BOSTON — The passage of time may allow the Tigers and their fans to appreciate the 2013 baseball season.
More than three million people filled Comerica Park to watch Detroit’s collection of big-ticket stars win another division title and become the first team to make three straight AL championship series since the late-90s Yankees dynasty.
Yet when Boston closer Koji Uehara leapt into catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia’s arms after the final out of the Red Sox’s pennant-clinching win Saturday night at Fenway Park, there was the throbbing sense of an opportunity lost.
A Tigers season that began with championship-or-bust expectations will be remembered for the 98 wins they achieved — including 93 in the regular seasons — and the six more they did not.
"There's always a little bit of regret looking back," Justin Verlander told reporters. "To get this close and not be able to win it, it hurts. When you get to this point in the year, the expectations are always high. The expectations were high coming into spring training, about as high as they could possibly be. But once you get to the playoffs, it's a grind, and you can't say, 'OK, we're going to make it to the World Series.'"
That was never more clear than in the Tigers’ four-games-to-two series loss to Boston, the whims of October on full display in a series that featured four one-run games.
The Tigers won 1-0 in Game 1 at Fenway, they built a late five-run lead in Game 2, and a starting rotation manager Jim Leyland called the best of his career was at its best. Starters Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, Anibal Sanchez and Doug Fister posted a combined 2.39 ERA in the postseason.
"You pitch the way we pitched in this series," Leyland said, "you would probably think that you had won."
Instead, David Ortiz hit a game-tying grand slam off reliever Joaquin Benoit in Boston’s Game 2 win, and the wheels steadily loosened. The Tigers were undone by a rugged bullpen, poor baserunning, inconsistent defense, and a once-potent offense tempered by reigning Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera’s assorted ailments and Prince Fielder’s postseason disappearance. Fielder, whose nine-year, $214 contract looms as an albatross, has gone 68 at-bats without an RBI in the playoffs.
Asked if it would be tough to move on from a disappointing series, Fielder said, "It isn't really tough, man, for me. It's over. I have kids I have to take care of, so for me it's over, bro."
The Tigers, too, will move forward, their offseason questions beginning with the future of Leyland. The 68-year-old manager has given no hints he wants to leave and it appears management will extend him another one-year contact offer. An announcement could come as soon as this week.
Leyland would likely return to a familiar roster. Shortstop-turned-leftfielder Jhonny Peralta, second baseman Omar Infante, and Benoit are free agents while CBSSports.com recently reported there is a "very real chance" the Tigers will trade Scherzer, the likely AL Cy Young Award winner, before he reaches free agency after the 2014 season.
Moving Scherzer seems unlikely. The Tigers will again have a massively paid core of the game’s top stars, all in their prime. The team built to win everything this year is built to do the same next season.
The dream endures, though time is running out.
"It's tough," said Torii Hunter, who signed with the Tigers last offseason in search of his first title. "Tough for me. The door's closing."
Contact David Briggs at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6084 or on Twitter @ DBriggsBlade.