Brad Ausmus ought to have pulled Justin Verlander sooner than he did on Monday. He probably should have pulled him after six innings, when Verlander had thrown 101 pitches and faced 24 batters. The bullpen was fresh: no Tigers reliever had appeared on consecutive days since Aug. 30, when Justin Wilson did it, and Bruce Rondon had pitched just once in the previous four games. The game was tight—Detroit led 2-1 on a pair of Miguel Cabrera homers—so Verlander’s margin of error was thin. When he erred outside the margin and squandered that lead, allowing Alex Avila to homer on the first pitch, Ausmus really should have gotten him out of there.
Most of all, four batters later, Ausmus should have taken the ball from Verlander. Instead, after visiting the mound with two on and two out, and with Melky Cabrera coming to bat, Ausmus put his trust in the man who has been the team’s ace much longer than Ausmus has been its manager. He allowed Verlander to pitch past the 113 pitches he had already thrown, and face a batter who had flied to the warning track in left field the previous inning. Verlander threw Cabrera three pitches: called strike, swinging strike, swinging strike. It was his 11th strikeout, and the Tigers were out of the inning.
In a perfect world, from the Tigers’ perspective, that sequence (and the game, which they went on to win in 11 innings when Justin Upton hit a three-run homer) would turn out to be a microcosm of the team’s season. They pushed the envelope much further than the baseball actuaries would have recommended, but it worked. Cabrera and Verlander gave them at least a puncher’s chance in a tough contest (Chris Sale shut down all non-Cabrera Tigers over eight innings, scattering four hits around the homers, walking no one, fanning eight), and the right card came on the river.
That game was a great reminder of the fact that, as this month and next unfold, David Ortiz isn’t the only future Hall of Famer whom we might get to see one more time on the big stage of the playoffs. Cabrera (a surer bet than Ortiz, even, to reach Cooperstown; an all-time great) and Verlander (who probably has a little work yet to do, but sure seems to be back on track) are in a similar situation. That’s not to suggest that the Tigers couldn’t stumble into the playoff hunt next year, too, or the year after that. To the contrary, this season (with its hints of good things to come from Nick Castellanos and Michael Fulmer, and the bracing long-term effect of bouncing back from a rough 2015) has only increased the chances that Detroit will remain competitive as Cabrera and Verlander age. The team is down about 2,000 fans per home game this season, thanks to fans’ concerns that last year was the first of several bad ones paid as restitution for years of trading the future for a better present. Whatever the ending, this campaign inevitably has put some of those fears to rest, so the Tigers should bounce back at the gate (and in whatever other areas their revenue is particularly variable) next year. Money has yet to become a problem for the Tigers under Mike Ilitch’s ownership, but there’s less danger of that changing right now than there was five months ago.
Still, to return to the actuarial perspective on the team: Cabrera is 33. Ian Kinsler is 34. Victor Martinez is 37. J.D. Martinez is just 28, and when healthy, he’s nearly Cabrera’s equal at the plate, but he’s also a free agent after 2017. We’re over 300 innings, now, since the last time anyone saw the good Anibal Sanchez, but the Tigers still owe him $21 million after the end of this season. The same lack of prospect capital that prevented the team from making proactive, significant additions at the trade deadline will make it hard to replace the production the team stands to lose to aging and free agency over the next few years. The Royals have another year for which they can keep this core together, before Eric Hosmer and Lorenzo Cain become free agents. The Indians’ window is likely to be relatively short, since it’s propped open by great starting pitching, but it’s open, yet. The Twins shouldn’t be good next season, which isn’t to say that they won’t be, and even if they aren’t, they’ll be good in 2018 or 2019.
No, there’s no clear “next year” for the Tigers. Next year is the best hope, if this one goes up in smoke, but it might well not be as good as this year’s hope. This year, the Tigers are the fourth-best team in the AL, according to third-order winning percentage, and they have Verlander and Cabrera playing like Verlander and Cabrera. They’re tied for the second Wild Card spot, and there’s no reason they can’t hang onto it. The numbers say Ausmus can maximize the chances of that by playing the percentages better, letting the (deeper than in previous years) bullpen keep Verlander fresh. The numbers aren’t what’s brought the team here, though. Verlander is. Cabrera is. In case they won’t have another chance to do so, it would be fun to see Verlander and Cabrera play under the October spotlight this year. Upton, who was batting .255/.310/.495 since July 1 even before Monday’s heroics, can help that happen by staying hot. Castellanos could be back within 10 days, which would also help. Notwithstanding uneven months from Fulmer and Daniel Norris, there’s hope for a rotation that can keep the team afloat. Best of all: half the Tigers’ remaining schedule consists of games against the White Sox, Twins, and Braves. The other half is against the Indians, Royals, and Orioles, though, so if they do reach the Wild Card Game (or even win the division title), it will be hard-earned. The supporting cast will be important, and it’s good enough, even if it doesn’t look like that will be true in the future. Cabrera and Verlander have to be good, though, even for them, or they might have seen their last October.