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Tigers on the Prowl, Paying Rare Visit to Nation’s Capital

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WASHINGTON (CBSDC) - Defending American League champion Detroit visits the up-and-down Nats for a pair of games the next two nights, a rare occurrence despite the newfound prevalence of interleague play.

Other than a three-game sweep by the Tigers in 2007 – when they were also the reigning AL champs – and Washington’s losing pitchers were the immortal trio of Matt Chico, Jason Simontacchi and Saul Rivera, the guys with the olde English D on their chests and caps haven’t been to the nation’s capital since 1971.

That was when every Detroit victory was like kicking sand in Washington’s collective faces because Senators owner Bob Short had given the Tigers one of his best pitchers, Joe Coleman, and the left side of his infield, Eddie Brinkman and Aurelio Rodriguez, for troubled two-time Cy Young Award winner Denny McLain the previous offseason.

Two years after the one-sided deal, the Tigers won the American League East while the Senators and 22-game loser McLain had been uprooted by Short to Arlington, Tex. Major league baseball, a fixture in the nation’s capital for a century, wouldn’t return for 33 years.

While the Tigers dethroned the Senators as AL champs in 1934 and Detroit outfielder Ty Cobb and Washington right hander Walter Johnson had incredible matchups as the game’s best hitter and pitcher during the first two decades of the 20th century, the franchises weren’t at all archivals. They both would have rather beaten the Yankees than each other. Not that the usually mediocre Tigers and almost always lousy Senators ever did much to bother the haughty New Yorkers.

These days, however, the defending NL East champion Nats could learn something from the Tigers, who have finished first twice, second three times and third once in the AL Central since crusty manager Jim Leyland’s arrival in 2006. That’s the kind of consistent excellence that Washington manager Davey Johnson, who’s two years older than Leyland and has won as many World Series titles (one) would like to establish here before he heads to Florida for good after this season.

Right hander Justin Verlander, the 2011 AL MVP and Cy Young winner – who fortunately for Washington won’t be pitching in this series — and second baseman Omar Infante – a reserve infielder in 2006 – are the only players left from Leyland’s first Detroit team seven years ago, but the Tigers keep on winning. They averaged 87 victories the past six seasons, finished under .500 only once, and are atop the AL Central again so far this year with a 19-11 record.

At 17-15 after taking two of three in Pittsburgh this past weekend, Washington is three games off last year’s 20-12 pace that eventually produced a major league-best 98 victories. But that was the only winning season of the Nats’ first eight years in town.

With 2012 Rookie of the Year Bryce Harper, All-Star shortstop Ian Desmond, former All-Star third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, swift center fielder Denard Span, rising catcher Wilson Ramos and formidable pitchers Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, Ross Detwiler, Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard all under 30 and signed through at least 2015, Washington certainly has an enviable young core of talent.

However, despite all the excitement they generated in these parts last summer, the Nats have yet to win when it matters. If the playoffs began today, Washington wouldn’t qualify. Back-sliding out of a postseason berth after their terrific 2012 and when they entered this season as the World Series favorites, would be a major step backwards for the Nats.

During the 1990s, seemingly every basketball player wanted to be like Mike. The Nats could do a lot worse than wanting to be like the Tigers.

David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin 

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