Thursday, July 20, 2006

Is This A "Big" Series? Yes. No. Maybe

Jim Leyland says no, it's really not. Todd Jones agrees. Craig Monroe would beg to differ. So would Fernando Rodney. Marcus Thames is just having some fun.

It doesn't matter if there's a consensus, or a plurality, or a hung jury. The Tigers are engaged in some sort of series with the Chicago White Sox currently -- and depending upon whom you talk to, it's very important. Or not.

"You know how it is -- you lose and you're out of good graces, and you win and you're back in," manager Leyland told us crowded around his desk after last night's big -- or not -- 5-2 win over the Chisox.

Someone asked him if managing big -- IF it's big --games like last night's was fun.

"No," he said as soon as the question was done being asked. "It's work. I mean, I love my job, but it's work, not fun."

"Like I keep saying, it's July 19. The pennant race hasn't even started yet. I mean, I'm glad we won, but the great thing about baseball is that you don't have a lot of time to dwell on a loss. But you also don't have a lot of time to enjoy a win. We can enjoy this one for about 12 hours."

Monroe sure will enjoy it.

Functioning as designated hitter, Monroe cranked a game-changing grand slam in the sixth inning, putting the cherry on top of a five-run inning. It was the ony inning in which the Tigers scored, and they made it a good one.

"Biggest homerun I've ever hit, by far," Monroe said.

Then, when pressed about the magnitude of the White Sox series, he took a left turn from his boss' company line.

"We know how important this is," Monroe said. "They're the defending champs and we're chasing them. It was important that we beat them."

Not so much, Jones said.

"You guys said it was an important series," Jones told me when I cornered him and hit him cold with the notion that White Sox-Tigers was bigger than, say, Devil Rays-Tigers. "To us, it's just another series. But you guys kept saying it was a big series. It's not so big. We have 63 wins. We're just trying to win as many games as we can, and all those series will shake themselves out."

Turns out there's not even agreement within the bullpen corps.

"Very big," Rodney said with a nod when the visitor to his locker wondered aloud if a 1-6 record against Chicago this season added any drama to last night's win. "Whenever you play a team like Chicago, it's big because they can come back a lot and win games."

OK, whatever.

The Tigers won and I'll say it, once and for all: It was a big win. Sometimes you gotta just cut through all the bull and call a spade a spade. It was big because of the 1-6 record. The fact that the offense slumbered Tuesday night, and was oversleeping thru five innings last night. The fact that the Tigers bumped their lead back to 4 1/2 games, essentially taking two more games away from the White Sox' drive. And it maintained a remarkable run for the team: the absolute freakishness of anything more than a two-game losing streak for the Tigers. That's one way to climb to 63-31.

And there was even a curtain call. Monroe took it, acknowledging the crowd's frenzy after his game-breaking granny.

"I don't think I've ever seen that in Comerica Park," Jones, who should know, said.

On this team, in this year, the spotlight shines on it very broadly. Meaning, many different players get to bask in it. It's all about team.

Marcus Thames was pinch-hit for by Alexis Gomez, in the eighth inning. The pitcher was lefthanded. Gomez bats lefthanded. Huh?

"Defensive substitution," Thames told me when I sidled up to him and said, basically, Huh?
"We've done it before. No big deal."

What a difference a year makes, huh, Marcus?

"It's fun, man."

Maybe that's something we can all agree upon.

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