Old Tigers Logo.jpegAs the Tigers’ tumble from contender to irrelevant bystander accelerates, I’ve been thinking about other seasons that began with promise only to result in an unexpected death spiral. One that jumps to mind is 1982.

You’re forgiven if that season brings back only memories of Harvey Kuenn’s Brewers — Harvey’s Wallbangers — which marched to the World Series after dispatching the Orioles on the last weekend of the season, and defeating the Angels in the five-game ALCS after trailing two games to none.

Milwaukee was a tremendous club in 1982, but it didn’t start that way. After 47 games, they were just 23-24 under manager Buck Rodgers, seven games behind the first-place Tigers. On June 2, Rodgers was fired and replaced by Kuenn, his hitting coach. That’s when the Brewers began their surge, going 72-43.

Meanwhile, things in Detroit finally seemed to be clicking under Sparky Anderson. The young talent he inherited looked to be maturing into the type of club that could win over the long term in the bruising American League East.

Before school was out for summer the Tigers had two eight-game winning streaks and several of three-games. Yet, despite all this winning, Detroit never had more than a 1-1/2-game lead, even when they were 17 games the over .500 mark.

Three things brought on the Tigers’ demise in 1982. The first came on Friday, May 14 in an extra-inning game against the Twins at Tiger Stadium. In the second of two bench-clearing fights, Dave Rozema took his now-legendary flying kick at Twins’ second baseman John Castino, wrenching his left knee. After surgery to repair his ligament damage he was lost for the season.

“To me, at this point, Rozie’s been our best pitcher,” Anderson told the AP. “You can’t do any better job than Rozie’s been doing.” In true Rozema fashion, he managed to get the win when Kirk Gibson hit a two-run homer in the 11th.

At that point in the season, Rozema was 3-0 with a 1.63 ERA and 0.867 WHIP in 27.2 innings pitched.

With Rozema out, the Tigers relied on the once-promising left-handed closer Kevin Saucier, aging Elias Sosa and a cast of thousands including Pat Underwood, Dave Rucker and Bob James.

From June 11 through July 3, the Tigers went 4 and 16 – including a 10-game losing streak – but the bullpen implosion was only partly to blame.

While the Tigers were hitting just .241 as a team in June — the Brewers were hitting more than 50 points higher … and 30 points higher than they had in May. In July, Milwaukee would cool off slightly to .288 but still 34 points above the Tigers.

Detroit hit .289 in August, the Brewers .276. By August 15, the Tigers were nine games out and the Brewers had a four-game lead on the Red Sox.

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Lineup

Reserves

Rotation

Bullpen

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The third reason the 1982 Tigers effectively fell out of the race by the Fourth of July: a 35-43 record in the division.

Not unlike this year’s Tigers, the ‘82 club struggled against most of its divisional rivals, especially Milwaukee:

On the final weekend of the season, the Brewers and Orioles were playing in Baltimore, a four-game series – including a Friday-night doubleheader. Milwaukee had a three-game lead with four to play. (Sound familiar?) On the last day of the season, the Brewers ended their four-game losing streak, crushing the Orioles 10-2 to clinch the division.

At Tiger Stadium, the Tigers’ season came to a close with a five-game series against the Indians – doubleheaders on Friday and Saturday. Detroit took three of five and finished the year at 83-79, 12 games out of first place.

The American League Central in 2010 is by no means comparable to the A.L. East of 1982. But the similarities between the Tigers teams from these two seasons are noteworthy, if not remarkable: a nice, early-season stretch of winning thanks to a reliable bullpen, a devastating bullpen loss, a flirtation with a division lead in June, young talent on the verge of breakthroughs.

How this Tigers season ends is still anyone’s guess, though most fans fear the worst. At this point, if they finished, as the ’82 team did, at 83-79 we’d have to be stunned – and not in a bad way.