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AN Chat with Bless You Boys

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The last time we saw the Detroit Tigers, they were picking A's flesh out of their teeth, having outscored Oakland 34-9 in a three-game sweep at Comerica Park.  The Tigers entered that series with a 17-16 record, and have gone 25-17 since to open up a four-game lead on the Minnesota Twins in the American League Central.

They are facing an A's team that is surely giddy about not having to play another interleague game in 2009.  An 8-3 start to June gave way to a 4-11 swoon, as the A's finished 5-13 against the Senior Circuit.

I had a chance to sit down with Ian Casselberry from Bless You Boys.  I encourage you to check out their site. Without further ado:

67M: Bless You Boys is a reference to the '84 team that started the season 35-5, is one of only four clubs to lead its division wire-to-wire and win the World Series, and is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year.   I remember that season well; just a magical ride for Detroit.  Care to share some personal memories?

IC: I was in my infancy as a baseball fan back in 1984, but that team was definitely a formative experience for me.  I remember Tigers stuff being everywhere.  An anthem on the radio, bumper stickers, pennant flags, and people wearing Tigers t-shirts.  I remember The Wave at Tiger Stadium.

But what I remember most about the Tigers winning the World Series that year is that it was the last time my father took an active interest in baseball.  I can still visualize him sitting in his armchair and turning to me when Larry Herndon caught that final out.

(My kind of moment).

67M: How does 2006 compare to '84 in terms of what it meant to the fans?  That team fell short in the Series, but after suffering through some tough times (119 losses in '03), it sort of all came together that year.

IC: 2006 was special for the reasons you mentioned.  Tigers' fans were rewarded for following the team through some truly bad seasons.  And it was fun to watch Detroit become a baseball town again. 

But even if the Tigers had won that '06 World Series, I'm not sure it would've been the same as winning in 1984.  Detroit has seen quite a few championships for the Pistons and Red Wings since then.  Not to say the city and its fans have become spoiled; they would definitely appreciate the Tigers winning.  But there hasn't exactly been a championship drought here.  Fans probably expect winning a bit more now. 

67M: Last season, with the acquisitions of Cabrera and Willis, the Tigers were the sexy pick to make a run at the title.  This year it was the Indians.  What do the experts know anyway, right?

IC: Don't forget the Royals being a popular "sleeper" pick.  Maybe this is something others had already figured out, but I think it's becoming clearer each year that the so-called experts just look at the team that made the most changes in the offseason and think, "Well, okay - they'll be better."  (Bloggers are guilty of that too, of course.)  But with both the '08 Tigers and '09 Indians, I think a lot of us underestimated just how bad their pitching would be.

67M: Detroit has distanced itself just a bit from the rest of the pack, with a big series looming this weekend in Minnesota. Any chance the Tigers look past Oakland?

IC: That's certainly a possibility, as they smacked around the A's when they visited Detroit back in May.  And a series at the Metrodome never seems to be easy.  But the Tigers haven't been playing very well on the road lately (maybe National League rules could be blamed for that), and they'll be trying to figure out their bullpen with a couple of new pitchers, so I think they'll be taking these games pretty seriously.

67M: I noticed that your team has made a habit of making mediocre pitchers look good this season, something we can surely relate to.  That could bode well for us this series, hmm?

IC: You have touched on a significantly maddening aspect of this year's Tigers team.  I don't know what it is.  Maybe batters lose focus against pitchers they don't think are very good.  Maybe their scouting reports haven't been thorough enough on some of these opposing pitchers.  But you're right.  Gio Gonzalez, in particular, could end up looking very good on Tuesday night.

67M: Speaking of tonight's game, what has impressed you the most about 20-year old Rick Porcello?

IC: Definitely his poise and maturity.  Porcello just doesn't seem to get rattled.  And if he does, he doesn't show it.  There are veterans on Detroit's pitching staff who could learn something from this 20-year-old rookie about handling adversity and maintaining focus. 

Porcello also seems to have a firm idea of what kind of pitcher he is: a sinkerballer who depends on groundball outs.  He doesn't have moments where he decides he should strike out more batters with the kind of fastball he can throw.  He doesn't pull his slider out of nowhere.  He sticks to the game plan and listens to his catcher and coaches.

67M: The A's will see Justin Verlander on Wednesday.  Coming off a down year following two exceptional seasons, he seems to have re-discovered his groove. What's changed?

IC: Verlander's made adjustments mechanically and mentally.  In Spring Training, he concentrated on lowering his arm slot and softening the landing on his plant foot.  And both of those seemed to have helped with his velocity and location. 

Regaining trust in his defense has also made a big difference.  Verlander knows giving up a ground ball won't automatically result in a base hit.  He also knows that he can bounce a breaking ball in the dirt or throw something wide of the strike zone, and his catchers will block the pitch.  Last year, with Pudge Rodriguez or Brandon Inge behind the plate, that was a wild pitch or passed ball.

67M: Another guy who has rebounded well is Brandon Inge. Just a matter of getting healthy?

IC: I think it's more a matter of getting humble.  The past couple of years, we've heard stories about Inge disregarding any coaching tips Lloyd McClendon would offer.  But something got through to him this offseason, and he realized he needed to make some changes.  Inge made major adjustments with where he holds his hands in his stance and got rid of his leg kick.  Instead of checking his swing all the time, he's swinging with authority, reaching pitches he often missed.

67M: Like Inge, Curtis Granderson was a thorn in the A's side in the '06 ALCS, and is having another solid season.  His average has slipped a bit, but his power numbers are up.  By design?

IC: I think so.  Unfortunately, no one has really talked to Granderson about this yet (at least that I've seen).  But whether he was told to, or decided on his own, that he needed to hit for more power, that's what he's been doing and it's made him a completely different kind of hitter.  Granderson's not hitting for doubles and triples right now and not utilizing his speed.  In some ways, that's made him a less exciting player to watch. 

Maybe that will change, now that Jim Leyland has stopped moving him down in the order to give the middle of the lineup some more pop (and more protection for Miguel Cabrera).  The Tigers are definitely a better team when he gets on base and pushes the offense with his speed.

67M: What else is left to say about Miguel Cabrera? Can we borrow him this week?

IC: He is awesome, and no, I'm afraid you can't borrow him.  Even for a week.  The Tigers' offense needs him too much.  Sorry.

67M: Any juicy rumors surrounding this team as we near the trade deadline?

IC: Nothing juicy here.  Why, have you heard anything?  Anything about an outfield bat or starting pitcher?  Are you sure you haven't heard anything?  If you do, you'll tell us, right?

(I would but it might cost you Cabrera for three games).

67M: As we all know, anything can happen in the playoffs (and often does), but what would you like to see the Tigers do to feel like they can compete with the Boston's and Anaheim's (now that the Angels are healthy)?  Or do you already feel they can?

IC: The starting pitching might be enough to help the Tigers steal a playoff series (especially in the early rounds).  But to compete with the top teams in the AL, they really do need to boost their offense with another hitter that the opposing team fears.  Someone who can hit behind Cabrera, especially.  And if he was left-handed, that'd be even better.  Right now, the lineup can be too easily shut down unless everyone is hot and that would be exposed even more in the postseason.

Thanks for your time, Ian. Most appreciated.

A thread will follow this evening.  There will be rally photos and a fair amount of cursing. Game time is 7:05.