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Benchmarks all year led Tigers near ultimate goal

Benchmarks all year led Tigers near ultimate goal

DETROIT -- Remember thinking a year ago how the Tigers seemed to have a magical year that wouldn't be seen again?

Remember wondering when Detroit would again see a division title, an MVP, a Cy Young Award winner, a batting titlist and a Triple Crown champion all in the same season?

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The Tigers came within a Cy Young vote or two of doing it all again in 2012. They still didn't get the ultimate goal they wanted, though their second World Series appearance in seven years ended up being an awfully good destination for a team that stood three games out of a playoff spot with 15 games left in the regular season.

The Tigers absorbed what should've been a devastating loss with Victor Martinez's left knee injury and took a chance to bring back a kid Detroit watched grow up in front of its eyes. The team watched Justin Verlander handle a season of incredible expectations with grace and deliver the best big-game performance of his career when the Tigers needed him the most.

The club rode one of the best seasons in history from a hitter in a Tigers uniform -- the most dominant season by a Major League hitter in quite a few years.

Then, when everything seemed to line up for the Tigers' first World Series championship since 1984, everything went sideways quickly. And just days later, the season was over.

The Tigers' emotions swung on an almost daily basis, wearing on fans and players alike. But the team was never boring.

5. Prince Fielder dons the Old English 'D' again

If it had been a script, few would've believed it. The Tigers went from the sudden announcement of Martinez's season-ending left knee injury to multiple denials that they could afford Fielder, to an owner seeing an opportunity and a franchise-record-setting contract to bring the son of a Tigers great back to Detroit. It all happened in little more than a week, but the ramifications changed the course of the season.

Fielder changed the look of the Tigers lineup, not just with raw left-handed power but with deft hitting. He moved from the National League to the American League, got to know a new group of pitchers, made adjustments and somehow obliterated his previous career-best batting average, posting his first .300 season. Off the field, Fielder delivered a steady attitude that seemed to spread around the clubhouse, allowing the Tigers to shrug off a slow start.

4. Max Scherzer rises from tragedy

Alex Scherzer wasn't just Max's little brother, he was his best friend and confidant. It was Alex's skill with numbers that fostered Max's fascination with statistics as he blossomed into a Major League pitcher. When Alex died without warning in June, Max contemplated the best way to honor his brother's memory. In the end, the mound became a haven for the right-hander, and baseball was a way for him to put smiles on people's faces. It was a new appreciation for life while he found the kind of on-field success that had driven Scherzer for years.

Scherzer led the Majors in strikeouts for most of the summer before a muscular issue in his right shoulder cost him a couple of starts. His postseason performances through that adversity earned Scherzer respect from teammates and opponents alike.

3. Verlander pitches a sequel

In hindsight, manager Jim Leyland seemed to have the right idea when he suggested in Spring Training that Verlander could pitch as well or better in 2012 than he did in '11 and not end up with as good of a season. The 2011 AL Cy Young Award and AL Most Valuable Player Award winner wasn't dominant for as long of a stretch in 2012 as he was in '11, but he was great again when the Tigers needed him, winning five of his six starts in September before beating Oakland twice in the AL Division Series.

On the field, Verlander still had his best stuff, even though his All-Star Game start was far rockier than he planned. Off the field, he grew into the role of a Major League superstar, from a slew of commercial endorsements to a heightened focus on his role as a spokesperson for the game. He didn't have the same run of awards, but he barely missed out on a second consecutive AL Cy Young.

2. Miguel Cabrera crowned for one of baseball's best seasons

Cabrera had already earned a batting title, a home-run crown and an RBI title in the AL since joining the Tigers five years earlier. This was the year he put it all together, delivering the first Triple Crown since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967 and the best all-around production from a Tigers hitter since Hank Greenberg.

The best stretch of that production came when the Tigers were desperate for it. Cabrera batted .344 with 19 home runs and 54 RBIs from Aug. 1 through the end of the regular season, carrying Detroit's offense out of its midseason doldrums and toward contention, eventually making his way to the top of all three categories by late September. In any other year, Angels outfielder Mike Trout would've been the dominant storyline as a rookie vying for the AL MVP Award. Cabrera's performance was big enough to trump it.

1. From would-be disappointment to the World Series

The Tigers had a late-season run in them to win the AL Central in 2011, and they had a World Series run in '06. This year had both, and they came just when the Tigers seemed doomed to be remembered as baseball's big disappointment of the season.

The Tigers were three games out with 15 games to play, with their manager hanging in the wind, not signed past the season. The club won 18 of its next 26 games, including the AL Division Series and AL Championship Series, before finally running out of gas in the World Series. It was an amazing stretch for a team that was seemingly searching for a prolonged stretch of wins all year.

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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