ALDS Game 5 preview: Will the Tigers swing and miss again?

Leon Halip

If they exit on Thursday night, this will be the third year in a row that a team with some of the game's biggest stars and deepest rosters fails to go all the way.

Postseason baseball is intoxicating, and the surprises that it brings are enough to turn fans into evangelicals who proselytize the wonders of the game to anyone who will listen. This postseason has not been short on excitement; on Monday alone, Cardinals' pitcher Michael Wacha had a no-hitter into the seventh inning against the Pirates, Rays' backup catcher Jose Lobaton hit a walk-off home run to avoid the sweep by the Red Sox, and Juan "Jazz Hands" Uribe crushed a Dan Carpenter hanging slider that sent the Braves back to Atlanta and the Dodgers to the NLCS. These unpredictable moments vindicate those of us who spend half the year on the sofa or at the stadium when they could be doing number of other activities. It's easy to get lost in the moment, start quoting Rogers Hornsby,* waxing poetic about all of wonders of the sport, but the point that gets lost in the romanticism is that there's a dark side to the sport that so many love: Baseball is cruel, unfair, and torturous.

Take for example, the Cubs, who haven't won a championship in 106 years. They've made the postseason 13 times in that span, but haven't reached the World Series since World War II. There's not another fanbase quite as tortured as that of the Cubs; many believe that their moment will someday come, but at this point the belief is founded more in faith than in reason.

On the other extreme, you have the Braves, who have reached the postseason consistently since 1991. Sure, they won a championship nearly 20 years ago, but their play in October rarely meets expectations. They've made it to the World Series five times since emerging as a perennial winner and have lost four of them. They've only made it beyond the first round of the postseason once since 1999, and their eight consecutive postseason series losses is the second-longest streak behind -- you guessed it -- the Cubs.

Fans of both the Cubs and Braves would argue that their plight is just as bad if not worse than the other team's, but the specifics matter very little. There's an undeniable capriciousness to baseball. Take the Tigers, who still have a few years to go before they achieve the level of frustration of their counterparts in Atlanta and Chicago, but are still building a tall pile of thwarted expectations as they head into Game 5 of the ALDS against the Athletics. Should the Tigers lose, it will be the third year in a row that, despite winning the AL Central, they didn't have quite enough to go all of the way.

(Credit: Doug Pensinger)

The Tigers last won the World Series in 1984. Since recovering from a long down period that lasted from Sparky Anderson's final years and extended into the beginning of this century, they've lost two World Series, winning just one of nine games. Last year, the Giants swept them in an incredibly anticlimactic championship round; the year before they fell short after losing a six-game LCS to the Rangers in which they were pounded 15-5 in the final game. Should they lose on Thursday, the Tigers have all of the players in place to continue their postseason run next year (the upcoming free agency of Jhonny Peralta, Joaquin Benoit, and Omar Infante shouldn't be too disruptive), but if they exit now, it seems fair to ask if they've been victims of short series randomness or if there's some quality they're missing.

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The recurring theme of the last two Octobers has been the Tigers' vanishing bats. In last year's World Series they not only lost games started by Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner, but also those begun by Barry Zito and Ryan Vogelsong. As a team, the Tigers hit .159/.243/.489 and were shut out in Games 2 and 3. They scored just seven runs in the entire series, and the offense that was built around slugging had just five extra base hits (three of those home runs) in the entire series. The Giants are conventionally thought of as a pitching-first organization, but the 2012 outfit was more notable for their offense; on paper the Tigers had the far better team.

Perhaps that's why it feels like Game 5 favors the Athletics. The Tigers will have Justin Verlander on the mound against rookie Sonny Gray, and that would seem to give an advantage to the Tigers, but given the absence of the offense and Gray's performance in Game 2, it's not a sure thing. The Athletics have good pitching, but not so good that it accounts for the Tigers' performance at the plate: They scored three runs in the first inning of Game 1, then went 20 innings without scoring again. They broke that streak in the fourth inning of Game 3, then went another nine innings before scoring again. The Tigers went the first three games without any home runs, and it's no surprise that in Game 4, in which they finally hit two home runs and two doubles, that they outscored their opponent and won.

The floundering postseason Tigers is where the cruelty part of the sport comes in. With some teams that struggle in October, it's easy to point to major roster flaws like injuries or shortcomings that should have been addressed, but in this instance, any criticism of the Tigers' roster is just nitpicking. The Tigers' payroll is over $145 million this season; owner Mike Ilitch decided to invest in talent in a huge way in the past three seasons. While a big payroll doesn't guarantee anything, the Tigers have gotten an excellent return on investment. This season, they have the Cy Young favorite in Max Scherzer and the likely league MVP in Miguel Cabrera, but their talent goes deeper than that; they have the second-best offense in the AL behind the Red Sox, and their rotation also boasts the ERA leader (Anibal Sanchez) and three of the top ten pitchers as calculated by WAR (Scherzer, Sanchez, and Verlander). The Tigers aren't perfect; defense and baserunning could be better, and despite a lot of tinkering it's still difficult to feel comfortable when the bullpen takes over the game, but none of those things have been their downfall in the postseason. They are just a group of guys with big bats who haven't hit, especially for power, in October.

That answer probably isn't satisfying; it certainly isn't satisfying to me to just shrug my shoulders and say, "The Tigers did enough but came up short." We always want there to be a reason, a fault we can fix, a negligence we can blame. But the fact remains that this is a great lineup and all of the upgrades the Tigers needed to succeed were already in place. Even their worst regulars, like Andy Dirks and Alex Avila, haven't been that bad and have contributed enough in the past that there's still hope of their coming up big in a key spot. That's the cruel part. That's the torture of baseball: Sometimes the best isn't good enough, especially in the mercilessly short series of the postseason.

Still, maybe the Tigers pull out a victory in Game 5 and advance to the ALCS. Perhaps Game 4 was the turning point in this series, and they can harness the offensive power that they found late in the game and capitalize on an inexperienced rookie on the mound now that they're more familiar with his offerings. If they do, the eighth inning of Game 4, in which Scherzer worked out of a no-out bases loaded jam with three strikeouts will be a moment that sits with the A's for the duration of the winter as they watch the Tigers move on to the next round.

And if that happens, suddenly it will be the A's that are looking for explanations of their own version of repeat October frustration -- six Division Series-round exits in seven tries under general manager Billy Beane. That's what makes baseball both wonderful and devastating.

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