The pain of another World Series loss could linger long for the Tigers

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"It's a raging fire now," the best pitcher in baseball said, a little while after the Giants finished proving that Verlander's Tigers still aren't the best team in baseball.

It's a funny thing about this game, maybe about any game. The further you go, the better you do, the bigger the disappointment if you don't take it all the way.

The Tigers aren't losers, and their season didn't end in disarray. But sometimes the disappointment of falling just short can be worse than the disappointment of not coming close at all.

"Anytime you're close to the goal you want and you don't get it, it hurts more," Prince Fielder said.

The Tigers' season ended with no excuses. They didn't lose because of bad luck or a long layoff. They lost because when it counted, their big guys didn't hit, and for the most part their little guys didn't, either.

They lost because Verlander gave up two big home runs to Pablo Sandoval in the first three innings of Game 1, and the Tigers never recovered. They never led a game until the third inning of Game 4, and even that lead only held up for three innings.

They put up about the same amount of fight as the Yankees put up against them in the ALCS, the only difference being the lack of any real drama, Alex Rodriguez-style.

"There was nothing fluky about it," manager Jim Leyland said. "We got our ass kicked. We got to the heavyweight fight, and we got knocked out."

Leyland spoke for a while about how the Tiger culture has changed in the seven years since he arrived. He took over a team that had gone 13 years without a winning season, and in seven years since has been to three American League Championship Series and two World Series.

"It's been great," he said. "It's been fun."

He never said it would continue. He never spoke about the future.

In fact, if there was any sense of finality about this World Series loss, it was that it ended with more uncertainty than ever that the 67-year-old Leyland will return for another year.

With him or without him, the Tigers could well be back. Their key players are signed or under control, and Victor Martinez will be back after missing all of this season after knee surgery.

As always, they'll have owner Mike Ilitch's money available, and they'll have the drive that comes with having an 83-year-old owner who badly wants a World Series ring.

"The same team's going to be here -- with more," Fielder said. "That's a plus."

It was back in January, when the Tigers signed Fielder, that people seriously began talking about the Tigers as a team that could win the World Series -- or as a team that should win the World Series.

They went on to spend most of the season chasing the White Sox and/or the Indians in the weak American League Central, and never seemed able to relax until they finally did make it to the playoffs.

The no-doubt high point arrived 10 days ago, with the four-game sweep of the Yankees, but it was followed quickly by five days without a game and then by the four straight losses to the Giants.

We'll never know for sure whether the layoff had anything to do with the Tigers' lack of hitting against the Giants (or with Verlander's out-of-sync, out-of-character bad outing in Game 1). Magglio Ordonez, who played on the 2006 team that lost the World Series after a long layoff, stood in the Tiger clubhouse late Sunday night and lamented the similarities.

Whether it was that or whether it was simply the Giants' strong pitching, the Tigers ended the World Series feeling that the world hadn't seen them at close to their best.

"They played perfectly," catcher Alex Avila said. "We just couldn't keep up."

The big focus will be on Fielder, whose Game 1 single was his only hit in 14 World Series at-bats, and on Miguel Cabrera, the Triple Crown winner whose two-run home run in the third inning Sunday was his only real World Series moment.

But just as in 2006, when the Tigers hit .199 and scored just 11 runs in a five-game World Series loss to the Cardinals, this was a team failure, with a .159 team batting average and just six runs in four games.

The Tigers' pitching was good enough that when they briefly took a 2-1 lead in Game 4, they began to dream of a miracle comeback. Verlander was set to pitch in a Game 5, and Doug Fister (who carried a shutout through six innings of Game 2) was ready to return in a Game 6.

"There wasn't a doubt in my mind," Verlander said.

Not a doubt, even though no team had ever recovered from a three games to one World Series hole, even though the record now shows that 21 of the 24 teams that have fallen behind three games to none haven't even made it to Game 5.

"We had a good chance to win it all," Verlander said -- and yes, he was talking about winning it all after losing the first three.

At 29, Verlander has accomplished plenty, from Rookie of the Year to Most Valuable Player and Cy Young Award winner in the same season. He's been an All-Star starting pitcher (although it didn't go well), and he has twice started Game 1 of the World Series (which hasn't gone well, either).

What he hasn't done is what the Tigers haven't done since 1984.

He knows it. He feels it.

"Absolutely," he said. "There's definitely a burning fire to win it all. The only thing that takes that away is to win it."

And the only thing that makes it worse is to come all this way, and then lose it.

Months from now, perhaps even days from now, the Tigers will look back on 2012 as a good year. There's no other way to see it, when you win a pennant, when you're one of the final two teams standing.

"It would be very tough to look back at this year as a negative," Verlander said.

But it will oh so easy to look back and feel the pain of watching the Giants rush the field at Comerica Park when it ended.

"That's something that's going to be etched in my mind," Avila said. "The thing is, we do have the team to get back here."

They have no choice now. They have no choice but to find a way back.

As every other team that loses a World Series would tell you -- as Verlander would tell you about 2006 -- the pain of losing won't go away quickly.

It may never leave, unless or until they win.

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