Now that Justin Verlander has effectively calmed down Tigers fans who were worried after a heart-breaking loss in Game Four of the ALDS, we can turn our attention to the ALCS. There’s not much time to savor JV’s shutout, anyway. It begins tomorrow.
I’m about to tell you which two players will be most critical to the Tigers in their pursuit of the American League pennant.
When you find out who they are, don’t freak out, throw something, or get suddenly sullen. Promise?
First, let me make it clear that the familiar faces – Verlander, Miguel Cabrera, Austin Jackson, and Prince Fielder – will all be important in this series against the Baltimore Orioles/New York Yankees. If the Tigers are to avoid a second straight defeat in the ALCS, the big names will have to perform.
But there are also two players who I think will be especially important because of their roles on this team.
Just behind Cabrera and Fielder in the Detroit lineup is Delmon Young, a first-pitch hacking, hard-swinging, lightning rod for criticism and controversy. 2012 has not been the best year of DY’s life. In May while the team was in New York, Young was arrested on charges that he assaulted a man on the sidewalk, berating him with allegedly racial remarks. The you-know-what- has yet to hit the fan on those charges, it should be settled in the off-season. But besides that, Young has been a focal point in the Tiger lineup all year, rightly or wrongly. Quite talented as a hitter (no other major leaguer 26 years old or younger has more career hits than DY), Young is prone to long droughts of hitlessness (if that were a word), and he can flummox fans with his crazy obsession with swinging at the first pitch.
However… (and thankfully for Detroit there is a however) … Young has at times gone on tears in which he carries the team with his smashing of the baseball. He went on one in August and he enjoyed one last year in the AL Division Series against the Yankees. In fact, Young belted five homers in the post-season last season for Jim Leyland’s club.
With Fielder in the cleanup spot, Young looms important at #5 because (as the A’s showed in the ALDS) teams will pitch around the big fellas to force DY to beat them. He’ll have to do more than 6-4-3 DPs and little nubbers to second base if the Tigers are going to capture the flag and move on to the Fall Classic. Young feasts on left-handed pitching (.308 with a .500 slugging percentage against them this year), and the Orioles/Yankees have a few that he;ll get to square off against during this series. Young will have to deliver in order for the Tigs to plate crucial runs.
Reliever Octavio Dotel has a World Series ring that he earned last fall with the Cardinals, but he would like another one, thank you very much. As the Tigers 7th inning specialist, the veteran righty will need to be on his game in this ALCS in order to accomplish that.
You can never tell how a post-season series will go, or who might be the hero of a particular game, but one thing is for certain: the late innings of games prove to be decisive. As was the case in the ALDS, the “bridge pitchers” – the guys who toed the rubber after the starting pitcher but before the setup man and closer – will be very important. Dotel is one of the best in the game at staying calm under pressure. The reliever is pitching for his 13th team in 14 seasons in the major leagues. He’s pitched in the post-season for five teams now, and he never gets ruffled. Ice water in his veins? Dotel seems like he has ice cubes in his veins.
Remember last October when the Tigers had not one, not two, but three post-season games effected by rainy weather? Look for something like that to happen again, and when it does it wreaks havoc with the starting pitchers. A Verlander or Scherzer or Fister who has to wait and start and stop and start and maybe wait again as the raindrops keep falling, will lead to middle relievers. And middle relievers lead to the backend of the bullpen being pinched up a little bit. Dotel may have to enter games in the 6th inning in tie situations. The 38-year old has an arm of rubber, so he can pitch a lot, something that Leyland will need to take advantage of.
The Tigers 8th inning man, Joaquin Benoit, has not looked sharp so far this post-season, and he’s been giving up home runs like it’s a bodily function. He’s not to be relied on. Leyland could call on Dotel to setup if he feels Benoit isn’t a good option.
No one can know for certain what is going to happen in a best-of-seven series. A baseball, though it’s round, can bounce in funny, unpredictable ways. But, it’s probable that Young and Dotel, two players in key roles for their team, will have a lot to say about whether the Bengals get a chance to win their first World Series in 28 years.