Let’s jump into some stretch-run scenarios for the down-but-not-out Detroit Tigers.
First things first. Let’s acknowledge that the divisional race is pretty much decided. The Tigers enter play today a healthy 7.5 games back of Cleveland. The Indians are a whopping 21 games over .500 (72-51), while the Tigers are only six better than even (65-59). Crazier things have happened, but it’s looking like Wild Card or Bust in 2016.
That outlook is not nearly as bleak.
The Baltimore Orioles are currently locked in as the American League’s second Wild Card team. That is essentially who the Tigers would need to catch in order to qualify for post-season play. The Birds are a scant three games in front of our Bengals; that deficit can be made up over a short weekend.
So with just 38 games left on the Tigers schedule, it seemed like an appropriate time to assess what kind of record it will realistically take for Brad Ausmus and the boys to find a ticket to the dance come October.
The Era of Two Wild Cards
The big leagues went from one to two Wild Card entrants in 2012. This padding of the playoff bracket was done for several reasons: to give lesser-qualified teams a chance to win the World Series, to make September pennant races more confusing to follow, and most importantly of all, to ensure that baseball traditionalists would struggle to fall asleep at night (mission accomplished on that one).
2012 was a strange year in the standings. The Tigers advanced all the way to the World Series (swept by the San Francisco Giants), but did so despite compiling the 7th-best record in the American League. The Tigers won 88 games. Both Wild Card teams that year won 93.
2013: Another lofty year for the Wild Card. Tampa Bay and Texas tied for the last spot with 91 victories.
2014 saw the bar lowered quite a bit, with Oakland making it in as Wild Card #2 at just 88-74.
And finally last year, 2015, the weakest year for the double Wild Card yet. The Astros won only 86 games, but snuck in to the party, then came ever-so-close to ousting the champion Royals in the opening round.
This year, the Orioles are a respectable 68-56. If they were to play .500 ball the rest of the way, that puts them at 87 wins. Should the O’s play a little better than that to end the campaign, now the Tigers are looking at a 90-win requirement for Wild Card honors.
Here’s how it breaks down
The most wins needed to get that second WC was 93 (2012). The Tigers would need to go a blistering 28-10 to reach that mark.
The fewest wins an AL Wild Card team has had with this setup: 86 (’15). The fighting Fulmers would need only a ho-hum 21-17 finish to get there.
In all likelihood, the sweet spot is going to be right in that 88-90 win range.
For 90 wins, and a darn good shot at securing a playoff berth, the Tigers would have to finish a very impressive, but not entirely impossible 25-13. Anything less than that and you’re playing with fire.
Soft Upcoming Schedule
The injury-ridden Tigers have hit the wall fairly hard as of late. Their August record is 8-11. But the next six games are against the two worst teams in the AL (Twins and Angels), and a friendly home date with the uninspiring White Sox follows that. The season has been a rocky one, but plenty of opportunity still remains.
The old expression about “slow and steady” winning the race does not apply here. In order for this season to extend beyond Oct. 2 in Atlanta, the Tigers must start rattling off wins. Fast. Not just two of every three, or four out of seven; it’s got to be five or six in a row, 10 wins in 12 games type-stuff.
It’s a 38-game season for the Detroit Tigers. Play .500 ball and kiss the season goodbye.
Go 22-16 or 21-17, and you probably finish a precious game or two behind.
But figure out some way to overcome the injuries, the bipolar bullpen, and the limping offense; smoke the competition with a 24-14 or 25-13 close and you probably have earned yourself a cherished spot in the American League playoffs.
Is it a strong likelihood? No.
Would it be the craziest thing to happen in baseball history? Not by a long shot.