DETROIT -- When Tigers manager Brad Ausmus addressed the clubhouse in the wake of Sunday's 1-0 loss to the Braves, he had every reason to lament a postseason chase fallen short. He opted to focus on the journey they undertook to get there.
"I think one thing I'll take away is how well this team did in the second half," Ausmus said. "We were dead in the water in a lot of people's minds in July, and the guys played hard, and continued to play hard all the way through the last game. The effort was there. They were busting down the line. Guys were playing every day with aches and pains. Those guys, they wanted to win, and they understood the magnitude of the games the last couple months of the season. For that, I'm real proud of them. They got us back in the race. We were the last American League team standing in the playoff picture, and [on] the last day of the season. …
"It [stinks] that we're not going to the postseason, because that's what you start all the work in Spring Training for, and that's your goal, and we didn't attain that goal. In that sense, we fell short. But sometimes there's the bigger picture, and the bigger picture for me was how they went about their business and how their performance carried us nearly to the postseason, to the last game of the season."
In many ways, it felt like two seasons -- a struggling first half that had Ausmus' future in speculation, and a surging second that caught many by surprise and brought the Tigers back into the race. Detroit went 62-48 from the beginning of June until season's end. Some of that came from youngsters who emerged out of necessity, and some came from patience exercised on struggling veterans. But it added September excitement to a city that hadn't felt it since 2014.
The Tigers' challenge will be to figure out how to avoid the early-season hole. They'll also need to determine how to beat Cleveland more often; take away their head-to-head matchups, and the Tigers posted the better record at 82-61.
Record: 86-75, second place, American League Central
Defining moment: The Tigers faced a 7-2 deficit after eight innings against the host Rays on June 30, having been held down by Jake Odorizzi and Matt Andriese before erupting for eight runs in the ninth. It was a snapshot of a Tigers offense equally capable of futile stretches and spectacular bursts. It was also a microcosm of the midseason rally that carried the Tigers from the clutter of .500 teams to the postseason hunt.
What went right: Take the ebbs and flows as a whole season, and the Tigers hit, ranking second only to the Red Sox among AL teams in batting average, on-base percentage and OPS. Miguel Cabrera enjoyed his best power hitting since 2013, while Victor Martinez rebounded from an anemic 2015 season to post the second-highest home run total of his career at age 37. Ian Kinsler compiled his best numbers in five years, including 28 home runs in his age-34 season, while Justin Upton used a late-season surge to tie his career high in long balls. Cameron Maybin returned to Detroit to provide a jolt of energy on and off the field.
On the mound, Justin Verlander enjoyed a career renaissance, combining a return to his younger form with an older, wiser approach to pitching for his second-highest strikeout total of his career and his stingiest overall numbers since his MVP season of 2011. At the same time, he mentored a rotation of young starters that helped lift Detroit back into contention, from Rookie of the Year candidate Michael Fulmer to rapidly developing Daniel Norris to Matt Boyd.
What went wrong: While Upton turned his season around after a miserable first half, Maybin starred when healthy and Francisco Rodriguez racked up 44 saves, several parts of the Tigers' offseason work struggled to produce results. Jordan Zimmermann looked like Detroit's new ace after a dominant April, but he never approached that form again following a series of injuries. Mike Pelfrey provided five quality starts in 22 turns through the rotation. Mark Lowe was a bust after signing a two-year contract to shore up Detroit's setup relief. Lefty Justin Wilson gave up a .308 average to left-handed hitters, 54 points above his career rate. Mike Aviles made a positive impact in the clubhouse but never fit in on the field, eventually becoming a throw-in for August acquisition Erick Aybar.
Add in Anibal Sanchez's struggles to Pelfrey and Zimmermann, and the Tigers' young starters emerged by necessity, leaving Detroit with a good chunk of rotation payroll to weigh for limited work. Meanwhile, an offense that ranked among the best in the league in hitting was sixth in the AL in runs scored and RBIs.
Biggest surprise: Fulmer went to Spring Training with his best chance at making the big leagues in relief before filling in for injured starter Shane Greene at the end of April. By mid-summer, he was a dominant Major League starter, posting a 33-inning scoreless streak and eight consecutive starts with one run allowed or fewer. By season's end, he was challenging for an ERA title.
Hitter of the Year: Cabrera's late-season surge was a reminder of how sturdy his shoulders remain for carrying a team when he's swinging the bat right. Despite the return of his aching right ankle, he batted .349 (37-for-106) with 10 home runs, 27 RBIs, 16 walks and a 1.109 OPS from Sept. 2 to season's end. His final week included a stretch of 10 hits in 11 at-bats, four of them homers, and 13 RBIs.
Pitcher of the Year: Not only was Verlander Detroit's best pitcher, he was arguably the best in the league over the final three months, going 9-3 with a 1.98 ERA and 147 strikeouts in his last 18 starts. Not only did he lead the league in strikeouts and WHIP and finish second in ERA, but he also paced AL pitchers in Wins Above Replacement for the season at 6.6, according to the baseball-reference formula. Add in a trio of 1-0 Tigers losses in his starts, and Verlander could've finished on the cusp of a 20-win season.
Rookie of the Year: For the reasons above, it has to be Fulmer, who has a strong chance to win AL Rookie of the Year honors barring a late-season swing towards Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez.
Jason Beck has covered the Tigers for MLB.com since 2002. Read Beck's Blog, follow him on Twitter @beckjason and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.