Jim Leyland was a tad beyond cranky. His Detroit Tigers had not been playing up to what he thought was their potential, they'd just mailed one in, and Leyland went off as only he can.
He stomped into the clubhouse, flipped over the food table, kicked a couple trashcans, got everyone's attention, and read them the riot act.
No, the date was April 17, 2006. It was getaway day for a swing to the west coast and the Tigers had done little more than go through the motions in a 10-2 loss to Cleveland at Comerica Park. Detroit was 7-6 in the young season and Leyland thought his new players, who had been through a string of
demoralizing, losing campaigns, were too content with having risen to mediocre.
The Tigers, of course, won 28 of their next 36 games and rode a season-long wave of momentum into the World Series.
Are the '08 Tigers capable of doing the same thing? Time will tell, but Leyland already has played the rage card and it appears to have at least put a burr under a few saddles.
The Tigers are 4-2 since an 11-0 loss to Chicago, a game in which the White Sox belted a pair of grand slams. With a win seemingly out of the question, Detroit's hitters became far too proficient at making quick outs. There were some horribly indifferent at-bats and the last nine outs came on just 24 pitches.
To say the least, the Tigers didn't grind it out, so their manager ground them up. The shutout loss was the second in as many nights and fourth in 12 games. Detroit had been shut out just three times all of last season. So Leyland, already lighting more Marlboros a day than the surgeon general might recommend after that 0-7 start, turned smokin' surly in a closed-door clubhouse meeting.
Detroit responded by scoring 30 runs in its next three games and, despite just 11 runs in the last three, the Tigers have displayed more grit and produced better at-bats.
The problem, apparently, is that they're going to need big-run production on a daily basis to win, especially in games like yesterday's in Toronto where the Tigers wasted some rare, solid relief pitching. Otherwise, it is a burden for the hitters to have to play over poor starting pitching and come from behind on a day-to-day basis.
Jeremy Bonderman, who turned in a decent five innings yesterday despite fighting his control all the while, is the only starter in what was supposed to be a very good rotation to have an ERA under 6.30. Justin Verlander, Dontrelle Willis (currently on the disabled list with a
hyper-extended knee) and Nate Robertson all are 7.00 or higher. Detroit entered yesterday's game allowing almost one full earned run more per game than any other team in the American League.
Everyone suspected the bullpen would be an adventure with Joel Zumaya and Fernando Rodney on the shelf with injuries. But the starters have been mostly horrid. With the offense struggling during the first two weeks of the season, the Tigers rarely had a chance. Having recently shown signs of life at the plate, they could be poised to take off.
Rodney and Zumaya are both expected to start throwing from a mound sometime this week at the Tigers' complex in Florida. Centerfielder Curtis Granderson, who has not played this season because of a broken finger, is spending his weekend on a rehab assignment with the Mud Hens. So help may be on the way.
The key, though, remains the starting rotation and, in particular, Verlander. He has been far from his overpowering self and has struggled to locate pitches.
No team, certainly no good team, improved itself more offensively during the off-season than did the Tigers with acquisitions like Miguel Cabrera, Edgar Renteria and platoon-player Jacque Jones.
But the bottom line always has been and always will be pitching. Remember, the quick change in fortunes after Leyland's tongue-lashing in '06 was fashioned behind a series of 3-0, 3-2 and 2-0 wins.
So the Tigers can't afford to waste decent outings like Bonderman and the bullpen produced yesterday and all of this season's bright promise will go for naught if the rest of the pitching staff doesn't right itself.
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