Tigers' red-hot start has Detroit hungry for October

April 6th, 2024

DETROIT -- Snow flurries fell upon Comerica Park for a few minutes on Friday afternoon, reminding the bundled-up sold-out crowd of 44,711 that the Tigers’ sunny forecast remains preliminary.

But if you’re looking for signs that Detroit is ready for its first postseason in a decade, the indications are there.

The Tigers are 6-1. They’ve registered four one-run victories and two others in extra innings. In their only loss, they no-hit the Mets into the eighth inning.

“It’s only seven games, but I really like where this team’s at,” said following the 5-4 triumph over the A’s in Detroit’s home opener. “I love this fan base. They’re itching for a winner. They’ve got it in the Lions. The Red Wings are close. I truly believe we’re really close, as well. Hang with us. It’s a long season but I like where we’re at.”

How could he not?

While the Tigers’ lineup won’t compare with the superstar-laden Dodgers, Braves or Astros, recent history offers hope that Detroit will hit enough to reach the expanded postseason field. The D-backs ranked 17th in the Majors last year in team OPS, yet they reached the World Series.

The Tigers have benefited from facing the White Sox, Mets and A’s to begin the year, but their script for success should apply against tougher competition, too. On Friday, ace provided a dominant start -- at least, until he grew weary and misfired on his third trip through the Oakland lineup.

The bullpen proved reliable, with four relievers combining for 2 2/3 scoreless innings. And the bats warmed up as the chilly afternoon progressed, with newly acquired veterans (solo home run in the sixth) and (tiebreaking double in the eighth) producing the crucial runs.

“It was the perfect example today of Mark with the homer when we were slowing down a little bit, and Gio getting a big hit in a pressure situation,” said Matt Vierling, who began the scoring with a solo homer in the fourth. “Those two guys bring stability to the lineup. ... You can tell they’ve been in situations like that before. That definitely helps the young guys a lot.

“I feel like we’re putting together good at-bats. We’re getting great team baseball: great defense, great pitching, hits at the right time toward the end of the game. That’s what we’ve been doing that’s pushed us over the edge in these close games. Every time you have a win like that, it builds confidence in the team. Even today, when it was a tie ballgame, I had all the confidence in the world in our guys.”

The Tigers are tied with the Angels for the longest active postseason drought. Their last appearance was in 2014, when their starting rotation included five eventual Cy Young Award winners: Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, Rick Porcello, David Price and Robbie Ray. The current pitching staff isn’t as credentialed, but it does sport a 2.31 ERA. Only the Red Sox have been better thus far.

Detroit’s plethora of pitching is such that Matt Manning didn’t make the Opening Day roster after the offseason arrivals of Jack Flaherty and Kenta Maeda, combined with Reese Olson’s strong spring. When Manning was summoned to pitch in New York on Thursday as the 27th player for the doubleheader, all he did was deliver 5 2/3 no-hit innings.

Tigers manager A.J. Hinch said Friday that Manning deserves to be in the Major Leagues. He’s right. The same could have been said for Brandon Pfaadt one year ago, when the D-backs’ starting depth meant that their top pitching prospect started 12 games at Triple-A Reno in his age-24 season. In the end, Pfaadt got the ball for Game 7 of the National League Championship Series as Arizona clinched the pennant in Philadelphia. Manning should aspire to a similar arc for the Tigers in 2024. Jackson Jobe, the electrifying pitching prospect at Double-A Erie, also could arrive to the Tigers’ rotation by season’s end.

In that way, Detroit will contend in 2024 for reasons that aren’t yet evident at Comerica Park, in addition to those that are. The offensive deficiencies will be remedied by Trade Deadline moves and/or organic improvement through the season. In fact, the latter is already happening: The Tigers were held hitless by Oakland starter JP Sears on their first trip through the lineup on Friday. The second began this way: Vierling homer, Andy Ibañez single, Torkelson double, Riley Greene single.

Detroit’s young hitters are making better in-game adjustments than they were one year ago, helped by hitting coaches Michael Brdar, Keith Beauregard and Lance Zawadzki.

“I love having three of them,” Torkelson said. “One day I’m speaking this language, so I go to Michael. The next day, it’s like, ‘Let’s get a little more mechanical,’ and I go to Keith. Then the next day, I need someone to pump my tires, and let’s go to Lance. You find a different guy to go to every single day, and you use all of their information the right way.”

Canha and Urshela are helping, too. Canha has made five trips to the postseason; Urshela has four.

“I see a talented group -- young, talented players,” Canha said. “I’ve been saying this a lot: They’ve done a great job of developing these guys, just with their attitudes. They’re extremely talented already. They all seem to have a good head on their shoulders and have great feel for the game and playing good baseball. When you have that, that’s a good combination. ...

“Throughout the game, we seem to get better as we go. I think as the season goes on, and you get into your rhythm, it’s easier to do that. We can make it snowball if we keep up the good at-bats. That’s the idea. That’s what you want. You want it to snowball. You’ve always got to be developing these young guys.”

Canha’s first playoff appearance came with the A’s in 2018, when a 24-year-old Matt Olson and 25-year-old Matt Chapman were among their most valuable players. Canha said that the current Tigers bear some resemblance to the A’s teams with which he made three straight playoff appearances from 2018-20. He recognizes the close games, the steady pitching, the calmness from players who aren’t too famous.


“It reminds me a little bit of that -- a young, talented group that fights every night,” Canha said. “It’s a fun thing to be part of.”