The short series is a test for Tigers, but they have the horses to win it

So far through two games of the AL Division Series, the Tiger offense appears to be pressing.

So far through two games of the AL Division Series, the Tiger offense appears to be pressing.

In their quest for a World Series title, the Detroit Tigers must navigate the perils of a five-game series with Oakland. Detroit has been here before. It’s a scary place. Tiger fans are nervous, and rightly so — especially since the sad-sack Miami Marlins swept them the final weekend of the season. After splitting a pair in Oakland, it’s now a three-game test, which seems a little unfair considering the 162-game season format that precedes it.

One of the most puzzling quirks of today’s post-season is the perilous first round. Anything can happen, and usually does, in a short series. Detroit, the last world champion before the advent of divisional play, quickly found this out the hard way. In 1972, the A’s beat the Tigers three games to two in the ALCS. The disaster started in Game One in Oakland, when Al Kaline homered in the 11th and then was charged with a rare throwing error to give the As the win in the bottom of the inning. During an awful Game Five at Tiger Stadium, bleacher fans were rowdy and littered the field with bottles and cans; when Tony Taylor flew out to end the 2-1 Tiger loss, luckily he hit the ball right to George Hendrick in center, who couldn’t have moved without tripping over a booze container. It’s one of my worst Tiger Stadium memories.

On the way to a world title in 1984, the Tigers swept the Kansas City Royals in the last best-of-five ALCS. But the best-of-five folly returned in 1995 with the advent of the wild cards and the divisional series.

With all the extra revenue being squeezed out of October ball, the best-of-five first round has always puzzled me. The fall classic lasts till Halloween anyway, so why not make the first round best-of-seven? That would be a fairer test.

But fairness — in the form of the best teams in each league meeting in the World Series — ended when Bill Freehan caught that pop-up in St. Louis and bear-hugged Mickey Lolich. It’s given way to the lottery mentality. Despite baseball’s uniquely grueling 162-game regular season, the goal now is to keep as many teams as possible in contention for post-season play as long as possible. That’s the sad legacy of the Bug Selig era: making baseball, once so distinctive among American sports, too much like all other American pro sports. With interleague play and the dissolution of league integrity, baseball is well on its way to losing the long and rich historic tradition of two separate leagues, just as the NFC/AFC division no longer means anything important in pro football.

So now the fifth-best teams in each league have a shot at the World Series, and this year we could have gotten Cleveland vs. Cincinnati. And we still have this best-of-five nonsense.

Last year, you may recall, Jose Valverde imploded and pitched the Tigers to the brink of elimination in the ALDS against these same Oakland As, and Justin Verlander had to save the club with a clutch Game Five shutout.

Could there be a repeat this year? Hell, yes. Last year’s miracle A’s proved in 2013 they were no fluke. This year, the momentum belongs to Oakland, which played impressively down the stretch, while the Tigers nearly ran out of gas and ended the season with their closer blowing a save and then being embarrassingly no-hit (sure, Jim Leyland wasn’t trying to win those games, but it was troubling nonetheless).

Through two games in this series, neither team is scoring runs, but neither is allowing many either. It’s shaping up to be another five-gamer.

On paper, the As don’t seem to be anywhere near as solid as the Tigers. But in practice, they managed to win more games this year than Detroit, with the dangerous Yoenis Cespedes and the surprisingly potent Brandon Moss and the rejuvenated and versatile Coco Crisp, who looked more like Babe Ruth in September than a guy who’s thirty-three. There’s the surprising emergence of Josh Donaldson, a solid choice to finish third in the AL MVP race. There’s a very good shortstop who gets little attention, Jed Lowrie, and the lurking danger that Josh Reddick could bust out after an injury-plagued year. And there are those young, sometimes baffling arms in the starting rotation, plus Bartolo Colon, better than he’s ever been at age forty (if there were drugs enhancing his performance, they seem to have been very effective ones). There’s the young, unpredictable, innovative manager, Bob Melvin.

If the Tigers falter in this series, it might be due to Jim Leyland’s stubborn refusal to give Miguel Cabrera the long rest he obviously needed in September. With a less potent Miggy bat in the lineup (not to mention the fact he has to limp around the bases, turning every double into a single), the Tigers have been missing their biggest weapon. He has two singles so far in the first two games.

In a five-game series, the bullpen is crucial. One loss is potentially devastating, and the Tigers’ middle relievers and set-up men are less impressive than Oakland’s, plus Leyland is more likely to mishandle them. Should he have brought Rick Porcello into Game Two with the bases loaded? Maybe, maybe not.

I don’t really think the Tigers are going to let it get away again this year — they are too deep and too strong, and Verlander looks sharp again, giving the club a matchless 1-2-3 punch on the mound, and that’s all you need in a best-of-five series. But there are many ways to fail in a short series, and the Tigers haven’t exactly been wowing anyone of late (especially at the plate). Now it comes down to a best-of-three with two in Motown.

The best-of-five has always been a bad idea, and with all the other post-season tweaking we’ve had in recent years, for the life of me I don’t see why it survives. Hopefully the Tigers will survive it.

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About Michael Betzold

Author of Queen of Diamonds: The Tiger Stadium Story and other books, former Detroit Free Press reporter Michael Betzold always wore #4 to honor his first hero, the "Sunday Punch," Charlie "Paw Paw" Maxwell.