There probably isn't much anyone can do to truly simulate post-season intensity and pressure in Major League Baseball short of qualifying for October action. The heat of a pennant race in September can obviously come very close, especially when the days are dwindling and two clubs are neck and neck with one going home and one moving forward. But I doubt it's quite the same as short-series baseball where each loss is a crusher and you have a fixed number for failure. The pennant chase pressure in September is still incredible though and what players (and fans) live for.
The Tigers aren't likely going to completely face this crucible during this stretch run to the season's finish line. With a Magic Number of 9 and a 5-game lead over Cleveland with 13 games remaining, it will take the Tribe running roughshod over their cream-puff laden schedule over the next two weeks (possible after they are done with Kansas City this week) and the Tigers struggling with some rather ordinary (to be kind) teams. Perhaps the Tigers will lay an egg and the Tribe will storm to within a game or two and we'll see gut wrenching action over the next two weeks...but it looks much more likely the Tigers will stroll into October and the Cleveland crew will be fighting for a wildcard slot.
That's why this past weekend's mini-war between the Tigers and the Royals was very fascinating, rather entertaining, and bordering on nerve-wracking. The scrutiny level of players performance and manager's tactics really seemed to ramp up. Two teams with plenty to play for were on the field. The Tigers needing to pick off more wins to keep their Magic Number dwindling. The Royals fighting for a late burst into the post-season for the first time since before many of their players were even born. The energy and anticipation from the Kansas City side in particular was palpable from the beginning of the series.
The Tigers showed some strengths, weaknesses, and abilities that will probably be on display in the post-season. The Tigers pitching staff was on full display. While the Royals don't have a juggernaut offense by any stretch, Detroit's rotation came to play with Justin Verlander starting things off with a vital quality start on Friday night to get the series started off right. Doug Fister followed by allowing a lone run early but looking quite playoff-sturdy from that point. Max Scherzer (12 K/1 BB, 1 ER) solidified his Cy Young resume' with a focused, razor sharp outing allowing only an Alex Gordon dinger. The Tigers bullpen allowed one run on a Wild Pitch by Drew Smyly on Sunday but otherwise the relief corps held it's own for the weekend.
The Tigers also did a reasonably good job of shutting off the Royals running game. The relative ease that teams were having running on the Tigers has been a source of consternation for many observers this summer. But the Tigers staff showed up ready to take much of that away and, indeed, the Royals lost outs with pick-offs and really didn't run the Tigers into submission. It appeared that the Tigers should be able to shut off any post-season opponents as well if they continue to make the concerted effort to simply pay attention (which seemed in short supply at various points this season).
Also, much like the post-season, the series was all about extra-base hits (XBH). If you look at the scoring sequences throughout the series, an XBH was involved in all but one run scoring inning between the two clubs (an inning where 3 Royals singles scored one run) over the course of the three days. The Tigers showed they can win a series where pitching and XBH are key. The Tigers defense was also up to snuff with a clean weekend with the leather.
One of the misnomers that will get repeated, especially on MLB Network with their merry band of experts, will be that small ball is the difference in the post-season. "Manufacturing runs" is supposedly vital. Simply not the case to the extent it gets romanticized about. Make your list of "Greatest World Series Bunts"...it's a short list. Don't get me wrong...all runs are good and sometimes putting a play on is important in the right spot to get a small ball run. But all too often it's not the "little things" that make the difference. It's the "BIG LOUD THINGS"...and that's extra-base hits. The Tigers have several batters that can produce them in batches. Getting Miguel Cabrera healthy and productive is one obvious key. Alex Avila and Prince Fielder continuing their hot streaks into October will be another. (fewer "off the wall" singles would be nice...but the Tigers speed is what it is. Seriously, the Tigers must have the most of those ever if you don't count singles off the Green Monster in Boston)
Jim Leyland was under the microscope as well. His bullpen usage mostly worked. He brought Joaquin Benoit on for a 4-out save which showed some flexibility. (Benoit had a 5-out save recently too) It was interesting that Leyland didn't either push Max Scherzer for one more batter on Sunday to start the 8th inning against a righty and then yield to Smyly for the lefties that were looming or that he didn't start the inning with Jose Veras or Bruce Rondon. (though I am convinced that Rondon is sitting in Mensching's "Safe House" in the U.P. for the Witness Protection Program...he doesn't even warm up much that I've noticed this week much less appear.)
Then of course there was the collective groan from the seeming majority of analysts and fans about Leyland's absolute refusal to pinch-run for Prince Fielder at the end of Saturday night's 1-0 loss. Fielder was gunned down at the plate with the tying run in the balance when a pinch-runner almost certainly scores. This is still baffling. There is simply no reason for it. It's not a sign of "respect" to Fielder at least not one that seems necessary. It's not defensible that you'd lose his bat for extra innings...events showed that extra innings did not happen. Leyland being seemingly 100% intractable on his stance is extremely curious. Would he really stick to this in Game 7 of an ALCS under the exact same circumstances? Leyland has been around many different blocks in his time in baseball and he does plenty of things right. He is a leader of men...there is little real dispute there. But this bit of tactical stubbornness could trip the club up in October. The willingness to push Benoit for extra outs beyond the traditional three-out save is encouraging however.
The Tigers face no more clubs in pursuit of post-season berths. Seattle, Chicago, Minnesota, and Miami are all playing out the string. Certainly, for the most part, they will show up as professionals and compete. Many players will be auditioning for jobs in 2014. The Tigers won't get a cakewalk most likely in very many games. But it won't be quite the same as what they just faced from the pesky Royals. Kansas City came in with "ambition"...post-season ambition. The best kind. The Tigers, needing wins themselves yet, countered the Royals intensity and fended them off to win the series in three battles. It wasn't "October baseball" but it was down and dirty "gotta win this game" baseball that gave us a glimpse of what the Tigers might look like next month should they secure that AL Central title.