The Tigers’ Winning Culture

Tigers

A couple hours before the game against the Red Sox Monday afternoon, Torii Hunter was talking to a group of inner city Boston teenage baseball players, which he does every time he’s in town, because he is who he is and should be the face of the game. His close friend David Ortiz was kibitzing him, and gesturing to Jose Iglesias near the batting cage.

This was Iglesias’s first trip back to the city in which he broke in, but when he was approached, he put a finger in front of his mouth as if to say “shus…”

“I can’t talk to anyone today,” Iglesias whispered. “Prince’s orders.”

“You’ve talked to everyone around this place,” Prince shouted to Iglesias from inside the cage. “It’s time to start getting serious.” Naturally, Prince being Prince, he giggled as he said it.

When Iglesias got in the cage, he popped one ball up. He pulled the next pitch in the air towards The Monster. “Are you going to get serious and hit the way you’re supposed to hit?” Prince barked. Iglesias began to protest, but Fielder cut him off. “You’re not helping anyone trying to pull fly balls,” he told his new teammate. “Now, get serious.”

Fielder finished his round and walked over to the group of kids Hunter had left to join his BP round. He talked to the kids and signed autographs, and by the time the Tigers were done hitting, Ramon Santiago and Austin Jackson and two or three other players stopped, talked, signed.

The Tigers are good. Very good. They and the Red Sox have been neck-and-neck for the best record and the best run differential in the American League since August began winding down. Oh, Miguel Cabrera has been physically worn down, between hip and abdomen issues. In one way, they miss Jhonny Peralta’s bat in back of Victor Martinez in the six hole, but Iglesias has been nothing of brilliant defensively since the three-way deal involving Jake Peavy and Avisail Garcia; with Cabrera’s range further impeded by injury, Iglesias has made a huge difference on the left side of the infield. “He brings us a lot energy, he can really play defense and he’s extremely intelligent,” says Jim Leyland. “That deal worked for everyone.”

This past week’s three game series demonstrated how close these teams are. On base percentage? The Tigers and Red Sox were tied for the league lead. OPS? One game apart. Quality starts? Tigers one (93), Red Sox two (84). Strikeouts? Tigers-Red Sox 1-2. The difference before late August was clearly the starting pitching; Detroit’s starters not only led the league in quality starts, but wins, earned run average, strikeouts and strikeout-walk ratio,

Max Scherzer led the league in pitchers’ Wins Above Replacement. Anibal Sanchez was second, Justin Verlander, who says he thinks he’s found his release point and delivery, was sixth, Doug Fister seventh.

On Tuesday night, Jon Lester, whose delivery had been a work in progress, was up to 97 with a 95 MPH cutter and beat Scherzer 2-1 to bring his ERA to 2.53 over his last 10 starts. Clay Buchholz, out since June 8, is now ready to come back against Tampa next week with John Lackey—their best starter for the season—and Jake Peavy, Ryan Dempster and Felix Doubront.

The Tigers opened the season with Jose Valverde closing; now, its Joaquin Benoit, 17-for-17 at that point, used carefully by Jim Leyland to avoid him wearing down at age 36; on Monday, Leyland closed with Jose Veras to rest Benoit. John Farrell has been careful with Koji Uehara, getting him up twice all year without bringing him into a game, and using him in save situations on back-to-back days twice. Getting to closers is a concern for each; Farrell used Brandon Workman, Craig Breslow and Junichi Tazawa for three outs to get to Uehara Tuesday, then Leyland saw his middle corps implode Wednesday in a hail of eight homers and a 20-4 loss.

But as much as they are alike, they also come from different places. In many ways, the Red Sox are playing with house money, starting the season as an AL East afterthought that has morphed into a deep team whose starting pitching has fallen in place behind Lackey with Lester and Peavy. They regained their offensive grind, which after David Ortiz hurt his Achilles tendon last July 17 put together a .295 on base percentage; by September, they once again led the league at .349, with Daniel Nava through Thursday reaching base in 40 consecutive starts and in the top five in OBP.

The house money has allowed them to play without paying attention to elements of the media who live in the Calvinistic past, especially with Jonny Gomes as their spiritual advisor.

It’s different for the Tigers, who won pennants in 2006 and 2012 and lost to the Cardinals and Giants in those World Series. “The fans expect us to win, and they should,” says Fielder. “That’s good. If we’re important to them, then we’re fortunate.”

Hunter had several teams interested in him as a free agent last fall, but he knew where he wanted to go. “I had relatives who came from Detroit,” says Hunter. “I know what baseball means to that city. I know what people have been through (he knows the illiteracy rate is 47%). It’s a great opportunity to bring joy and happiness to a lot of great people.

“I knew if I signed with the Tigers, I had a great chance to get to a World Series,” says Hunter. “I want to get there before I’m done. I can drive to see my son (Torii, a redshirt freshman wide receiver and straight A student at Notre Dame). I knew Miggy and Prince and Austin and Victor (Martinez) and a lot of the guys here. But what I didn’t know was how crazy funny these guys are. Prince and Austin Jackson are two of the funniest people I’ve ever been around. Teams have to laugh, they have to have fun playing baseball and being together, and this is a special group.” There are some people who struggle to keep a straight face trying to interview Prince, because the man has one of the most infectious laughs on the planet.

Talking to youth groups, Hunter retells his days growing up in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, with gangs and drive-bys and having his signing bonus taken by his father for drugs, which he explains to the kids was his motivation for his foundation and fundraising to try to insure that others don’t have to go through what he went through. Yet, all these years, he has helped his father, and brought him into his family. And Prince, who had been separated from his father, now has begun the re-attachment process and is trying to rebuild the relationship with Cecil so he can come back to Detroit during the post-season.

These Tigers have the power pitching that can play like John Smoltz’s power played in October. They have the personalities that can deal with the conclusions that get drawn on the walls with a loss or two in the post-season.

“They don’t want me talking to everyone,” said Iglesias. “They’re funny, they’re a great bunch of guys, but they sure want to win.”

“Hey,” says Hunter, “that’s what we’re here to do. We want to make the people of Detroit happy and proud.”