(SportsNetwork.com) - The Detroit Tigers' quest toward another American League pennant begins the same way it did a year ago, with a best-of-five American League Division Series against the Oakland Athletics.
The A's gave Detroit all it could handle last year, as the Tigers needed to win a decisive fifth game at O.co Coliseum to advance to the ALCS, where they swept the New York Yankees.
Of course, Detroit's run ended in the World Series, as it was swept in four games by the San Francisco Giants.
Oakland may have been content with just making the playoffs last season, but it's a different story this year for the A's, who enter the postseason with perhaps the most complete team on the American League side.
"We were just riding that emotion and certainly happy to be where we were," Oakland manager Bob Melvin said. "But the mindset was different this spring; the expectations were different."
Last year, of course, the Athletics needed to win their final six games - including a three-game sweep of the Texas Rangers to close the regular season - to claim their first American League West title since 2006.
Well, Oakland proved that last year was no fluke, as it has spent most of the season at or near the top of the division. And thanks to another September swoon from Texas, it ran away with its second straight division title and finished the year 96-66.
This A's lineup resembles more of the late 80's power teams in Oakland at the plate without the star power of a Jose Canseco or Mark McGwire, of course, as these A's are led by a cast of virtual unknowns, including MVP candidate Josh Donaldson.
Oakland's 186 homers were the third best in baseball, but the team managed to hit at just a .254 clip, while striking out 1,178 times.
Donaldson hit .301 this season for the A's with 24 home runs and 93 RBI. He was even better down the stretch and earned the AL Player of the Month Award for September, as he hit .337 with eight doubles, five home runs and 16 RBIs in 25 games.
Still, you probably couldn't pick him out of a lineup.
"I'm a guy who's been downplayed my entire career," Donaldson said. "Even when I was a first-round draft pick (in 2007), I took 10 percent less than the guy before me. I just want something fair, something that's justified."
One concern the A's have heading into the postseason is the ailing shoulder of slugger Yoenis Cespedes. When he was in the lineup this season the A's were 83-51 compared to the 13-15 they were when he was out.
As a rookie last October, Cespedes batted .316 (6-for-19) with two RBI in five games during the ALDS.
The A's pitching staff was fronted by former AL Cy Young Award winner Bartolo Colon, who turned back the clock to win 18 games and post a 2.65 ERA, second only in the AL to the Tigers' Anibal Sanchez (2.57).
Colon, of course, did not pitch in last year's ALDS, as he was serving a 50- game ban for testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs.
Jarrod Parker also had a tremendous season for Melvin's crew, as he went a team-record 19 straight starts without a loss and ended the year 12-8 with a 3.97 ERA.
After those two Melvin has a few young arms at his disposal in righties A.J. Griffin (14-10, 3.83), Dan Straily (10-8, 3.96) and Sonny Gray (5-3, 2.67).
Oakland's bullpen has been a strength all season, but closer Grant Balfour and right-handed setup man Ryan Cook struggled late in the year. Still, Balfour saved 38 games in 41 chances. Lefty Sean Doolittle is also as good as it gets in helping set the bridge.
Detroit, meanwhile, had no hangover from its trip to the Fall Classic, as it went 93-69 to win a third straight AL Central crown thanks to another amazing campaign from Miguel Cabrera, and despite a wildly inconsistent season from ace Justin Verlander.
While Verlander struggled, the rest of the staff thrived, specifically right- hander Max Scherzer, who enjoyed the best year of his career, as he won an MLB-best 21 games, while pitching to a 2.90 ERA and striking out 240 batters over a career-high 214 innings.
In Verlander, Scherzer and Sanchez the Tigers produced three 200-strikeout pitchers on the same team for just the third time in history, the first since the 1969 Astros.
Amazingly, the Tigers starting staff led the AL in almost every major category in spite of Verlander, who was only 13-12 and finished the year with his highest ERA (3.46), lowest strikeout rate (23.5 percent) and lowest innings total (218 1/3) since 2008 while battling reduced velocity.
Verlander tossed a shutout in Game 5 versus the A's last year, but the former AL MVP and Cy Young Award winner has been pretty pedestrian in the postseason, pitching to a 4.22 ERA in 12 starts.
As good as their starting staff may have been, though, any conversation about the Tigers begins and ends with the great Cabrera, who came within an eyelash of a second straight Triple Crown.
Cabrera may have fell short of his remarkable 2012 season, but still hit a career-high .348 to become the first player in more than two decades to win three straight AL batting titles. His 44 home runs were second to the 53 by Baltimore's Chris Davis, and he finished second in RBI, one behind Davis' 138.
He batted .330 last year with 44 homers and 139 RBI.
"I still had a good season," he said. "I have the same numbers I had last year, and we won the division."
Cabrera is the first right-handed batter in either league to win three straight batting titles since Rogers Hornsby's six straight for the St. Louis Cardinals from 1920-25. Cabrera became just the fifth player to win three consecutive AL crowns, joining Nap Lajoie (1901-03), Ty Cobb (1907-09, 1911-15 and 1917-19), Rod Carew (1972-75) and Wade Boggs (1985-88).
The great Cabrera is, of course, supported by a tremendous lineup that includes Prince Fielder, Victor Martinez and Torii Hunter.
But, if there is one thing to worry about on Detroit's end it is its bullpen, especially in the wake of injuries to lefty Phil Coke and righty Bruce Rondon, who has pitched to a 1.23 ERA over his last 15 appearances.
Joaquin Benoit isn't exactly Mariano Rivera, but few, if any closers are. And keep in mind, the Tigers went to the World Series a year ago with a closer-by- committee approach.
An X-factor to watch could be Jhonny Peralta, who returned from his 50-game suspension due to his involvement in the Biogenesis scandal. With Jose Iglesias now entrenched at short, Peralta will likely find time in left field.
If anything, Peralta adds depth to the lineup and should provide plenty of protection for designated hitter Martinez.
Detroit, which lost four of seven games against the A's during the season, has beaten Oakland the last two times these teams have met in the postseason. The A's only win against the Tigers in the playoffs came in the 1972 ALCS which started a run of three consecutive world titles for Oakland.
The key to this series could be Detroit's amazing starting staff against the free-swinging A's lineup. The Tigers also feel as if they have something to finish after last year's miserable World Series performance.
It won't be easy, though, against a gritty Oakland club.
PREDICTION: TIGERS in FIVE
The Sports Network