Tigers' storybook season familiar

Tigers' storybook season familiar

CHICAGO -- To this point, the season of the 2006 Detroit Tigers has been remarkably similar to the season of the 2005 Chicago White Sox. The Tigers can reasonably hope that the similarity holds up all the way through October.

The key now for the Tigers would be gathering themselves in the final two weeks of the season, just as the White Sox did in 2005. Maybe that process started on Monday night, with an 8-2 Tigers victory over these same White Sox. The late-season recovery is the only part of the scenario that cannot yet be known, but the Tigers have had the rest of the White Sox championship season fairly well matched.

The Tigers had the huge first half, as the White Sox did in 2005. The Tigers built the big lead in the American League Central, just as the White Sox did, although Detroit's largest lead -- 10 games -- was not quite as commanding as the 15-game lead Chicago built last season. Then again, the AL Central is a tougher overall division this season.

And then, on the downside, the Tigers had a late-season slump that allowed the big lead to almost totally evaporate. The White Sox had their 15-game lead shrink to 1 1/2 games. The Tigers' 10-game lead had, by Sunday night, become just a one-game lead over the onrushing Minnesota Twins.

Success, adversity, then what? For the 2005 White Sox, there was a late rally. They won eight of their last 10 games, including their last five in a row. That momentum never slowed, as they went 11-1 in the postseason on their way to the South Side's first World Series championship in 88 years.

Do the Tigers have it in them to stage their own recovery in the season's final two weeks? If outstanding pitching is the difference, as it was for Chicago last year, then the Tigers have more than just a chance.

By the numbers, the Tigers have had the best pitching in baseball this season. And on Monday night, in the opener of this crucial three-game series, they still had it in the person of Kenny Rogers.

Against the powerful Chicago lineup, Rogers produced a ground-ball out whenever he needed it. He needed it in the third and fifth innings, and both times, there they were; 6-4-3 double plays and White Sox rallies snuffed.

Rogers' six shutout innings were the work of a proven professional, exactly what the Tigers' situation demanded. This performance was even more impressive in light of the fact that Rogers was coming off a case of the flu.

"His color wasn't very good, but he battled," said Tigers manager Jim Leyland.

This was a critical game for both teams. The Tigers had won only 13 of their last 37 games, and even more to the point of Monday night's contest, they had won only five of 16 this season against the White Sox. Chicago opened the evening just five games back of Detroit. Two of the top three AL Central teams will advance to the postseason. The Tigers just increased their lead over the third team to six games with 12 left.

The Tigers do not give the impression that they're a team on the verge of a breakdown. The Tigers give absolutely no indication of anything resembling panic. In fact, the Tigers don't even appear to be particularly troubled by the disappearance of the vast majority of their lead.

"We're still on top -- we're still very loose and relaxed," said center fielder Curtis Granderson, who set off the Detroit offense on Monday night with a leadoff double and the first run of the game. "We come to the park day-in and day-out, and it's no different than it has been. Everyone else seems to have made every other series seem like it was life or death, the same coming into this one, and we never treated it that way.

"We understand what happened, what caused [the slump]," he added. "We lost some close games, we didn't play well in the month of August as a whole -- there were some games where we could have put ourselves in better situations, and we just didn't. We understand that if we had played just a little bit better, we probably could have put ourselves in a more comfortable position. But it's still exciting. We're still in a good position right now."

And the Tigers have the ideal man in the manager's office for the task at hand in Leyland. No nonsense, no excuses, no phoniness, just baseball.

Leyland spent some time discussing the alleged fatigue factor on Monday. Actually, he spent some time completely dismissing the fatigue factor, while saying that he would play his regulars every bit as much as he could down the stretch.

"I don't buy the tired factor," Leyland. "We just had two days off. We were off last Monday, we were off last Thursday. I don't buy that tired stuff.

"If you're tired this time of year, you just don't want to play, I mean, in our situation. If you're 40 games out, you might be tired. But if you're fighting for something and you just had two off-days and you're tired, you just don't want to be in there, or else you're not taking care of yourself the way you need to. That's ridiculous. I'm sorry -- I had two days off. I was bored."

He wasn't worried about his players becoming too tense, too taut, too tight in their current circumstances.

"They're pretty much the way they've been all year," Leyland said. "It helps that the manager is going to be exactly the way he has been all year, too."

With the Tigers and the White Sox meeting here in a pivotal series, with the Tigers' season vividly mirroring the work of the White Sox last season, Sox manager Ozzie Guillen was asked what he had told his players late last season when they were slumping, but still hanging onto first place.

"Keep playing and keep believing in yourself," Guillen responded. "You're here for a reason, and it isn't because you're lucky. It's because you're good."

The Tigers are still here -- as in, here in first place -- because they were exceptionally good for most of this season. And if they finish strong, the recent slide will be no more than a footnote in the history of a terrific year.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.