It was an upset, based on the betting odds and the overwhelming expectations for the Yankees. But this was not an upset in the manner of Buster Douglas toppling Mike Tyson. The Tigers had better pitching than the Yankees. This is what typically decides postseason series, so in that sense they were no surprise at all.
But look where the Tigers were six days ago and look where they are now. The Tigers arrived in early August with a 76-36 record. They were the toast of the baseball world. From that point to the end of the season they went 19-31. But the worst was at the end, losing their last five straight, including the last three at home to the Kansas City Royals. The final loss to the Royals cost the Tigers the AL Central title, in a race in which they had once held a 10-game lead.
The Tigers were reeling, right? They were ready only to be convenient victims for the mighty Yankees, correct? No. The Tigers not only bounced back, they soared back. They won the last three games from the Yankees by a cumulative score of 18-6.
Within six days, the Tigers went from being unable to win a game against the Kansas City Royals to dominating the New York Yankees. A baseball team can't travel much further in a short period of time. This took a lot of heart, a lot of determination, a lot of pride on the part of the Tigers. And it also took a lot of pitching.
Nobody traveled further than the last two starting pitchers for Detroit, Game 3 winner Kenny Rogers and Game 4 winner Jeremy Bonderman. Rogers defeated not only the Yankees but his own previous reputation as someone who could not beat the Yankees and could not win in the postseason. His performance Friday night was as courageous as it was dominant. He went from being a postseason patsy to a postseason ace.
Bonderman had coughed up a big lead in the final loss to Kansas City. Saturday in Game 4, he was given another early lead but he was determined that that this time he would hold up his end of the bargain. He retired the first 15 Yankees he faced and he gave up only two runs on five hits over 8 1/3 innings. He made certain that this clinching game would not get away from his team.
"I gave up a six run lead to clinch our division, and I wasn't going to let that happen tonight," Bonderman said. "The guys got me a lead, and I wasn't going to let up and I wasn't going to give it back."
"You know, this is a great Yankees team. They are from top to bottom, manager all the way down; I knew I had to bring my A-game, and I was able to do that."
What all the Tigers did, rebounding from could have been a demoralizing finish to the regular season, is something to celebrate. They never lost focus. They never lost faith.
"This is a great team," Bonderman said. "We hit a scuff in the road and a good team will bounce back. We have a great team.
"I think it's just, you know, from our skipper [Jim Leyland] coming in and telling us: 'Take it one game at a time. If you lose one, you've still got to play tomorrow.' And I think we took that to heart and came out and executed that."
This team was determined to overcome its earlier failures. The performances of Rogers and Bonderman embodied that determination, but the whole team was characterized by that sort of resolve.
The Tigers have come a long, long way, not only in the last week, but from where this club was in 2003, when it lost 119 games, or even last season, when it lost 91.
Winning this series was a validation for everything that the Tigers had accomplished in traveling all the way from baseball oblivion to the October spotlight. And winning this Series over the Yankees took on a special meaning of its own.
Leyland deserves a world of credit for the job he has done here. He knows baseball and he knows people. He can handle the game and find a way to bring out the best in the people who play the game. He knew what this postseason triumph, this victory over the Yankees meant.
"I want to take this time to congratulate the Yankees on another great season," Leyland said Saturday night, his voice cracking with emotion. "And it's kind of ironic, really, because in Spring Training, I said when we played the Yankees: 'You know, I want you to get to where we take the field like the Yankees take the field. There's a special air about them. There's a special confidence, not cockiness. But a special air.'
"I said: 'That's the level that we want to get to, and we've got to get that quiet swagger and confidence that the Yankees get.' I used them as a great example all spring. It was just kind of ironic that we got to play them, and fortunately beat them, in the playoffs."
And this was good for Detroit, which has always been a terrific baseball town, but recently just hasn't had an appropriate team to celebrate. A crowd of 43,126 rejoiced with every strike Bonderman threw Saturday. They had waited 19 years for postseason baseball to return. The return was suitably joyous.
The Tigers are going to the ALCS because they have that surest of baseball virtues: really good pitching. But they are also moving on in October because they have heart enough to rise above disappointment.
They lost the last three to the Royals, but then they won the last three from the Yankees. In the process of winning those last three, the Tigers also won themselves a new definition:
This is not primarily a team that stumbled and fell at the end of the regular season. This is now a team that had determination enough and ability enough to rise up in the postseason. The three they won against the mighty Yankees will still be vividly remembered when the three they lost against the Royals are just a footnote in history.