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9/11/2007 11:45:00 AM

AL Central: Let's Play Nine

by Joe Lemire

"Nine Full Innings."

That's the inscription inside the rings celebrating Detroit's 2006 American League pennant, and with 144 games played the Tigers are exactly 8/9 of the way through 2007. Headed into today's day-night doubleheader with the Texas Rangers, they're entering the ninth inning of their season with a 78-66 record. At six games back, the AL Central looks unlikely, but they trail the Yankees by 3.5 games, making the wild card still a possibility -- if they can mount a considerable rally.

For last night, at least, the Tigers seem up to the challenge of playing the full nine innings. Trailing the Blue Jays 4-1 in the bottom of the ninth, with Toronto ace Roy Halladay on the mound, a comeback seemed improbable, especially after Timo Perez's double play wiped out a leadoff single from Mike Rabelo.

Considering Detroit's recent swing of bad luck -- likely shutting down Jeremy Bonderman for the season and even losing Pudge Rodriguez and Joel Zumaya earlier in the game to dizziness and a lost finger nail, respectively -- no betting man would have put money on the Tigers at that juncture of the game.

And certainly Baseball Prospectus hasn't been betting on Detroit to make the postseason. Looking at the right-most column (the percentage chance of the Tigers making the postseason), you can see that they peaked at 93.5 percent likelihood back on July 20, when they were 57-36 and the Indians were two games back. But entering last night, Detroit had dipped below a 15 percent chance.

But the Tigers played nine full innings. Sean Casey and Brandon Inge contributed two-out singles off Halladay, chasing him out of the game in favor of closer Casey Janssen. After Inge scooted to second on defensive indifference, Curtis Granderson laced a two-RBI single. Placido Polanco singled and Gary Sheffield walked. Suddenly it was bases loaded for Magglio Ordoñez, and he did not disappoint, knocking home the game-tying and -- winning runs on a two-RBI single of his own. John Lowe of the Detroit Free-Press immediately dubbed it Detroit's signature win of the season.

Alex Rodriguez's monstrous season has pretty much eliminated Ordoñez and everybody else from MVP contention -- splits of .318/.424/.672 with 52 HR and 140 RBIs will blow just about everybody away -- but Magglio has continued to churn out an impressive season. He's not just leading the majors with a .359 average (and second in RBIs with 128), but he's also leading the majors in average with runners in scoring position: hitting at a staggering .422 clip.

If the Tigers miss the playoffs, it won't be for lack of a few exceptional seasons. Beyond Magglio, there's also been the historic season of Curtis Granderson, who joined Willie Mays and Frank "Wildfire" Schulte as the only players to have a 20-20-20-20 season, compiling a score of doubles, triples, homers and stolen bases. And Placido Polanco, besides his errorless streak of 147 games, is still batting .345.

But, save Justin Verlander (16-5, 3.56 ERA), you can't even begin to toss around the phrase "exceptional season" near any of Detroit's pitchers. Kenny Rogers and wunderkinds Fernando Rodney and Zumaya have been various combinations of middling and injured, while Bonderman and Nate Robertson have been decidedly mediocre.

While last night's win was spectacular for Detroit, keeping the team within 3.5 games of New York, rather than falling to 4.5 back, there's still significant ground to cover.

Except for Detroit's three games with Texas now, both the Yankees and Tigers have only divisional games remaining. Though the AL Central has disappointed this season, it's still stronger than the East, meaning the schedule favors the Yankees.

Time for the Tigers to play the ninth.

  • The New York Mets are among the teams who will offer a fitting tribute on the anniversary of September 11.
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