All year we've been waiting for the Tigers to trip. From the day they seized control of the American League Central and held baseball's best record (29-14 on May 21), we've been watching and waiting.
It's not personal. It's not as if anyone this side of the South Side of Chicago, or maybe the greater metropolitan Minneapolis area, really roots against the Tigers.
It's just that ... well, they're the Tigers. They haven't been very good in the past few years, in case you hadn't noticed.
Now we're in the final six weeks or so of this different kind of Tigers' season, during which they still boast baseball's best record at 78-41, and the whispers of a possible dive are everywhere. The Tigers have seen a healthy 10-game lead trimmed to a more modest 6˝ in little more than a week. The World Series champion White Sox are nipping at their cleats -- snarling, some might say. The resurgent Twins aren't far behind. Many are talking about Detroit's tired young arms and the inevitable slump to come.
General manager Dave Dombrowski, the man who built this team, will hear none of that.
"I don't think our guys will back down at all," Dombrowski said from Boston on Tuesday. "I don't think it will be a pressure situation where it just gets to them. We did rise to the occasion a couple of times. I think they'll be fine."
As much as some may predict the worst for the Tigers, there are still plenty of reasons to believe. Though they've slipped up at times in big series -- in late May and early June, for example, the Tigers went 3-7 in consecutive series against the Yankees, Red Sox and White Sox -- more recently they've shown some outright toughness. They won four straight series against the White Sox, A's, Indians and Twins in late July.
And after they finished last weekend on a season-worst five-game losing streak -- man, did that bring out the doomsayers -- the Tigers rebounded with two impressive wins against the Red Sox in Boston.
This is a really good team. They have powerful, healthy young pitchers (Justin Verlander, Jeremy Bonderman and Joel Zumaya), proven veterans (catcher Ivan Rodriguez, infielder Carlos Guillen, DH Dmitri Young, lefty starter Kenny Rogers, closer Todd Jones) and the top-ranked pitching staff (a 3.68 ERA) in the league. And a manager, Jim Leyland, who has seen it all.
"We know we're not going to be in the position where we all of the sudden go in the tank," Dombrowski said. "[But] it's been a long time since we've won. You can understand why people will think that way, especially if they haven't seen us play."
In fact, all this late-season heat from the White Sox -- Chicago has the second-best record in the game, tied with the Mets -- might be just the kick in the sliding pants the Tigers could use. Last year, remember, the surprising White Sox pushed their way to a 15-game lead in the Central, only to see that lead chopped to 1˝ games on Sept. 22. With five games to play, including three on the final weekend against the hard-charging Indians, the '05 Sox led the division by only two games.
The Sox didn't collapse. Instead, they won the final five games, swept their first-round series with Boston and lost only one game the rest of the way, going 11-1 in the postseason and winning their first World Series since 1917.