Tigers lose big on 'the little things'

ST. LOUIS -- The optimist in Jim Leyland sees one positive in the embarrassment his pitchers endured in the World Series: Come February, when he gathers the Detroit staff to work on bunt plays, pickoffs and comebackers, he won't hear any griping about what drudgery it is.

While Tigers owner Mike Ilitch must decide how much money he's willing to spend on offensive upgrades and David Dombrowski makes travel arrangements for the general managers meetings in Naples, Fla., Detroit's detail-oriented manager already has a plan in place for the Grapefruit League.

Leyland is going to ask the spring training grounds crew to wet down the area in front of home plate at Joker Marchant Stadium so his pitchers can practice fielding a wet ball. Then the sun will bake the dirt in front of home plate, and they'll do it dry.

"I'm sure that's something we're going to work on in the spring -- until dark," said starter Kenny Rogers.

The 2006 Tigers will be remembered as a team that made huge strides with grand gestures. The offense ranked 28th in the major leagues in walks and sixth in home runs. The rookie pitchers, Justin Verlander and Joel Zumaya, threw fastballs at a 100-mph clip. And when the Tigers eliminated the Yankees and Athletics in the American League playoffs, it was with shutdown starting pitching reminiscent of the 2005 White Sox.

Rogers, reborn as an October marvel at age 41, threw 23 straight shutout innings in the postseason. When baseball writers weren't discussing whether he washes his hands with Lava or Ivory soap, they were comparing him to Christy Mathewson.

But once the Cardinals came along, the Tigers were buried under a pile of undotted I's and uncrossed T's. When center fielder Curtis Granderson wasn't slipping in pursuit of a David Eckstein fly ball, third baseman Brandon Inge was obstructing Scott Rolen on the bases. And whenever a Detroit pitcher picked up a groundball, patrons in the box seats instinctively went into duck-and-cover mode.

Detroit's pitchers were fine throwing the ball to home plate in the World Series. Their 3.00 ERA was the lowest by a Series loser since the 1996 Atlanta Braves posted a 2.33.

Making accurate throws to the bases proved to be a much bigger challenge. Detroit's pitchers made more errors in the World Series (five) than Cincinnati's staff did for the entire 2006 season. The Reds committed four.

The Tigers also became the first team since Tom Trebelhorn's 1990 Milwaukee Brewers to have a streak of five straight games with at least one error by a pitcher.

Verlander, Zumaya, Fernando Rodney and Todd Jones, say hello to Bill Wegman, Tony Fossas, Tom Edens and Paul Mirabella.

"If this doesn't show you that little things win championships, I don't know what does," Jones said. "We're good at the big things. We have to get better at the little things."

Soon enough, when the pain subsides and the Tigers are watching football or sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner, they'll appreciate just what they accomplished this season. Three years ago they were an industry joke with a 43-119 record. Then Dombrowski made a bunch of shrewd trades and free-agent signings, and the farm system churned out enough prospects to help produce a wild-card club.

The city was reinvigorated, and the Tigers learned firsthand what Al Kaline and Willie Horton keep telling them about Detroit's passion for baseball. The increased enthusiasm was manifested in an attendance spike of nearly 600,000 fans at Comerica Park.

The good news is, the core of the Detroit roster remains intact, which means more high-quality pitching in 2007. Verlander and Zumaya are budding stars, and Jeremy Bonderman just turned 24. Rogers and Jones are signed for another year, and Mike Maroth will be back from elbow surgery. Detroit also has several impressive prospects -- including hard-throwing Humberto Sanchez and No. 1 draft pick Andrew Miller -- in the pipeline.

The only free agents of note are lefty specialist Jamie Walker and first baseman Sean Casey, who was a force in the World Series with a .529 batting average. Casey made it plain after Friday's loss that he would like to remain in Detroit.

"This has been the best three months of my career, being here with the Detroit Tigers and being part of this team," Casey said. "It's a special bunch of guys and a special organization."

Casey could have used more help against St. Louis. Magglio Ordonez, who hit the walkoff homer against Oakland to clinch the American League pennant, went 2-for-19 against the Cardinals and had way too many throwaway at-bats. He was the quintessential nonentity.

"What can you do -- kill yourself? It's over. If I would have gone 20-for-20 ... it's not a big deal, man. I wanted to win and get a base hit, but more important, we're not here for me to have a great year. It's to win."
-- Tigers second baseman Placido Polanco

Placido Polanco, the ALCS Most Valuable Player, went hitless in 17 at-bats and was robbed twice of hits by his best friend, Albert Pujols. His postgame mood ranged from philosophical to slightly peevish.

"Think about it for a second," Polanco said. "What can you do -- kill yourself? It's over. If I would have gone 20-for-20 ... it's not a big deal, man. I wanted to win and get a base hit, but more important, we're not here for me to have a great year. It's to win."

Maybe the Tigers lost their karma or their edge with a six-day layoff after the Oakland series. Or perhaps they just found their true level in the end. This was a team that began the season 76-36, then slogged its way to a 19-31 record the rest of the way.

The Tigers had their flaws -- most notably, a lack of patience and run-manufacturing ability at the plate -- and they simply didn't hit enough against the Cardinals to overcome their defensive lapses.

"You make your bed, and you lay in it," Jones said. "When you play like we did, it's probably a little easier to get over than if somebody gives up a walkoff home run in the seventh game, or you have a Bill Buckner-type situation."

Minnesota fell apart against Oakland, Oakland unraveled against Detroit, and the Tigers turned into a slapstick routine in cleats against St. Louis. As much as people will focus on Detroit losing to a club that won a mere 83 regular-season games, Jones doesn't think it's such a great mystery.

"It's actually pretty simple," he said. "If you don't make plays, you're going to lose, whether you're playing Little League teams or the junior varsity or the Yankees."

No one understands the importance of doing the little things better than Jim Leyland. And now he has all winter to find a solution.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN Insider. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.