September 22, 2003
A Shot at History
The Detroit Tigers, who opened September by winning three of four from the Indians to make it appear that they would avoid baseball's all-time lists for incompetence, have reopened all those discussions by going 1-15 since that set, including an active nine-game losing streak.
With a week to go, the Tigers have tied the American League record for losses in a season with 117, a mark set by the 1916 Philadelphia A's, the wreckage of a very good team that was scattered to the four winds by Connie Mack. (Think post-1997 Florida Marlins for the Wilson Administration.) They're just three losses from tying the all-time mark for defeats in a season, set by the 1962 New York Mets--a first-year expansion team--at 40-120. The Tigers also have a chance to be the first team since the 1935 Boston Braves (38-115) to not reach 40 wins in a full season.
Can they get there? What is the most likely coda the Tigers will put on their long and dreary 2003?
The Tigers close their season with a three-game series in Kansas City followed by four games at home against the Twins. That looks pretty bad at first; as of right now, both teams have something to play for, and both have pounded the Tigers this year to the tune of 27-4. Consider, however, that by the time the Twins hit Motown, they will likely have clinched the AL Central and will be more concerned with letting owies heal and setting up a playoff rotation than with winning games. The Tigers could certainly use the help: They're just 9-43 against the Twins since that franchise lifted itself off the mat in 2001.
(Aside: When the White Sox are cleaning out their lockers next week, they can use the time to think about how their 11-8 mark against the Tigers not only allowed the Bengals to make their chase of history interesting, but probably cost the Sox the division. The Twins have gone 14-1 against Detroit, and have four games left to play. The five-game difference is the whole ball of wax right now.)
The Tigers can avoid history altogether by going 5-2 this week. That would get them to the finish line at 43-119, with the AL record for losses safely in the bag but without the ignominy--or round number--that the '62 Mets achieved. It could happen; the Tigers have gone 5-2 over seven games twice this season, from May 4 through May 11 and from July 8 through July 17 (with the All-Star break wedged in there). That's their best run, however. Going 2-5 would get them to 40 wins, and they have a bunch of 2-5 stretches, most recently earlier this month coming out of that Indians series.
The problem is that the Tigers aren't playing well, even by their standards. They had reached a point during the summer when they were getting quality starts, scoring some runs, and seeing fairly decent bullpen work. Now, they're just getting pounded; they've allowed at least six runs in nine consecutive games, a streak that isn't going to be helped by going to Kauffman Stadium behind Shane Loux and Gary Knotts. Mike Maroth will give the Tigers their best chance at a win in the series, starting Wednesday against Jamey Wright. The Royals may be eliminated during the game by the Twins, who will be playing at home against the Indians at the same time. Maroth can extend his own historic season with a loss; no pitcher has lost 22 (or for that matter, 21) games since 1974, when three pitchers did so at the peak of the high-workload 1970s. Only two post-war pitchers (Roger Craig in 1962 and Jack Fisher in 1965, both with 24) have lost more games in one season.
Thursday, the Tigers come home to find the Twins waiting, almost certainly coming off a champagne celebration the night before. Eric Milton and Johan Santana will likely take their turns Thursday and Friday. After that, the Twins can be expected to use pitchers from outside the rotation as they gear up for the Division Series. Grant Balfour and Carlos Pulido could get starts, or perhaps Ron Gardenhire will show mercy and use the hobbled Rick Reed.
The Twins will also probably rest a number of regulars. Torii Hunter and Doug Mientkiewicz, just to name two starters, should get time off to nurse nagging injuries. A.J. Pierzynski has shouldered a staggering amount of the catching burden; I'd be surprised if he played more than once behind the plate in the four games.
The problem for the Tigers is that the Twins have a pretty good bench, one that isn't that inferior to the starters, and which is still probably better than what they'll be facing. Balfour is a good pitcher; Lew Ford and Michael Cuddyer and Justin Morneau are all hitters, which means that the Tigers' pitchers aren't getting a break when the Twins' regulars take one. The Tigers would probably be better off facing the Yankees, who start to look alarmingly like the Newark Bears about 13 position players deep in the organization.
Alternatively, the Tigers can pray for a lot of rain. The Mets might have lost 122 times if not for a couple of cancellations that ended their season at 160 games. A Monday or Tuesday rainout in K.C. would no doubt be made up, but a Wednesday one would fall off the schedule. The situation is the same in Detroit over the weekend, where any non-Sunday rainout would become a doubleheader, assuming that the Tigers could find a way to accommodate two days' worth of Comerica Park crowds at once.
It probably won't happen. K.C. won't have many clouds in the sky until next week. While Detroit has some rain in the forecast for next weekend, it doesn't look like enough to wipe out two games.
Maybe it's for the best. If the Tigers run the table this week, who is going to remember them? A 45-117 mark is just another bad record on the game's long list of bad records, and all their success would do is cause agita for the Kansas Mafia scattered about the nation.
If they can lose four games, though, they'll have a place in history. This ragtag collection of the overpaid (Bobby Higginson), overrated (Alex Sanchez), overpromoted (Jeremy Bonderman), over their head (Ramon Santiago) and just plain over (Matt Walbeck) will be remembered not just for being bad, but for being bad better than any team ever was.
Go get 'em, boys.