5. September 28 vs. CLE: Valverde goes 49 for 49
Needless to say, Jose Valverde is a polarizing figure. His antics on the mound and entering games make opponents seethe with anger and Tigers fans revel in his ridiculousness. He puts a few to many runners on base for my taste, but no one can deny that his 2011 season was entertaining, effective, and extraordinary. Closing the season at Cleveland with his franchise-record and league-best 49th save after giving up a hit and a stolen base while striking out two was a perfect microcosm of the rollercoaster of emotions Papa Grande put Tigers fans through all year long. It was never easy, but somehow he always got the job done.
4. September 14 vs. CWS: Tigers win 12th in a row
To win 12 games in a row is a huge accomplishment, but to do it against your division rivals at crunch time to put the division title out of reach is quite remarkable. On August 29th the Tigers held a tenuous 5-game lead over the White Sox followed by the Indians only a half game behind the Sox. Two weeks later, the race was over after the Tigers swept the the Indians, Twins and finally the White Sox (twice). I was fortunate enough to witness the 11th win firsthand—a 5-0 shellacking by Verlander and crew—the night before the coup de grâce. Coming back from a three-run deficit in the 9th on pinch-hit home runs from Ryan Raburn and Alex Avila then sealing the deal on a Carlos Guillen’s RBI single in the 10th put an exclamation point on the Tigers’ dominating run.
3. September 3 vs. CWS: Tigers come back from 7-down to win 9-8
In many ways, the Tigers ended all their AL Central division foes’ hopes for 2011 with their miraculous 9-8 victory over the White Sox on September 3rd. After trailing by as many as seven runs, the Tigers comeback culminated with a game-tying, two-run homer from Ryan Raburn followed by a stunning walk-off homer from Miguel Cabrera in the 9th. The soul-crushing defeat sent the White Sox spiraling downward as they gave up 18 runs the following night. The improbable victory sent the Tigers well on their way to eventually win 12 in a row and finally clinch their first division crown in 24 years.
2. May 7 vs. TOR: Verlander throws second career no-hitter
Justin Verlander’s 2011 season will go down as one of the greatest individual performances in Major League history. Leading the league in Wins, ERA, Strikeouts and WHIP will not only give him the Cy Young, but it would be a crime if it didn’t also land him the MVP, which I have been campaigning for for months. But when you add in his no-hitter against the Blue Jays in which he only issued an 8th inning walk to spoil a perfect game, the notion that he doesn’t deserve the MVP is simply asinine. 24-5 record, 2.40 ERA, 250 Ks, 0.92 ERA, .192 BAA—’nough said.
1. October 6 vs. NYY: Tigers win ALDS-clinching Game 5
Winning any playoff series is a big deal. Winning a playoff series in a deciding Game 5 on the road in front of the largest crowd in new Yankee Stadium history is a whole different animal, but that’s exactly what the Tigers did. Unheralded utility player Don Kelly and waiver-wire pickup Delmon Young went yard on consecutive pitches to stun the Yankees in the 1st inning. Doug Fister went five strong, giving up just one run on five hits to the formidable Yankees lineup. Victor Martinez’ two-out RBI single to score Austin Jackson proved to be the game winning as Max Scherzer, Joaquin Benoit and Valverde combined to lock down the remaining gut-wrenching, heart-in-your-throat four innings to take the Tigers frist winner-takes-all game in a postseason series since 1968.
Though it ended on a sour note, 2011 was a great year for the Tigers and should prove to be the start of a long run of dominance over the AL Central. With a strong staff of young pitchers under contract for the next several years, a nucleus of young hitters that collectively ranked in the top five offenses in the game and with money to spend in the offseason after the contracts of Guillen, Magglio Ordonez, Brad Penny and Joel Zumaya come off the books, the tank is full and the gas pedal is mashed to the floor in the Motor City.