Meaningful games in September. It’s what every MLB team and MLB fan base hopes to see once the calendar flips from August to September. Only a handful of clubs get to experience the adrenaline rush that is the stretch run of the baseball season.
Last season, the Detroit Tigers were sitting on the sidelines watching as clubs made their final push for the postseason despite starting the season as a favorable pick to win the World Series. The decision to sell at the trade deadline forced the Tigers to patch together a starting rotation consisting of young arms acquired in trades, a lineup that featured a severely hobbled Victor Martinez and Miguel Cabrera, and a bullpen that would make any game interesting, even if the club held a five run lead. The goal at the deadline and the end of the season was to re-tool on the fly instead of commit to a full re-build.
The offseason acquisitions of Jordan Zimmermann, Justin Upton, Mark Lowe, Justin Wilson, and Francisco Rodriguez inflated the Tigers payroll to over $200 million, and gave the club one of the strongest teams in baseball on paper.
Fast forward to the 2016 season, and the club has experienced everything but smooth sailing. Battling an inconsistent Justin Upton, an oft injured Jordan Zimmermann, and an inconsistent offense that can erupt for ten runs for a week straight followed by shutouts for a week straight, the Tigers have experienced quite the roller coaster season. Every time the team is able to put together a lengthy win streak that puts them back into the playoff chase, they tend to follow with a losing streak that seems to put them on their death bed. It has been this way since April, and they have yet to find a way to end it as we approach the end of the season.
Despite all this, the Tigers are entering September tied for the second Wild Card spot and still within striking distance of the Cleveland Indians for the AL Central division lead. In order to understand how the club has managed this, one has to dive a little deeper.
The biggest reason the Tigers are once again playing meaningful games in September is the emergence of Michael Fulmer. Considered to be one of the front-runners for the AL Rookie of the Year, Fulmer has put together quite the season for the Tigers. In 21 starts, Fulmer has posted a 10-5 record to go with a 2.69 ERA and 108 strike outs. His 4.6 WAR leads all rookie pitchers and is the best of the Tigers rotation, even topping Justin Verlander.
Speaking of Justin Verlander, his re-emergence as a Cy Young candidate has helped to stabilize the Tigers rotation and give the team a powerful 1-2 punch with him and Fulmer. His 3.30 ERA is his lowest since he posted a 2.64 ERA in 2012 and he leads all pitchers with 188 IP. Since the beginning of the second half, Verlander has posted a 2.04 ERA and has gone 6-1 with three no decisions in 10 games started. In that time frame, Verlander has held opponents to just a .163 BA.
The emergence of Matt Boyd (5-2, 4.00 ERA, 2.55 ERA since beginning of July) and Daniel Norris, 3.38 ERA in August, as left handed contributors has given balance to the Tigers rotation so that teams cannot key their lineups in on the right handed heavy rotation.
On the offensive side, Justin Upton has begun to emerge as the hitter the Tigers thought they were getting. In his last 11 games, Upton is hitting .350 with 5 HR and 13 RBI. J.D. Martinez has been hitting the cover off the ball since his return from a fractured elbow, hitting .404 with 7 HR and 15 RBI. Despite missing all of July due to injury, Martinez now has 19 HR on the season.
JaCoby Jones was just called up prior to Saturday night’s game in order to try and inject some life into the lineup. Not only did Jones inject life, he injected excitement in the fans as well as people have been waiting all year to see what he could do at the MLB level.
The Tigers continue to play without Nick Castellanos due to a broken finger, Cameron Maybin after he injured his previously sprained thumb, and Zimmermann due to a back injury. Despite these three major injuries, the team continues to find a way to win and stay within striking distance of the playoffs.
After a year where September was just used as a launching pad into hockey and football season, meaningful baseball has returned to Detroit, and it is bound to be a wild ride all the way to the end. With seven games remaining against the Indians, who the Tigers trail by 4.5 games in the division, and three against Baltimore, who the Tigers are tied with for the second Wild Card, we are bound to experience multiple highs and lows in the next four weeks.
The only thing that is guaranteed over the next month is that there will be no shortage of excitement. Enjoy it Tigers fans, not every fan base gets to experience the full drama of September baseball.