Sunday, June 14, 2015

TWTW's Reds - Tigers Preview - 6/15 - 6/18

Danville, Kentucky -- Folks, we have an exciting series on our hands – a 4 game home-and-home set between Los Rojos de Cincinnati and Los Tigres de Detroit – two blue-collar teams that play a hard-nosed brand of baseball. This is the flavor of baseball we live for, as the type of fans who aren’t satisfied to read the latest Fangraphs article about Carlos Martinez’s xBABIP. The type of fans who don’t sit around in their basement reading box-scores instead of seeing the game for themselves. The folks who pack into old beater cars with broken air conditioners and drive to see their favorite players, with nothing but money for a ticket and an old cap to represent their favorite team. The folks who stay put during hours-long rain delays that drive fair-weather fans off the bandwagon quicker than Obama drove the economy off the cliff. For the true fans, like myself, baseball is like the Slurpee machine at your local convenience store; you just want to put your mouth on the nozzle and suck all the summery goodness in.

The true fans live for baseball; we get sunburnt sitting in the stands cheering for our team, we get hangovers from drinking away a tough loss or celebrating a Joey Votto dinger. We emotionally damage ourselves arguing with the fans of other teams on twitter, and lay awake at night wondering if our boys have what it takes to taste October.

Amongst the good peoples of Southern Ohio, Northern Kentucky, and the greater Detroit area, many such fans can be found. They remember the days of watching the Big Red Machine and the Bless You Boys Tigers on a black-and-white TV. I’m a man that was Danville born and raised. But my Uncle Bert from Flint, Michigan used to regal me with tales of 1968 Tigers, Al Kaline, Denny McLain, Ernie Harwell, and the GM plant in the days before NAFTA. As a kid at the time, I didn’t quite appreciate his drunken musings. I have mixed feelings about interleague play, but I am grateful that my Cincinnati Reds now get to play Uncle Bert’s Detroit Tigers every few years, even if it means I can’t watch pitchers bat and have to see some guy playing a fake position.

Truthfully, if it weren’t for the Mistake on the Lake being just a few miles North, I think the Redlegs and Tigers would be the true interleague rivalry. Cleveland as the chief interleague rival of my Reds just feels wrong. Cleveland has no baseball team to speak of, and it’s more of a basketball town these days anyway. Cincinnati has always felt culturally separate from the rest of Ohio, at least to me. On the other hand, Uncle Bert’s stories about the summer days he spent on the shores of the Great Lakes reminds me of my own adolescence,  which I spent on Herrington Lake since I was old enough to shotgun a Miller Lite and buy Kentucky Deluxe with a fake ID. The good people of Southern Ohio, Northern Kentucky and Detroit also agree on another important lifestyle choice: the deliciousness achieved when hot dogs and chili are fused in an act of culinary transcendence. Cincinnati and Detroit have for years been locked in an intractable dispute over how to best prepare hot dogs and chili:

Cincy-style Chili Dog
Detroit-style Coney Dogs

For me, and Tigers reporter Jason Beck, it’s not really close. Maybe it’s the Danville in me, but I love Cincinnati chili dogs like Brian Kenny enjoys annoying innocent baseball fans with his enthusiastic tirades about made-up analytics such as third-order winning percentage or UZR. I’m a guy who thinks noodles and hot dogs go together like Todd Frazier and dingers, or Mike Leake and 5-run innings. The Detroit style coney simply doesn’t give me that.

While Cincinnati’s coneys are clearly better than the Detroit variant, this week’s home-and-home set will be a much more tightly-contested affair.

Here’s what to expect: some exciting games. Game 3 of the series will feature the best duel since Alexander Hamilton v. Aaron Burr, when aces Johnny Cueto and David Price face off. David Price has been on top of his game, coming off back-to-back complete game shut-outs and a Maddux vs. the Cleveland Indians.  Johnny Beisbol is the pride of Cincinnati, though folks in Danville are worried he might not be in town much longer with the trade deadline drawing closer. In fact, sources have even hinted that Johnny could be targeted by Detroit – providing additional proof that these cities may in fact be linked by destiny. Game 4 will feature the second start of the season by Justin Verlander, the once and future ace of Detroit’s rotation. The last time these two teams met in 2012, the Tigers won 7-6, rallying off of Aroldis Chapman it what some nerds described as a turning point in their season, which culminated in a World Series appearance. Will this match-up 3 years later be similarly fateful? You'll have to actually watch the game to find out.

Ultimately, what draws me to these games isn’t the numbers – it’s the narrative. There are several plotlines that astute, game-watching fans should notice:

First is the ascendance of shortstop Eugenio Suarez, who was acquired by the Reds in the offseason via trade with Detroit, and will now see playing time because of the untimely loss of Zack Cozart. He has already made a name for himself amongst the good peoples of Southern Ohio and Northern Kentucky by delivering a clutch, game-winning RBI against the Cubs last week. While this week’s series won’t ultimately settle the question of “who won the trade,” as potential All-Star Big Pasta Alfredo Simon will not start against the Reds, little Eugenio will make the return to Comerica Park to face his former teammates for the first time. This was the team where Eugenio broke into the majors; he remembers coming up in the minor leagues with young talent like Hernan Perez and James McCann. He remembers being showed the ropes by hardened veterans and fellow Venezuelans, Victor Martinez and Miguel Cabrera.

It will be bittersweet for Eugenio; he knows he was rendered expendable by the return of Detroit’s franchise shortstop, Jose Iglesias. He will feel a twinge of jealousy as he watches young Jose smiling and bantering with his former double-play partner Ian Kinsler and his idol Miguel Cabrera.

Eugenio, a cheery and youthful personality, is not one to hold grudges and will nonetheless catch-up with his former companions on the field during batting practice. As Eugenio wanders onto the fresh green grass of Comerica Park, the place where he once fought, bled, and battled to prove he was worthy of a roster spot, he will encounter Andrew Romine,  the new Don Kelly of the Detroit Tigers. Eugenio and Andrew, the little utility infielders that could, will look into each other’s soulful eyes, and share a knowing look. They share a special bond; a unique bond that can only be formed between people who realize they were a team’s “Plan D” – who might not have even gotten a crack at the big show if Jose Iglesias had stayed healthy and if Steve Lombardozzi and Alex Gonzalez hadn’t been bigger bombs than the Affordable Care Act.

The Little Utility Infielders That Could
Andrew and Eugenio went through a lot together. If it were up to Andrew, Eugenio would still be right there by his side in the dugout, and right there to share in whatever glory may await the Tigers in the autumn. Knowing that the baseball gods have thwarted the realization of such a dream, Andrew will pat Eugenio on the back before the two engage in mortal baseball combat against each other. Little Geno will wonder if he is destined to be the next Ramon Santiago, or if he may yet bring glory to the good people of Northern Kentucky and Southern Ohio.

The Best Smile in Beisbol
The second plotline to pay attention to is that of Cincinnati’s catcher. Fortunately for little Eugenio, he is not without role models, guardians, and companions within Cincinnati’s dugout. From the moment he arrives in Cincinnati’s locker-room, the should-be All Star and all-around-great-guy Brayan Pena, another former Tiger, will take little Eugenio under his wing. After watching Mr. Pena play for my Reds for the past year and a half, I’ll never understand why the Tigers let Pena go when he was available to be resigned for such an affordable price. Indeed, Brayan is one of those guys you can’t put a price tag on. His willingness to put his body on the line for his team, his smile, his clubhouse presence, and his capacity to keep the spirits of teammates high is something that simply can’t be measured in dollars or WAR. Pena is a player so gritty that the MLB had to change its home-plate collision rules because of him:

Pena is also a player so classy that he refuses to take the luxury of a self-congratulatory home-run trot, opting to sprint around the bases instead.

Before they take the field, Brayan will notice little Eugenio looking pensive, staring into his locker. The veteran backstop and President of NERTS nation will put an arm around the young shortstop, and let him know that everything will be alright. With the feelings of expendability and jealousy washed away by his teammate’s embrace, Pena and a newly reassured Suarez will confidently walk onto the field, ready to face their friends wearing the Old English D.