A great deal of credit was also given to manager Jim Leyland. On April 17, after an uninspiring 10-2 loss at home to the Cleveland Indians dropped the team's record to 7-6, the manager launched into a tirade against the team about its lack of effort, telling the media, "We stunk. They [the players] were already on the plane to Oakland." It appeared to light a fire under the players, spurring them on to a stretch in which they won 28 of 35 games. Leyland repeatedly preached the concept of playing hard for nine full innings, and the players took up that mantra, as evidenced not just by their words but also by the team's propensity for late-inning clutch hits, rallies and comebacks.
The Tigers' newfound success attracted a new generation of fans, many of whom who had never seen winning baseball in Detroit before. Detroit hit 16 home runs in their first four games, the most ever by any team in their first four games of the season. Tigers fans traveled to road games in large numbers, most notably at the interleague series with the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field from June 16–18. The crowd could be heard chanting "Let's Go Tigers!" throughout all three games, all of which were Detroit victories.
The major doubt many fans and pundits had was whether the Tigers could compete against other top-tier American League teams. Early in the season, the team lost series to the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, and lost five of six games to the reigning World Series champion (and AL Central rival) Chicago White Sox. However, on July 20, at a game which featured a particularly stirring rendition of the national anthem by local opera singer Eugene Zweig, and a standing-room-only crowd that included actor Tom Hanks and director Ron Howard, the Tigers beat White Sox pitching ace José Contreras to take the series two games to one from the White Sox, the team's first series victory against an upper-echelon AL team in 2006. In their next two series, against the AL West division-leading Oakland Athletics, and the red-hot Minnesota Twins, who were 34-8 over their previous 42 games, the Tigers also won two out of three.
On July 31, Tigers management traded minor-league pitcher Brian Rogers to the Pittsburgh Pirates in exchange for left-handed hitting and three-time All Star first baseman Sean Casey. The move added a left-handed bat to the lineup, especially necessary after Dmitri Young was released in September.
On August 7, the Tigers were 40 games above .500 (76-36) and cruising. They would lose their next five games, and the last six weeks of the season were punctuated by a nosedive, as Plácido Polanco's separated shoulder and suddenly silent bats led to a 19-31 record in the last 50 games of the season.
Only the big cushion built in the summer saved the Tigers from what would have been baseball's most statistically infamous collapse, as they clinched a playoff berth on September 24 with an 11-4 win over the Kansas City Royals. But even that cushion couldn't save a division title. On October 1, despite a rare relief appearance from Kenny Rogers, the Tigers fell out of the top spot in the American League Central with a 10-8 extra-inning loss to the Royals in their last regular season game. Detroit lost their last five games, all at home, against the Toronto Blue Jays and the Royals.
The final loss gave the Twins the AL Central title, and made the Tigers the wild card entrant in the American League Playoffs. Their opening-round opponent would be the New York Yankees. The Tigers ended the regular season with a 95-67 record.
There were many memorable moments during the regular season. Some of the highlights:
On April 20, the Tigers came into the ninth down 3-1, but clutch hits tied the game, and Brandon Inge's resolute 15-pitch walk (Jim Leyland called it a "1½ Marlboro" at-bat, in reference to his noted chain-smoking when in the dugout) forced in the winning run.
On May 3, in the eighth inning of a tense pitching duel, Brandon Inge beat a throw to second to avoid a double play, then Alexis Gómez singled him in for a 2-1 comeback victory.
On May 20, Cincinnati's Ken Griffey, Jr. hit a grand slam that put the Reds up, 6-5, but with two outs in the ninth inning, Curtis Granderson hit a home run that tied the game, and the Tigers won in extra innings.
On June 1, hits by Ivan Rodríguez and Magglio Ordóñez (and gum-chewing by Nate Robertson) set up Carlos Guillén's game-winning ("walk-off") single, completing a five-run comeback and defeating the Yankees.
On June 18, Kenny Rogers won his 200th game, becoming only the 26th left-hander in baseball history to do so.
On June 27, Roger Clemens hurled a three-hitter, but Nate Robertson outpitched him and the Tigers won, 4-0.
On July 11, the 2006 All-Star Game featured three Tigers—Rodríguez, Kenny Rogers and Ordóñez—for the first time since 1987. Rodríguez was voted as a starter, while Rogers was named the starting pitcher. The battery combination of Rogers and Rodríguez was the first time a Tigers pitcher threw to a Tigers catcher to start the Mid-Summer Classic since Denny McLain threw to Bill Freehan in 1966.
On July 14, in a tie game, with two out and two on in the top of the ninth, reliever Todd Jones faced dangerous slugger Mark Teahen, who had already hit two home runs in the game. Jones threw Teahen every pitch he could, and Teahen repeatedly fouled each pitch off. Finally Jim Leyland walked to the mound—where he told Jones his visit was a ruse, designed to fool Teahen into thinking Jones would be throwing anything but a fastball. Leyland walked off the field, Jones threw a fastball, and Teahen swung and missed for strike three. Then, in the bottom of the ninth, Carlos Guillén hit the Tigers' first walk-off home run of the season for the victory. After the game, Jones said of Leyland's visit to the mound: "I thought, 'Wow, you're a really good manager.'"
On July 20 (see above), the Tigers essentially beat the White Sox on a Marcus Thames slide into second. The slide broke up a seemingly sure double play, which allowed the winning run to score later that inning.
On July 24, the Tigers became the first team since the 1891 St. Louis Cardinals to score 5 runs or more in the first inning in three consecutive games.
On August 5, Iván Rodríguez hit a walk-off home run with two outs in the ninth inning to complete a comeback against the Cleveland Indians.
On August 27, a 7-1 victory over the Cleveland Indians secured the Tigers an 82nd victory—and their first winning season since 1993.
On August 30, with two outs in the top of the ninth, Craig Monroe blasted a dramatic three-run home run, erasing a one-run deficit, stunning the crowd at Yankee Stadium, and giving the Tigers a 5-3 come-from-behind victory over the Yankees.
On September 12, Craig Monroe tied a club record with three outfield assists, including throwing two runners out at the plate, and Carlos Guillén slugged two home runs, one from each side of the plate, the second being a walk-off in the bottom of the ninth that won the game, 3-2, over the Texas Rangers.
On September 23, the Tigers scored ten runs in the first inning in a 15-4 victory over the Kansas City Royals. The game marked Plácido Polanco's return from the disabled list; he had three hits.
On September 24, the Tigers scored nine runs in the second inning en route to an 11-4 victory. The win secured their first playoff appearance since 1987.
The New York Yankees were heavy favorites over the Tigers to win the series because of their "modern-day Murderers' Row" lineup. All nine batters were current or former All-Stars. The Yankees won the first game, 8-4.
In Game 2, the Tigers took an early 1-0 lead before Johnny Damon hit a three-run homer for New York in the 4th inning. The Tigers came back with single runs in the 5th, 6th, and 7th, including a game-tying home run by Carlos Guillén and a go-ahead RBI triple by Curtis Granderson, to come from behind to win, 4-3.
In Game 3, which was the first postseason game played in Detroit since 1987, the Tigers shut out the Yankees, 6-0. Kenny Rogers pitched 7⅔ scoreless innings and struck out eight in winning for the first time in his postseason career and defeated the Yankees for the first time since 1993.
In Game 4, the Tigers defeated the Yankees 8-3 to win the American League Division Series, 3 games to 1. Jeremy Bonderman threw a perfect game through five innings, and allowed just one run on five singles over his 8⅓ innings in giving the Tigers a second straight dominating starting pitching performance.
The final out kicked off a joyous celebration of players and fans throughout Comerica Park and Downtown Detroit. The celebration even included Kenny Rogers pouring champagne over a police officer's head (he can be seen on video clearly asking permission before doing so). In the process of winning the final three games, the Tigers held the fearsome Yankees lineup scoreless for 20⅔ consecutive innings (from the 4th inning of Game 2 until the 7th inning of Game 4) while scoring 17 runs in that span.
The Tigers won Game 1, 5-1, as Nate Robertson scattered six hits and three walks over his five shutout innings. In the fourth inning, with men on second and third and nobody out, Robertson memorably struck out the side to preserve his own victory.
Detroit also won Game 2, 8-5. Oakland had an early two-run lead before the Tigers' four-run fourth inning gave them the lead for good. Seldom-used outfielder Alexis Gómez got the surprise start as the designated hitter. Gómez hit a homer and drove in four runs, providing another example of Jim Leyland pushing all the right buttons this season.
Returning to Comerica Park for Game 3, the Tigers shut out the A's, 3-0. Kenny Rogers was masterful again, allowing only two singles and running his scoreless streak to 15 innings, and the A's did not get a hit off relievers Fernando Rodney and Todd Jones. The two hits were the fewest allowed in a post-season game in franchise history.
In Game 4, Oakland jumped out to an early 3-0 lead. Detroit, looking to sweep the A's, fought back with two runs in the fifth inning, on RBI doubles by Curtis Granderson and Craig Monroe, before Magglio Ordóñez tied it at 3-3 with a solo home run in the sixth. In the bottom of the ninth with two outs and runners on first and second base, Ordóñez hit his second home run of the night, a three-run walk-off home run off of A's closer Huston Street that sent the Tigers to their first World Series since 1984. The American League Pennant was the tenth in Tigers history, and the pennant was won with a walk-off home run for only the third time ever. (The last team to do so was the 2003 New York Yankees, when Aaron Boone hit a walk off home run to defeat Boston.)
The Cardinals won the first game of the World Series in Detroit 7-2, behind excellent pitching from unheralded Cardinals starter Anthony Reyes.
In Game Two, Kenny Rogers continued his astounding postseason, allowing two hits and no runs through eight innings, as the Tigers triumphed 3-1.
But the Tigers lost the next three games. They were shut out 5-0 in game three by Cardinals starter Chris Carpenter; they lost a 5-4 heartbreaker in game four; and in game 5, the Tigers committed two costly errors, lost a 2-1 lead, and fell 4-2. In the first inning rookie pitcher Justin Verlander threw two wild pitches, tying the Series record (AP); this was in sharp contrast to the five total that he had thrown in all of his previous games. Verlander would go on to commit a throwing error in the fourth inning, allowing the tying run to score.
In the series, the Tigers committed eight errors, five by the pitching staff alone, the most in World Series history. While the Tigers' 4-1 World Series loss to the Cardinals was a complete disaster, it did not diminish the team's remarkable turnaround after 12 straight losing seasons.
Postseason player stats
Note: G = Games played, AB = At bats, H = Hits, Avg. = Batting average, HR = Home runs, RBI = Runs batted in
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