How The 1987 Detroit Tigers Won The AL East

The 1987 Detroit Tigers were the last postseason team in the Hall of Fame career of manager Sparky Anderson. They produced the best record in baseball, won the AL East for the second time in four years and did with a dramatic final week push when they appeared all but dead.

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After winning the World Series in 1984, the Tigers slipped to being an above-average team, finishing third in 1985-86, in a division that then had seven teams. Muscle on offense was the key to revival in Detroit.

The Tigers led the league in both slugging percentage and home runs. They were also patient, drawing more walks than any team in the American League. No one was better than shortstop Alan Trammell, who finished with an on-base percentage of .402, a slugging percentage of .551, hit 28 home runs, drove in 105 runs, scored 109 runs and finished second in the MVP voting. Did I miss anything? Only that he deserved to win the MVP rather than settle for runner-up status.

Kirk Gibson posted numbers of .372 OBP/.489 slugging percentage and hit 24 home runs. Centerfielder Chet Lemon joined Gibson in the outfield and finished at .376/.481 with 20 home runs. Second baseman Lou Whitaker didn’t have a vintage year, but was still solid at .341/.427.

Two players at opposite ends of the career spectrum were pleasant surprises. Rookie catcher Matt Nokes was a revelation, hitting 32 home runs with an OBP of .345. And 40-year-old first baseman Darrell Evans turned back the clock with 34 home runs, 99 RBI and an OBP of .379.

All this made Detroit a potent offensive attack, but they did more to augment the attack. The bench was strong, as Larry Herndon finished at .378/.520 in part-time duty and Dave Bergman posted a stat line of .379/.453. And in the early summer, the front office went and got a veteran hitter in Bill Madlock to handle the DH duties. Madlock, a former batting champion put up a .351/.460 run in his time in a Tiger uniform.

It wasn’t all about the offense in Motown. The pitching staff had the third-best ERA in the American League and it all started with Jack Morris. The 32-year-old with a deserved reputation as a big-game pitcher, won 18 games with a 3.38 ERA and worked 266 innings. Walt Terrell and Frank Tanana were both respectable, combining for 32 wins, with ERAs between 3.90 and 4.10.

The bullpen was a problem, with Mike Henneman being the only consistent pitcher and Willie Hernandez a long way removed from his 1984 career high when he won both the MVP and Cy Young Award. The back end of the rotation was also weak, with Dan Petry and Jeff Robinson struggling to seasons with 5-plus ERAs. But before the year was over, Detroit would pull the trigger on another deal, one of the most consequential trade deadline moves in MLB history.

Nothing about the way the 1987 baseball season started suggested a special year in Detroit. They lost five of six to the New York Yankees in April and by Memorial Day were 20-21, in fifth place and seven back of AL East-leading New York.

A weekend in early June was a key threshold moment in the season. The Tigers made the deal for Madlock. They were also in Boston, where the defending AL East champion Red Sox were also looking to get untracked. It was Detroit who unleashed. They won three of four, scored 18 runs in the finale, and when the Red Sox made a return trip to Tiger Stadium, Detroit swept three straight. They took two of three in Toronto, part of a long road trip where the Tigers went 9-5.

By the time the All-Star break arrived, Detroit was 48-37 and back in the mix. They were in third place, five games back of the first-place Yankees, with the Blue Jays in second.

In early August, the Tigers won 10 of 13 against AL West opponents (the AL Central did not exist prior to 1994). Against their own division rivals, Detroit won three of four from New York, scoring double-digit runs in two of the games and starting an 11-3 run. But as good as that was, it wasn’t the biggest thing that happened in Detroit in the first part of August.

Needing starting pitching, the Tigers dealt a top prospect to the Atlanta Braves in exchange for veteran Doyle Alexander. How did it work out in the short-term? Alexander made 11 starts for the Tigers and went 9-0 with a 1.53 ERA. In an era where a division title meant direct advancement to the League Championship Series, they would not have done it without Alexander.

How did the move work out in the long-term? The prospect was future Hall of Fame pitcher John Smoltz. Who won this trade, or whether Detroit would make it again if they had known just how great Smoltz would be, is a great debate. Or we could just take the political approach and say both teams got what they wanted. Which is probably the view that’s accurate.

By Labor Day, the Yankees were fading and had fallen to third place, five off the pace. The Tigers and Blue Jays were running neck and neck. The two teams would finish with the best regular season records in all of baseball and in the era before the wild-card, that meant a long fight to the finish.

Detroit and Toronto traded blows and tracked each other from afar until they reached the final week and a half of the regular season with the Tigers a half-game back. There would be four games in Toronto on the penultimate weekend of the season. After a series in the middle, they would reunite in Detroit for three games to end it. And it would take all of those games to settle the winner.

Morris got the ball on a Thursday night that started the final push. He went the distance, but one bad inning—a four-run third for the Jays—did him in, as Detroit lost 4-3. Tanana was brilliant on Friday night, pitching seven shutout innings and handing a 2-0 lead to the bullpen. Hernandez coughed it up in a 3-2 loss.

Saturday brought even more heartbreak. Detroit grabbed a quick 3-zip lead, but Terrell was shelled. Even so, the Tigers still led 7-3 and then 9-7 in the ninth. This time it was Henneman that blew the lead and Juan Berenguer finished it off by walking in the winning run. The Tigers were 3 ½ games out and even with the four head-to-head games still remaining, this race was looking over.

Enter Doyle Alexander. He pitched eleven innings in the Sunday afternoon finale. Trailing 1-0 in the ninth, Detroit got a run to tie it. Evans homered in the top of the eleventh. Anderson, perhaps spooked by his bullpen performance and managing in an era where it wasn’t unthinkable to leave a starter in (though admittedly it was still rare), sent Alexander back out and he gave up the tying run. Gibson finally won the game in the 13th with an RBI single. The Tigers were still in trouble, 2 ½ back with a week to go. But they had a pulse.

Detroit split four games at home with mediocre Baltimore and in a lot of circumstances that might have ended the AL East race. Instead, with Toronto getting swept by Milwaukee, it actually tightened it. The final weekend began with the Tigers back to within a game of first.

Alexander pitched on Friday night and it looked like his magic might finally end, when he gave up a three-run blast in the second inning. But he settled in, went seven innings and didn’t allow any more. Detroit began coming back. An error and a two-run homer by role player Scott Lusader cut it to 3-2. Trammell homered in the bottom of the third to tie it and Detroit quickly added another run. Hernandez was able to get the last six outs without incident.

The race was tied. It was a de facto best-of-three, allowing for the possibility of a one-game playoff on Monday afternoon.

Saturday afternoon was a taut baseball game that I can still vividly remember being glued to my TV set watching (I was rooting for Toronto and my dad was pulling for Detroit, though neither of us were invested in either team). Two great veterans battled on the mound, Morris for the Tigers and lefty Mike Flanagan for the Jays. It was 2-2 and went extra innings. Morris left after nine, Flanagan left after the 11th. And in the 12th, the Tigers broke through. Madlock singled, Gibson walked and Trammell’s RBI single to left won it.

How fast the race had changed in a week. Now it was Detroit playing with a little bit of cushion on Sunday afternoon. This was an era where baseball could both rival and exceed the NFL in popularity and this was also the first Sunday that the NFL would use replacement players due to a strike. It made Tigers-Jays must-see viewing.

Tanana and fellow lefty Jimmy Key for Toronto made it worth watching. Detroit got on the board in the second when Herndon homered. The game stayed 1-0 with both pitchers locked in. The Blue Jays put two on with two out in both the first and third innings, but couldn’t get the big hit. Tanana made them pay for missing, going the distance with a six-hitter and the 1-0 score stood up.

Detroit had completed an amazing final week to win a great race. There was every reason to feel a second World Series trophy in four years would come to the Motor City. With the 85-win Minnesota Twins as the ALCS opponent, at least another pennant seemed a foregone conclusion.

But the Tigers had finally run out of steam. There was a bit of bad luck—the Twins were much better at home and with homefield advantage determined by rotation rather than merit, Detroit had to begin on the road and quickly lost two games. But in fairness, they also lost two in Tiger Stadium and the series ended in five games.

It was a disappointing and surprise ending, but the 1987 Detroit Tigers won what is one of the more underrated division races in baseball history. That’s how they should be remembered.