The 1988 Detroit Tigers were on a redemption mission. One year earlier, they had won a thrilling AL East race to the wire against the Toronto Blue Jays and finished with the best record in baseball. But an upset loss to the Minnesota Twins in the 1987 ALCS ended the season. The ’88 Tigers looked like they might get back to October for a lot of the summer, but faded at the end.
Pitching was what keyed the success of Sparky Anderson’s team. Jack Morris was the ace of the staff, and while his ERAs were never great—3.94 in 1988—Morris was as good as any at pitching to game situations and he won 15 games.
Doyle Alexander, whose midsummer acquisition keyed the ’87 stretch drive, won 14 games with a 4.32 ERA. Frank Tanana was a 14-game winner, and while Walt Terrell was a hard-luck loser, at 7-16, Terrell’s ERA was a respectable 3.97.
Where this staff really separated themselves was in the bullpen. Mike Henneman saved 22 games with a 1.87 ERA. Paul Gibson and Eric King were solid in middle relief, with ERAs of 2.93 and 3.41 respectively. Willie Hernandez was no longer the MVP/Cy Young pitcher he’d been for Detroit in their championship year of 1984, but he still saved 10 games and finished with a 3.06 ERA.
And a young arm gave the rotation some added juice—26-year-old Jeff Robinson only got 23 starts, but he finished with a 2.98 ERA. The Detroit pitchers collectively finished with the #4 ERA in the American League—and the old Tiger Stadium, with its short rightfield porch, was not nearly as friendly to pitchers as the modern Comerica Park is.
The hitters weren’t nearly as effective. The middle infield of Lou Whitaker at second base and Alan Trammell at shortstop were solid at the plate and in the field, though neither hit for a lot of power. Darrell Evans, the 40-year-old DH, hit 22 home runs, but did little else. Chet Lemon was respectable in centerfield, but throughout the lineup there were a lot of disappointments.
Detroit had let rightfielder Kirk Gibson walk in free agency, and Gibson went to the Los Angeles Dodgers where he won the MVP award, and helped his team win a World Series, including one of the most iconic home runs in MLB history. His replacements in Detroit didn’t fare nearly as well.
The Tigers traded for Ray Knight, and the 35-year-old hero of the 1986 World Series, but Knight struggled at the plate. So did Gary Pettis, acquired from the California Angels. Pat Sheridan and Tom Brookens were regulars that did not distinguish themselves at the plate, and young catcher Matt Nokes backslid after a strong year in 1987. It added up to the #8 offense in the American League in runs scored.
Detroit got off to a reasonably nice start, with a 28-19 record at Memorial Day. The problems in matching up with the Twins were still apparent—the Tigers lost five of six—but Detroit was right in the mix, four games back of the red-hot New York Yankees.
The Tigers got on a roll in June, winning 11 of 16 and setting up a three-game series with the Yankees in Motown. It proved to an unbelievable three nights of baseball. In the Monday night opener, after giving up the tying run in the top of the ninth, Brookens capped a three-hit night with a walkoff home run in the 10th.
On Tuesday, Detroit trailed 6-1 in the bottom of the ninth, with New York’s fine closer, Dave Righetti on the mound. Detroit scored two runs, loaded the bases and Righetti was pulled. Trammell hit a grand slam and the Tigers won 7-6. On Wednesday, Brookens was a hero again. In the 10th inning of a 2-2 game, he singled was bunted over and scored on a hit by Luis Salazar.
Three straight walkoff wins gave Detroit a 2 ½ game lead in the AL East, and later in the month, they took two of three in the return series at the Bronx. By the All-Star break, the Tigers were rolling at 52-33, and held a three-game lead on New York with the rest of the division seemingly far in the rearview mirror.
Detroit struggled out of the break, losing seven of ten and the Boston Red Sox got red-hot, joining the Tigers and Yankees in the battle for first place. Detroit still countered with an 11-3 stretch that included a four-game home sweep of the Red Sox and the Tigers held a four-game lead as late as August 21.
Then it all got away. From August 22 to September 14, they lost 19 of 23 games, and in that stretch was a brutal series in New York. In a four-game set, Detroit gave up walkoff home runs three times. Irony can be cruel, and it certainly was in seeing the Tigers lose the walkoffs to the Yankees as a way of ending a strong push that the walkoff wins of summer had begun.
It was Boston who pulled away in the AL East. The final standings tell you that Detroit finished within one game, but that’s extremely misleading. After the disaster weekend in the Bronx, the Tigers fell as many as six games back and when the final weekend of play began, they were still four back, and thus eliminated. A three-game sweep to close the year got Detroit to 88-74, while Boston mailed it in and lost three straight to end up 89-73.
Sparky Anderson would never make it back to October. He managed the Tigers through the 1995 season, and had two more winning years, but never got higher than second place and never again matched the 88 wins of this season. The 1988 Detroit Tigers were a good team, but also one that ushered in the end of an era.