In the wild-cardera the baseball world can be turned upside down almost as fast as the bottleof champagne that lefthander Kenny Rogers emptied onto the behatted head of auniformed Detroit police officer in plain view of a delirious Comerica Parkcrowd last Saturday night. It would have been preposterous to imagine such atableau only a year ago, when the Tigers lost 91 games in a 12th straightlosing season and Rogers, then a scofflaw Texas Ranger, was arrested on amisdemeanor assault charge for shoving a television cameraman. But now herethey were, Rogers and the Tigers, wildly celebrating a dismantling of the NewYork Yankees in a American League Division Series that served as theirget-out-of-jail-free card. Go ahead and try to make sense of this turn offortune. You'd have had better luck trying to hit the 103-mph heat ofbloody-eyed Detroit reliever Joel Zumaya under the cover of late-afternoonshadows. No team ever entered the postseason playing worse baseball than theTigers, whose 19--31 stagger to the finish was unprecedented for a playoff teamand relegated them to wild-card status on the final day of the season. Andagainst the modern-day Murderers' Row lineup of New York, the team that had thegreatest run differential in the majors in 2006 and tied for the most wins,Detroit brought a pitching staff with zero combined career postseason wins.
But if you've beenpaying attention to playoff baseball, especially since the labor agreement of2002 created a luxury tax and increased revenue sharing, you've come tounderstand these postseason truisms: 1) the randomness of a short series mocksthe established order of the regular season; 2) a pitcher's power is moreimportant than his experience; and 3) the Yankees, losers of 10 of their last13 postseason games, have become the game's emperor with no clothes.
All thoserealities were reaffirmed in the ALDS, which is how we arrived at a LeagueChampionship Series between Detroit and Oakland--two franchises that had notwon a postseason series since 1984 and '90, respectively. The A's swept theMinnesota Twins, who made for yet another weird October turnabout in that theydidn't look nearly as crisp as they had in the regular season. They flopped ondefense, produced only one hit in 19 at bats with runners in scoring positionand never held a lead. "We picked a bad time to have some bad ballgames," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said after the sweep was completedlast Friday, summarizing the cruelty that a small sample of games can hold.
The unexpected hasbecome the expected and the regular season increasingly less meaningful.Entering LCS play this week, wild-card teams had a much better record inpostseason series (16--6) since 2002 than did the teams with the bestregular-season records in their leagues (10--8). And if the New York Mets getpast the St. Louis Cardinals in the NLCS (page 42), it will mean that themaximum of 10 different teams will have made the World Series in five years--anunprecedented churn rate among the 102 Series played.
October 15, 2006
Still, evenDetroit manager Jim Leyland never anticipated his team would be part of anOctober like this when he took the job last fall. "Well, I didn't think wewould be here this year," he said last Saturday night. "I thought thatwe would get better.... I thought that it would be a year or so before we gotin a situation like this or would have a chance to."
The Tigers'profile is not unlike that of last year's world champion White Sox: deep inyoung power pitchers with little to no postseason experience, a breakout rookiethrowing gas out of the bullpen, a middling offense that relies on the home runand an intense manager who is the dominant personality of the club. The playersso admire Leyland that they carried him off the field on their shoulders afterthe clincher, a rare spectacle in this sport.
Through the fourthinning of Game 2, Detroit had lived down to what Leyland, this year'sless-hyper version of Chicago skipper Ozzie Guillen, correctly surmised to bethe popular view of the ALDS: The Tigers were the freshman team to the Yankees'varsity. New York had rolled to an 8--4 win in Game 1 and a 3--1 lead two dayslater with veteran Mike Mussina on the mound. But from that point on, theYankees did not score another run until they were all but dead in the series,down 8--0 in the seventh inning of Game 4. In those 20 definitive inningsDetroit outscored New York 17--0 and held the vaunted Yankees lineup to a .119batting average. The Tigers did so with aggressive power pitching from startersJustin Verlander (whose fastball topped out at 100 mph), anuncharacteristically amped Rogers (hitting an uncharacteristic 94 on the radargun) and Jeremy Bonderman (96). "We didn't do anything special," saysBonderman. "We just did what we always do: Be aggressive, throw strikes.We're going to do that against whoever we face."
The new faceschiefly responsible for Detroit's 24-game turnaround from last season areLeyland, who, after a six-year sabbatical from the dugout, replaced the firedAlan Trammell; Rogers, a 41-year-old veteran of six clubs, who signed as a freeagent; Verlander, a 23-year-old rookie righthander who made only two majorleague starts in 2005; and Zumaya, a 21-year-old rookie righthander who, likeBobby Jenks did for the '05 White Sox, attacks hitters and life with thesubtlety of a sledgehammer.
The Tigers draftedZumaya in the 11th round in 2002 as a 17-year-old from Chula Vista, Calif.,outside San Diego. He was a construction worker's kid who grew up playingbaseball on shabby dirt fields across the border in Mexico and acting, by hisown admission, like "a troublemaker" and "a punk." "I did afew things I regret," he says, though he declines to be more specific."We were low-class, didn't have very much. My dad [Joel Sr.] gave me all myaggressiveness. He says, 'Don't back down from anyone, go after people, justlike I taught you, and you'll be successful.'"
Leyland turnedover Game 2 to Zumaya in the seventh inning, after the Tigers had scratched outa 4--3 lead against Mussina. The Yankees never had a chance. Zumaya retired allfive batters he faced in the late-afternoon shadows of YankeeStadium--including strikeouts of former MVP Jason Giambi and reigning MVP AlexRodriguez, plus leading 2006 MVP candidate Derek Jeter. "Did you see any ofthose [pitches]?" Rodriguez asked home plate umpire Laz Diaz after strikingout. "Because I didn't."
The Yankees appearheaded for a turbulent off-season in which next to nothing can be ruled out,even the firing of manager Joe Torre and a trade of Rodriguez, though A-Rod hasbeen firm in saying that he will not waive his no-trade clause. What Detroitexposed as New York's most pressing need, however, is the infusion of youngpower arms. The losing starters in Games 2, 3 and 4--Mussina, 37; RandyJohnson, 43; and Jaret Wright, 30--had only 10 strikeouts combined against ateam that had whiffed more than every other AL club except Cleveland.
Up until Zumayabrought the intensity of his fastball and demeanor to Game 2, New York hadplayed 58 postseason games at Yankee Stadium under Torre and lost only one ofthem by one run (Game 1 of the 2003 World Series) while winning 13 by thatmargin. "I really wanted to pitch at Yankee Stadium," said Zumaya afterthe 4--3 win, nursing a Corona (or "Mexican champagne" as he called it)and a right eye reddened with blood from a broken vessel caused by aparticularly violent sneeze. "I told Justin before the game, 'Get me a leadand I won't lose it for you.'"
Rogers maintainedDetroit's momentum at home the next night, pitching what may have been the gameof his life--no easy feat for a guy with a 1994 perfect game to his credit.Winless against the Yankees for 13 years and winless in his nine careerpostseason appearances, Rogers pitched with unprecedented will, animation andvelocity all the way into the eighth inning of a 6--0 shellacking, the worstshutout loss in New York's 335 postseason games.
All season theyoung Detroit starters have taken their cues from Rogers, who regularlycounsels them in the clubhouse and on the bench. Verlander marvels at theveteran's attention to detail, citing, for instance, a Rogers admonition tokeep his eye on the catcher's discarded mask on foul pop-ups. If the ballshould take the catcher back in the direction of his mask, an alert pitcherwill pick up the mask to avoid the possibility of the catcher's tripping onit.
The differencebetween Rogers and the young pitchers he has mentored goes well beyond age. Therest of the Tigers' postseason starters--Verlander, a Detroit first round pickin 2004; Bonderman, an Oakland first-round pick in '01; and Nate Robertson, aFlorida fifth-round pick in 1999--are classically groomed power arms. Two ofthem, Bonderman and Verlander, were in the majors by age 22.
Rogers, bycontrast, didn't play baseball for his Plant City, Fla., high school team untilhe was a senior, and then only as an outfielder. Impressed by his arm strength,Texas took him in the 39th round of the 1982 draft and converted him into apitcher. Rogers, however, was so raw that the Rangers had to teach him how topitch out of the stretch. He logged seven years in the minors and then fourmore as a reliever in the majors before he became a full-time starter at age28. Rarely cracking 90 mph with his fastball, Roger earned a reputation overthe years as a craftsman who changed speeds and could throw a biting curveballin almost any count. In recent years, however, Rogers has shown improvedvelocity while enjoying some of his greatest success. He has won 49 games overthe past three seasons--the best three-year stretch of his career.
After Game 3, inwhich he surprised the Yankees with his velocity and flummoxed them withdive-bombing curveballs, an emotional Rogers admitted he never wanted to win agame as badly as he did that one. His young students made sure to take notes."Seeing him go out there with that intensity, it was unbelievable,'' saidBonderman, who needed only 40 pitches, all but eight of them strikes, to setdown the first 15 hitters on Saturday. "I just wanted to go out there andtry as hard as I could to do the same. How can you not feed off ofthat?"
Like Detroit,Oakland buzzed through its series thanks to young power pitching. Indeed, sixof the top 19 AL strikeout pitchers under 30 are in the ALCS: Bonderman,Verlander and Robertson for Detroit, and Dan Haren, Barry Zito and Joe Blantonfor Oakland--and that doesn't even include Rich Harden, the A's nominal ace whomissed much of the year with an elbow injury and is now the team's fourthstarter.
Oakland alsoboasts its own reformed and humbled veteran who assumed a leadership role. LikeRogers, A's DH Frank Thomas, 38, underwent a transformation with his new team.The White Sox happily shed the free agent Thomas last winter, with Guillen andChicago G.M. Kenny Williams insulting him as a poor clubhouse influence on hisway out the door. Thomas, who sat out Chicago's title run last season with abroken left ankle, limped around last year's winter meetings in Dallas trollingfor a job. One of his stops was to Oakland's hotel suite, where he met withG.M. Billy Beane and his assistant, Dave Forst. "The first thing I noticedwas that he was in better shape than he had been for years," Beane says."After listening to him, after he got up and left the room, Dave and I justlooked at each other like, Wow. This guy has something to prove. You could seehow determined he was. That's what got the ball rolling."
The Twins brieflyshowed interest in Thomas, but, he explains, "I wanted to get as far awayfrom Chicago and the Midwest as I could." He signed with the A's for$500,000 guaranteed, with another $2.6 million in incentives. "We figuredif he could play 115 to 125 games, Beane says, "he'd hit 25 home runs anddrive in between 80 and 90 runs."
Instead Thomasplayed 137 games, hit 39 home runs, drove in 114 runs and gave Oakland itsfirst true middle-of-the-order slugger since Giambi left after the 2001 season."He's a different man from the guy I knew in Chicago," says Oaklandrighty Esteban Loaiza, who pitched for the White Sox in '03 and '04. "He'shaving much more fun. And he's a big influence on the young players, helpingthem all the time. He wasn't like that in Chicago."
Says first basemanNick Swisher, "He's been like a big brother to me. He's taught me so muchabout the game this year. One man's trash is another man's treasure."
In his firstpostseason at bat for Oakland, Thomas whacked a home run off lefthander JohanSantana, the Minnesota ace who had been unbeatable in 23 home starts sinceAugust 2005. Oakland would never lose control of the series. (Thomas rippedanother homer in the ninth, becoming the oldest player to hit two homers in apostseason game.) In Thomas's final plate appearance in the series, the Twinsintentionally walked him with two outs and nobody on base in the seventh inningof Game 3. The walk sparked a four-run rally that put a 4--2 game out ofreach.
The Tigers and theA's showed plenty of similarities after they were done playing, partying withan intensity that rivaled their power pitching and was over the top for afirst-round victory. Zumaya, for instance, skipped the Mexican champagne andindulged in the real stuff, executing an on-field simultaneous double-fistedpour from above his head and down his throat while Detroit fans roared. The A'sdrank nearly as much beer and champagne as they sprayed and poured down oneanother's shirts and pants. The bacchanalia spoke to the teams' youth but alsoto the players' unfamiliarity with the moment.
Thomas, evermindful of his role as team elder, tried injecting a bit of sobriety into theproceedings. First he warned his teammates before they ran on the field afterthe last out, "Don't get anybody hurt out there." Then, when the partymoved into the clubhouse, Thomas found a dry, calm spot near the doorway to theclubhouse and kept repeating, "This is only step two." (Ultimately hejoined in the revelry and allowed himself to be doused by teammate BobbyKielty.)
Of course, for twoteams that bring a sense of newness and exuberance to the ALCS, such a remindercarries more potential good news: the opportunity for another, even biggerparty.
Get completecoverage and analysis of each League Championship Series game, plus all thelatest news and rumblings in Jon Heyman's Daily Scoop at SI.com/baseball.
"Seeing Kenny with that intensity wasunbelievable," Bonderman said of Rogers (above). "How can you not feedoff of that?"
"He's been like a big brother," Swisher says ofThomas (right). "One man's trash is another man's treasure."
Leyland (inset) and the Tigers got a huge lift from their 21-year-old setupman, whose 103-mph offerings were a blur to A-Rod.
The A's made few mistakes; the Twins made a bunch, including one that led tothis inside-the-park homer by Mark Kotsay in Game 2.