In 2011, the Detroit Tigers enjoyed their best season in five years. The team won 95 games leading to its first playoff appearance since 2006 and first division title since 1987. Detroit stood at 49-43 at the All Star Break leaving cynics waiting for a perceived inevitable second half collapse. Instead, the Tigers caught fire going 46-24 in the second half to capture the AL Central crown.
The Tigers started 2011 slowly. They lost the opener when former teammate Curtis Granderson lifted a 3-run shot to down Detroit 6-3 at Yankee Stadium. Detroit salvaged only one game in the three game opening series at New York. The Tigers finished April with a 12-15 record. However, there were signs that the team had potential. On April 12, Miguel Cabrera hit a walk-off single to beat the Rangers 5-4. Four days later, he homered in the ninth to tie Oakland. In the tenth, the team scored seven times for an 8-4 victory. In between, Brandon Inge hit a walk-off homer to beat Texas.
The Tigers rebounded for a 16-11 May. However, the month started poorly as an April losing streak stretched to seven games with losses to Cleveland and New York. On May 3, Brad Penny righted the ship with a 4-2 win over C.C. Sabathia and the Yankees leading to a 10-1 run. Phil Coke lost the only game in the stretch. The Tigers hoped to convert the reliever into a starter out of desperation. The experiment failed and eventually led to Doug Fister’s acquisition.
On May 7, Justin Verlander had a perfect game into the seventh inning against Toronto. He lost the perfect game on a walk to J.P. Arencibia, but the Jays erased their own runner on a double play. Verlander finished with a no-hitter facing the minimum 27 batters. The righty walked only one, struck out four, and made a nice defensive play. It was Verlander’s second career no-hitter.
On May 13, Verlander tried to tie Johnny Vandermeer with two consecutive no-hitters, but lost his bid against Kansas City in the sixth inning. By this point, magical things appeared to be happening. Jhonny Peralta hit a pinch-hit homer in the eighth and Inge tripled in the winning run in the ninth on May 12 against the Twins. Penny threw eight shutout innings against Minnesota the next day. Ten days later, Rick Porcello threw a one-hitter. The team even won on a fan interference call on May 30.
The Tigers came close to repeating their May record finishing June 16-12. The team ended June in first place by a ½ game after trailing by eight in May. In a key series, Detroit took two of three from the Indians at Comerica Park. Verlander dominated the opener and flirted with another no-hitter while striking out 12. After the Cleveland series, the Tigers struggled a bit in interleague play. On June 26, the franchise retired Sparky Anderson’s number 11. Unfortunately, Anderson had already died and did not get to enjoy the occasion. Arizona manager, and former Tiger, Kirk Gibson and 1984 World Series hero, and Diamondbacks bench coach, Alan Trammell were on hand, but remained in the visitor’s dugout to protest the slight.
Despite the heroics of the 2011 season, fans remained panicky at the All Star break. Detroit led the AL Central by ½ game, but many expected a collapse. They complained about manager Jim Leyland’s lineups and quickly criticized failed moves while ignoring successful ones. They expected a full collapse in the second half making some wonder whether the fans wanted the team to fail.
The collapse never occurred. On July 31, the Tigers played a key game against the Angels. Verlander bested Anaheim ace Jered Weaver 3-2 in a hotly contested match up. Once again, Verlander went deep into a game with a no-hitter. He lost it with two outs in the eighth on a RBI single by Maicer Izturis. Magglio Ordonez homered in the third and stood at home waiting to see if it was fair or foul. For whatever reason, Weaver took exception and exchanged words with Ordonez. Later, Carlos Guillen homered, watched the ball clear the fence, and stared down Weaver. The next pitch buzzed Alex Avila’s head. The Tigers finished July 13-13, but led the central by 2 ½.
The Tigers began to hit their stride in August. GM Dave Dombrowski made a couple of key deals solidifying the team. Doug Fister joined the Tigers after escaping Seattle. On August 15, Delmon Young came to play left field. They also added third baseman Wilson Betemit. Despite a couple of big hits, Inge struggled and accepted an assignment to Toledo.
With and without Inge, the team continued to create highlights. Boesch had a walk-off single against Kansas City. Austin Jackson robbed Alex Gordon of a first inning homer. Later that month, he threw out a runner at home to end a game. Verlander won his 20th game of the year on August 28 and his 100th of his career 17 days earlier. Ramon Santiago had a walk-off homer against Kansas City. Inge returned on August 20 with a two-run homer.
The Tigers lost on August 15, but few cared because of a transcendent moment. Jim Thome hit his 599th and 600th career homers. The partisan crowd gave the Twin an ovation as he celebrated with his family and teammates. Thome’s reputation and the fact he has never been tied to steroids endeared him with fans. The Tigers only led the division by two games at that point, but quickly expanded their margin.
Detroit entered September with a 5 ½ game lead. While some fans expected a collapse, others enjoyed an amazing month. The team went 20-6 down the stretch to extend their lead to a remarkable 15 games. The Tigers won 12 in a row for the first time since 1934 and won the last four games of the season to finish 95-67.
On September 2, Leyland became the fifth Tiger skipper with 500 wins. The next day all but clinched the division. The White Sox led 8-1 in the fifth inning, but surrendered five to lead by two in the ninth. Ryan Raburn tied the game with a 2-run shot and Cabrera homered to win the contest. Sox catcher A.J. Pierzynski admitted that this game ended Chicago’s season. It also ended the AL Central race. They officially clinched on September 16.
Although the Tigers lost the ALCS to Texas, 2011 witnessed many great Tiger performances. Justin Verlander enjoyed the best season for a Tiger hurler since 1968 and best in the majors since 2000. He became the second Tiger with two no-hitters, won the MVP, and Cy Young Awards. Verlander was the first Tiger to win 20 games since 1991 and his 24 wins were the most since 1971.
While Verlander won the Cy Young, teammate Jose Valverde finished fifth in the voting. Valverde converted all 49 save opportunities to set a Tiger record. He passed Willie Hernandez’s record of 32 straight and Todd Jones team record of 43 saves in a season. Valverde saved three more games in the postseason.
Like Valverde in the Cy Young vote, Miguel Cabrera finished fifth in the MVP balloting. He won the AL Batting title with a .344 average and led the league in doubles and OBP. In 2011, Cabrera became the first Tiger in 50 years to post triple-digit walks, runs, and RBI.
While Cabrera enjoyed another All Star caliber season, Alex Avila had his first. He started the All Star Game, won the silver slugger, hit .295 and drove in 82 runs. Jhonny Peralta also made the All Star team, provided Gold Glove caliber defense, and contributed many big hits. Don Kelly caught and pitched in 2011 making him one of the few to have played all nine positions in his career. Doug Fister went 8-1 down the stretch following his acquisition.
The 2011 Detroit Tigers were the best Tiger team since 1987. Like their 1987 counterparts, they lost the ALCS. After winning the AL Central by 15 games, the team has a lot to live up to in 2012. However, fans can look back at 2011 and recognize they witnessed a team that gelled at the right time providing many great memories.