Senior Baseball Columnist

Tigers take hard road, but are more than ready for World Series run

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The Tigers never make it easy, but with two straight ALCS trips, they are doing something right. (US Presswire)  
The Tigers never make it easy, but with two straight ALCS trips, they are doing something right. (US Presswire)  

If someone offered the Tigers a bowl of Mackinac Island Fudge ice cream this summer, they'd insist on eating their broccoli first.

If someone offered them a ride to work in an air-conditioned Chrysler or Ford, they'd instead opt to walk 20 miles in their hair shirts and sandals.

At every twist, at every turn, they took the hard way.

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From the day they signed Prince Fielder last January, they were overwhelming favorites to lap the rest of the AL Central. Instead, they needed 160 games to outlast the White Sox. And they checked into the playoffs with the worst record of any division winner in the game.

Then they opened the postseason by striking for two quick wins over Oakland, positioning themselves to push the cruise control button. But you already knew what came next. They lost the next two, caused their fans to squirm and themselves to sweat, and the Tigers again were fighting for their lives.

They were alternately exasperating, captivating, infuriating and perplexing for six months.

And yet here they are, tickets punched for a second consecutive AL Championship Series.

Tigers vs. Yankees, starting Saturday night in Yankee Stadium, and we can only hope Justin Verlander and CC Sabathia square off at least once. And how epic would a Game 7 featuring those two be?

Detroit is four wins away from its second World Series appearance in seven seasons, and another chance to win its first world championship since 1984.

"I've always felt great about this club," catcher Alex Avila says. "Some years, you're going to have 95 wins. Some years you're not.

"This is a resilient team."

Resilient. That's another word for these guys.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, right? Glass half-full, or half-empty. Depends on your view.

They did not win 95 games. They won 88, and lost 74, making them six full games worse, record-wise, than the next-closest division winner (the Giants, Nationals and A's all went 94-68).

Even with stars as bright as Fielder, Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera and, of course, last year's AL MVP and Cy Young winner, Verlander, it is not simply as easy as writing a lineup card and rolling out the baseballs.

There are injuries (Doug Fister, Brandon Inge, Al Alburquerque, Avila, Austin Jackson, Octavio Dotel). Rage (Delmon Young, suspended for seven games early in the season for a bizarre wee hours episode of public drunkenness and harassment). Underperformance (Ryan Raburn, Jhonny Peralta, Omar Infante). Imperfection (closer Jose Valverde, 35 for 40 in save opportunities after going 49 for 49 in 2011). Regression (Joaquin Benoit has gone from one of the game's best set-up men, in the opinion of his manager, to a home-run-allowing machine).

As great as Cabrera and Verlander are, as steady as Fielder has been, the performance of Tigers role players, like AM radio signals from far away stations, has been in and out all summer.

It has been frustrating to Tigers fans, who prefer their World Series titles to be served on a summer-long party platter, the way the legendary '84 group dished it out by roaring out of the gates to that 35-5 start.

Truth be told, it also has caused some anxiety in the Tigers' clubhouse.

"I felt like we should have been better," Verlander said after steamrolling the Athletics on Thursday night. "We were inconsistent. We were an inconsistent team during the season."

The flip side, Verlander said, is that "we never let ourselves fall out of it. And coming down the last stretch, I think you found out what kind of team this is. When we had to win, we did."

You get what you earn in this game. Playoff spots aren't awarded based on beauty -- or, the beauty of a spring roster on paper. Look at the Angels, sitting home with Albert Pujols. Look at the Phillies, sitting home with Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee.

Much of the battle is simply getting there. Once you step into October, you get a clean slate and a chance to reload your weapons.

In the Tigers' case, other than the obvious (Cabrera and Fielder), those weapons include a rotation that could be as good as any transmission to ever emerge from the Motor City. We know about Verlander. Max Scherzer was every bit as good as any Cy Young candidate in the second half this season. Fister is capable of hanging bagels on the scoreboard. And Anibal Sanchez was acquired in July, Detroit general manager Dave Dombrowski's latest masterpiece.

Though he was awfully soggy in the champagne-soaked visiting clubhouse in Oakland late Thursday night, stripped down to T-shirt, dress pants and bare feet, Dombrowski is as crisp as any executive in the game. We hear about Billy Beane's genius and Kenny Williams' aggressiveness and Jon Daniels' creativity, but Dombrowski, the old wizard, is second to none.

And the way he views it, maybe Detroit traveled a pothole-filled road all summer for a reason.

"We're toughened," Dombrowski said. "It was a tough battle for us all year long. Sometimes, those are the clubs that end up rising.

"We're in the Final Four for a second year in a row. We don't back down. We have weaknesses here and there, just like every other club."

Fister and Sanchez are the likely Games 1 and 2 pitchers for Detroit, with Verlander roaring back breathing his special smoke and fire for Game 3. That's pretty good.

"It's a team full of veterans, and we never worried about anything," Verlander said. "We just went out there and just said, 'Keep playing baseball and see where it ends up.' That's why we play 162 games. It's a long season. It's a grind. And we ended up where we wanted to end up, and that's first place.

"And we ended up playing our best baseball to get there. I think the team playing the best baseball going into the postseason is the most dangerous."

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