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Clear merit pays off for A's, Tigers

Clear merit pays off for A's, Tigers

OAKLAND -- It is always quieter in the postseason after the departure of the New York Yankees. The level of hoopla, hype and where-is-A-Rod-batting-today is all severely diminished.

What we are left with is baseball, good baseball, two teams who come to the American League Championship Series on clear merit, two teams that embody traditional postseason virtues. For the Oakland Athletics and the Detroit Tigers, congratulations are definitely in order. And apologies are definitely not needed.

Both teams produced top-flight Division Series performances. Oakland swept the Twins. Detroit beat the heavily-favored Yankees, 3-1. Along the way, both clubs showed you why their postseason success was no fluke.

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The Athletics and the Tigers come to this lofty position as pitching-first operations. This is the way it is supposed to be done in the postseason, and the manner of Detroit's victory over the Yankees in the Division Series, with the brilliant starts by Kenny Rogers and Jeremy Bonderman, serves as a clear reminder of that.

Both clubs can produce the long ball more than occasionally. Both clubs can catch the ball. All the available evidence suggests a very balanced postseason matchup. Again, this is just as it should be.

If postseason form holds, this series will be decided by one team pitching better than the other one. It is often just that simple and just that difficult.

On paper, the edge would go to Detroit, the AL leader in team ERA. But the Tigers' statistical edge is smaller here than it was over the Yankees. Oakland was fourth in team ERA, the Yankees were seventh. And just as the Tigers outpitched the Yankees in a Division Series, the A's outpitched the Twins, which in pitching terms is a larger deal. Oakland gave up only seven runs in its three-game sweep of Minnesota. The Tigers gave up only six runs in their three victories over New York and, at one point, kept the Yankees scoreless in 20 consecutive innings.

One way or another, these people can pitch, all right? When Oakland manager Ken Macha was asked if he was more impressed by Detroit's starters or Detroit's bullpen, he smiled and replied: "I'll answer that question, 'Yes.'

"They led the league in pitching by a pretty good distance. ... They're pretty impressive all the way through with their pitching."

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There will be subplots, not as flashy perhaps as the continuing saga of Alex Rodriguez and his October struggles, but still carrying significant meaning. Two sluggers, Magglio Ordonez for the Tigers, and Frank Thomas for the Athletics, were both banished by the Chicago White Sox. The White Sox won without them in 2005, but now, they both are winning without the White Sox. Thomas had a monster season, which is to say, a typical year for him when healthy. He did not win the Comeback Player of the Year award, but it would be easy to argue that he came back a little further than Jim Thome did.

There is a healthy mutual respect between these two clubs. They played nine times during the regular season, with the Tigers winning five.

"They can hurt you in the middle of the lineup and they've got some fast guys," Game 1 Oakland starter Barry Zito said of the Tigers. "They play baseball the right way. They're going to hit and run, they're going to bunt, they're going to steal third and get guys over, they're going to hit it to the right side when they have to. They're just fundamentally sound.

"A lot of times in the playoffs, World Series, the team that wins is the team that executes fundamentals the most consistently. That's something we're all expecting out of Detroit."

"The Oakland team is an extremely tough team because it's so balanced," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. "They have a lot of excellent combinations, and most importantly, they play the game the way it's supposed to be played and they play it with an added amount of enthusiasm. This is going to be a real tough matchup."

You like it when each team believes that the other plays the game the way it is supposed to be played. You believe in turn that the Series in question will then be played the way it is supposed to be played.

Both teams are here on baseball value, not novelty value, but they are certainly not the same old faces at this level. Prior to last week, Oakland had not won a postseason series since 1990 and Detroit had not reached the postseason since 1987. Perhaps this is evidence of improved competitive balance in baseball, or maybe this suggests increased parity in baseball. Certainly, it suggests that both clubs pitch well enough to win a postseason series.

No, neither of these teams appears to be the New York Yankees. In the wake of their victory over New York, Game 1 Tigers starter Nate Robertson noted that "we had to listen to what went wrong with the Yankees instead of what went right with the Tigers."

But, Robertson added with a smile: "I don't think it's bothered us. We're OK with what's going on right now."

What's going on starting Tuesday night in McAfee Coliseum is the 2006 American League Championship Series, featuring two extremely deserving baseball teams.

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

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