The Detroit Tigers, masters of the first four months of the regular season, lost 31 of their last 50 games. Worse, after being in first place in the AL Central since mid-May, they fell into the Wild Card position on the last day of the season. They lost their last five games including a sweep by the Kansas City Royals at home. They needed only one win in those games to win the division. Ouch.
The Yankees have been around this block often enough to know that the Tigers cannot be taken lightly. Joe Torre responded to the notion that the Tigers "backed in" to the postseason.
"They didn't back their way in," he said. "They've cooled off lately, since the All-Star break. They are dangerous because you know what they did early wasn't a fluke. They're dangerous because you know what their capabilities are. The arms on their pitchers really get your attention.
"Their strength is where your strength needs to be in the postseason, in the pitching."
It is not unlikely, Torre suggested, that the Tigers can toss this slump over their shoulders and start fresh in the postseason. And he knows this territory. Torre's 2000 team had a serious late-season slump, but corrected itself nicely in October, winning the World Series.
"When it's all said and done on what you are actually going to do, then you become the team you have been all year," Torre said.
"The fact that whatever was causing stress or tension during the course of the year is over, that's behind you," he said. "You are still standing there with only a handful of teams at the end, so that makes you feel pretty good about yourself."
The Tigers took a defiant stance about their late-season troubles, basically saying that was a closed book and their overall work this season had, after all, earned the right to appear in the postseason.
"We've moved on," Game 1 starter Nate Robertson said of the slump. "That was yesterday."
"I look at it like we're a team that won 71 games a year ago, and this year we won 95 and we're in the playoffs," said manager Jim Leyland. "And we're going forward and we're here to play."
The Tigers will be viewed by the rest of the world as distinct underdogs in this series, but Leyland isn't having any of that, either.
"I'm not really sure we're the underdogs," Leyland said. "And when I say that, I'm certainly not being disrespectful of the New York Yankees. We know all about the New York Yankees and what a great team, what a great franchise, all the world championships and nobody has more respect for the New York Yankees than we do.
"But I also believe that when you get down to the final eight teams, whoever plays good at that particular time has a chance to win. So I'm not looking at us as the favorites certainly, and I'm not looking at us as underdogs. We're one of the teams that earned the right to be here and in this particular case, we earned the right to play the New York Yankees, so here we are."
By dropping out of first place, the Tigers also lost the home-field advantage. Instead of opening in Detroit against the A's, the Tigers are in Yankee Stadium. Leyland, in his own inimitable fashion, was capable of finding the positive in this, as well.
"If you want to be the best you've got to beat the best," he said. "And the Yankees, for the most part, over the history of baseball, have been the best. I want my players to relish playing in Yankee Stadium. I hope that they look around. I hope that they appreciate all the history and tradition of the New York Yankees, because it's the best in sport. I want them to admire it. I want them to cherish this opportunity. What I certainly don't want them [to do] is fear anything. And we won't."
Leyland was asked about the strength of the Yankee lineup. The question included the word "fearful" and Leyland had fun with that.
"Respectful is one thing, fearful is another," he said. "I'm sure that Joe Torre is a bit more relaxed than I am."
Nobody asks the Yankees about being filled with trepidation by the prospect of facing somebody else's lineup. They are expected to do well here, regardless of circumstances. With the Tigers, questions have arisen. They might be the team of the first four months of the season. Or they might be the team of the last week of the season.
No, they don't have to apologize for winning 95 games. But for this team to make a dent in the Yankees' expectations, those wins probably should have been the last 95 in a row.