Three keys to the Tigers postseason chances

In the tight postseason, Detroit manager Brad Ausmus will be tested.

In the tight postseason, Detroit manager Brad Ausmus will be tested.

Congratulations to the Detroit Tigers, who won their fourth consecutive American League Central title with a tense, 3-0 win over the Minnesota Twins on Sunday.

“Who cares?” some fans will ask. They will say that it shouldn’t have come down to the final game of the season, given the Tigers’ payroll versus that of the Royals. The only title that counts is a World Series victory. Division championships don’t mean a thing, they’ll say.

Don’t count me in that group. It is very, very difficult to win a division. Just ask the Texas Rangers or the Boston Red Sox.

Give the Tigers credit for taking care of business. They did not want to face the prospect of a Game 163 against Kansas City on Monday. And the Tigers did not want to get into the playoffs as a wild card. Leave that stuff for upstarts like the Royals, who are to be congratulated on a good season. How many years now have we been hearing that Kansas City will be a force to be reckoned with in the Central? It seems like at least a decade.

What we saw this summer was a good old-fashioned pennant race (The term is now a misnomer, since it’s really a division race.). The Tigers came out on top, again. All is right in the Motor City, at least for the next few days.

The 2014 American League Division Series will open in Baltimore on Thursday, October 2nd, at Camden Yards in Baltimore. The atmosphere should be electric.

This is a 2-2-1 series, meaning the Series will go back to Baltimore for a fifth game, if there is one. The Tigers were 45-36 at home, and 45-36 on the road this year, in case anybody’s interested. The Orioles were slightly better at Camden Yards than they were on the road, with 51 wins versus 45 on the road.

Once the postseason starts, you can pretty much throw regular-season stats out the window. Regardless of that, it should be noted that the Tigers were 5-1 against the Orioles in 2014, scoring 33 runs against Baltimore’s 20, and the Bengals won all three games in Camden Yards.

In the next three days, a lot of talking heads will break down this series to determine why Detroit will win, or why Baltimore will win. But in the final analysis, the Tigers chances rest on the performance of three key areas. Here they are:

#1. Brad Ausmus
How would you grade Ausmus’s performance this year? Well, his team won the division, so he must have been pretty good, right? But the Tigers were expected to win, his detractors will say. Maybe so, but it’s not easy for a rookie manager to successfully lead a team that has such high expectations, especially on the heels of a personality like Jim Leyland, who was very popular with the players. Ausmus doesn’t get too high or too low, at least publicly, and this is one of his strengths. Still, in a short playoff series, the inexperience of a first-year skipper can be exposed. Baltimore manager Buck Showalter is one of the best in the business, and he’s been here before. He could potentially manage rings around Ausmus. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen.

#2. Joe Nathan
The Detroit closer is the big unknown. He seems to have righted his ship, and he wants a ring as much as anybody on this team, but is he reliable? If there’s one thing we know about the postseason, it’s that teams live or die by their ability to close out games in the late innings. There’s simply no margin for error in October. If Nathan is lights out, the Tigers will steamroll to the World Series. Book it. If he struggles, they don’t have a chance. Ausmus has been committed to Nathan as his closer all season long, and that’s not going to change in October. Sorry, Joakim Soria fans.

#3. The Tigers’ “Big Three” of Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, and J.D. Martinez
This is obvious. What do you want me to say, that Alex Avila or Rajai Davis is the key for the Tigers’ postseason hopes? I’ll leave that to the wiseguys on ESPN. Make no mistake about it. This Detroit offense will sink or swim based on the performance of these three, particularly Cabrera. It’s as simple as that. And that, Tiger fans, is why you should be optimistic. “The Big Man,” Cabrera, is seemingly healthy, and has found his groove, if his awesome September is any barometer. V-Mart looks like a man on a mission, and J.D.’s storybook season may yet have one or two more ninth-inning heroics left in it. But the key is Cabrera. The greatest slugger in Tiger history (with all due respect to Hank Greenberg) will be expected to carry this team in October.

My ALDS prediction: Detroit defeats Baltimore in four games. Miguel Cabrera leads both teams with eight RBIs and V-Mart hits two home runs in Game Four. Joe Nathan records the final out (insert chin-flick).