Ah, Memorial Day.
Traditionally, it’s the gateway to summer and, at about the 54-game mark for most MLB teams, it’s about the time we can start to think about the playoffs.
Yes, even the Detroit Tigers — this season, at least.
After three straight seasons of a double-digit deficit in the American League Central by the holiday (not counting 2020, of course, when the season didn’t start till July), the Tigers wrapped up Monday a mere two games back of the Minnesota Twins.
And, yes, we know: It’s the woeful AL Central, which, were it a game of musical chairs would feature one chair, one inflatable mattress, two pieces of torn cardboard and one jagged, rusty post labeled “Kansas City Royals.”
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But someone’s making the postseason from the Central, and the Tigers are still 15-10 this month, including a 7-3 record against division foes, which is why players such as Eduardo Rodriguez get to mention the playoffs — or the postseason, if you prefer, to keep the screeching Jim Mora clip from going off in your head like it does ours.
“It means we have the opportunity to go to the postseason,” Rodriguez said after Sunday’s win over the Chicago White Sox. “If you’re winning games, that’s what it means to everybody. We know it. We feel it. We love the way it is right now. We just have to keep winning more games.”
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Despite their loss to the AL West-leading Texas Rangers and the Twins’ extra-inning win over the Houston Astros — the Tigers haven’t been this close to first place in the Central at the end of Memorial Day since 2014 (when they were actually, y’know, leading the division).
(Spoiler alert: If the glorious weather gave you other things to do Monday besides watch the Tigers, you can catch up on the game from the Freep’s Evan Petzold here.)
And holding the division lead on the holiday is no guarantee of future success, either; a year ago, the Twins led on Memorial Day, only to watch the Cleveland Guardians get hot and claim the crown. Since the Tigers joined the Central — in 1998 — only 15 of the 24 Memorial Day leaders have finished the season on top.
In all, this is just the fifth time since ’98 that the Tigers have finished Memorial Day in second place. In case you were wondering, the Tigers also have had four Memorial Days in first in the Central, and only two of those turned into division crowns at season’s end. Which means, yes, 16 other Memorial Days in third or worse, including 2019 (fourth place, 16½ back), 2021 (fifth, 11 back) and 2022 (fourth, 10 back).
With that in mind, we thought we’d look back at how the four previous seasons in which the Tigers were in second place on Memorial Day turned out:
2018: Oh, the early days of manager Ron Gardenhire’s tenure in Detroit. That season, just like this one, the Tigers were looking up at a division leader just two games above .500 (Cleveland, rather than Minnesota), though their 24-29 record had them 3½ games back following the holiday. A four-game win streak clipped another game off that, but that was as close as they would get. Miguel Cabrera, who was slashing .299/.395/.448 at age 35, ruptured a biceps tendon in mid-June, and the Tigers finished the month with an 11-game losing streak. They closed the season with a 23-41 record after the All-Star break to slide into third in the Central, 27 games behind Cleveland.
2011: An upstart Cleveland squad sat in first at 31-20, though losses in five of six games brought it back to the AL Central pack a bit. The Tigers were scuffling, climbing above .500 (and five games back of Cleveland) with a win on Memorial Day, but Cleveland opened June with nine losses in 11 games, letting the Tigers back into the race without much of a corresponding hot streak. Despite Justin Verlander’s steady excellence — after throwing a no-hitter in May, he’d go on to win the AL Cy Young and MVP awards in November — the Tigers didn’t really heat up until August, following their trade deadline deal for Doug Fister (from the Seattle Mariners) and a mid-month deal for Delmon Young (from the Twins). Fister went 8-1 with a 1.79 ERA, Young hit eight homers in 40 games and the Tigers closed the season on a 31-10 tear following the Young trade to seize the Central by 15 games over Cleveland.
2010: Gardenhire’s Twins, who’d won the Central in 2009 with a Game 163 victory over the Tigers, appeared to have an easier path to a division title after a five-game win streak put them at 31-20, and 4½ games up on the Tigers, at the end of Memorial Day. Detroit had a strong June and caught the Twins by the end of that month, and led the division as late as the next-to-last day before the mid-July All-Star break. But the Tigers won just four more games the rest of the month to fall back to .500 and didn’t challenge the Twins again (despite a trade-deadline deal for shortstop Jhonny Peralta, who didn’t find his stroke until 2011). Minnesota recovered to win the Central by six games — over the White Sox, with the Tigers finishing third, 13 games back at 81-81.
2007: The Tigers entered the season with high hopes after winning the AL pennant in ’06, and mostly delivered, hitting Memorial Day eight games above .500. But that had included a four-game skid that dropped the Tigers from half a game up on Cleveland to 2½ games back. Still, the Tigers stuck with Cleveland, and climbed to 21 games over .500, and two games up on the division, by July 23. A 2-7 finish to the month, no help at the trade deadline and a brutal 11-18 collapse in August (with veteran ace Kenny Rogers injured the entire month and Verlander posting a 5.08 ERA) buried the Tigers’ hopes of their first division title since 1987. They finished in second at 88-74 — just the franchise’s fifth winning season in that two-decade span — but still eight games back of Cleveland (96-66).
So there we have it: After four Memorial Days in second in the AL Central, the Tigers won one title, finished second twice and fell to third once. Will they find their summer surge, as the franchise did in 2011, or slump again once the competition heats up? We’ll get a better idea, probably, once they finally face the current AL Central leaders for the first time, June 15-18 in Minneapolis and then in Detroit from June 23-25.
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Flipping the script
But before we obsess over June’s challenges — including three division leaders, an upstart squad from Arizona and, blessedly, the awful Royals — let’s take one last look back at what worked so well in May, when, as Our Man Petzold noted, the Tigers walked a lot (fifth-most in the majors) and struck out rarely (second-fewest in the majors) en route to an almost league-average 4.3 runs a game. (Considering they averaged an abysmal 3.3 runs a game in March/April, they’ll take it.) Head here to find out what changed the Tigers’ recipe for success.
Motown’s new hit-makers
One big change has come from the coaching staff, which, as the Freep’s Jeff Seidel observed over the weekend, features a trio of new hitting coaches: Michael Brdar, Keith Beauregard and James Rowson. Though they’re not just coaches, as Spencer Torkelson says: “They’re therapists. They’re like a psychologist; they’re the hype guy.” Head here to get the details on how they’re working their magic.
The biggest beneficiary of that magic? Riley Greene, who appears to be capitalizing on the promise he showed last season with a dynamic May. He had two of the Tigers’ five hits Monday to bring his 2023 slash line up to .297/.363/.446. That includes a May run in which he’s hitting .368, good for sixth among all big-leaguers for the month. Our Man Seidel sees how Greene’s work is fueling the Tigers. Head here to find out why this Tigers team is different.
Also peaking in May? Matt Vierling, who has an .831 OPS over his past 10 games. The secret, according to Our Man Petzold, has been getting consistent at-bats to work out of slumps. Head here to find out why the Tigers have been so patient with the 26-year-old.
3 to watch
Vierling isn’t the only Tiger hoping to benefit from some extra playing time soon enough:
Mark your calendar!
The Tigers wrap up the week with two more games against the Rangers — perhaps they’ll manage to score in one of them, unlike Monday. Right-hander Alex Faedo would certainly appreciate that; he’s Monday’s starter, and coming off the best start of his big-league career. Our Man Petzold has the story on what he did differently against the White Sox — who the Tigers face again for a three-game set, this time in Chicago, on Friday-Sunday after beating the Southsiders in three of four games in Detroit last week.
Happy (belated) birthday, Trevor, Tyler and Zack!
While we’re on the topic of Memorial Day, a trio of Tigers past, present and (possibly) future had their birthdays Monday, as shortstop Zack Short turned 28 by going 0-for-3 with the big club (though that was just a few days after his first time on the mound; find out from Our Man Petzold why that was ‘the most nervous I’ve been” here), infielder Tyler Nevin turned 26 with the Mud Hens and right-handed reliever Trevor Rosenthal (in his second stint with the organization) turned 33, also with Toledo. Short’s 0-fer dropped him to a scorching .937 OPS, albeit in only 42 plate appearances. Nevin went just 2-for-22 in his time with the Tigers, but he’s been hitting .263 since he was sent down to Toledo at the start of May. Rosenthal has appeared in just two games this season, allowing one earned run in two innings, and has been on the injured list since early April.
Other Tigers birthdays this week: Neifi Pérez (50 on Friday).
One last note on the AL Ventral … er, we mean Central: The Twins are on pace for just 84 wins this season, which would be the fewest ever by an AL Central champ in a 162-game season — three fewer than the Twins had in 2009, though, again, that was with a 163rd game. (The Royals were division champs with 84 wins in 1984, but that was the old seven-team AL West. Gee, whatever happened to them in the playoffs that year?)