clocked at 101 mph. PHOTOLARRY GOREN/ICON SMI (LEYLAND)[See caption above.] PHOTOCHUCK SOLOMONWHAT ABOUT US? Lost in the hubbub over the pitching was the fact that the Tigers, with Curtis Granderson, led the AL in home runs. PHOTOJOHN BIEVER (VERLANDER) PHOTOTONY TOMSIC/SPORTSCHROME (FIDRYCH) PHOTOCHUCK SOLOMONATTITUDE ADJUSTMENT Inge (tagging the Indians' Grady Sizemore) says the Tigers are thinking more as a team than as individuals.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)