A Major League Baseball showdown of title-hungry teams begins today when the long-struggling Detroit Tigers and Oakland A's begin their best-of-seven American League finals in Oakland.
Three years after setting a one-season league record with 119 losses, the Tigers toppled the New York Yankees, baseball's richest and winningest team this season, in the first round of the playoffs.
Either Oakland or Detroit will advance to the World Series, with the winner hosting the National League champion on Oct. 21.
The A's had lost six consecutive playoff series over the past 17 years before ousting Minnesota in the first round.
The Tigers have not won the World Series since 1984, when they defeated the San Diego Padres for the crown. Their only other title since 1945 came in 1968 when they outlasted St. Louis in a seven-game classic.
The A's twice reached the World Series three years in a row, sweeping titles from 1972-1974 but losing in 1988 and 1990 around their most recent crown, a 1989 sweep of the Bay Area-rival San Francisco Giants.
Oakland's Barry Zito, a 16-game winner this season with a 1.29 ERA in his only start this season against the Tigers, will start today's opener against Detroit's Nate Robertson, who was 13-13 overall and 1-1 versus the A's.
Detroit pitcher Jeremy Bonderman was benched in 2003 after losing 19 games so he would not risk bearing the shame of being a 20-game loser.
This year he pitched Detroit past the Yankees in the deciding game of their series, showing the Tigers bore no ill effects of a late-season fade that cost them the AL Central division crown on the final day of the regular season.
"This is a great thing that happened to us," Bonderman said. "This is a great group. We hit a scuff in the road, but a good team will bounce back. And we have a great team."
Detroit hurlers threw 20 consecutive scoreless innings against the Yankees, who had the American League's best record and fielded one of the toughest and most expensive batting lineups ever assembled.
The Tigers feature veteran pitcher Kenny Rogers, who won his first playoff game at age 41 to shake off talk he was too old, and manager Jim Leyland, who had been burned out on baseball after guiding Florida to a World Series title but still wanted to help resurrect Detroit's fortunes.
"I thought we'd get better ... but I thought, for sure, it would take a year or two," Leyland said.
The A's feature a tough lineup at the plate, including sluggers Frank Thomas, Eric Chavez and Nick Swisher and a skilled pitching staff sparked by Zito and Danny Haren.
Thomas pounded 39 home runs this season while Swisher added 35 and Chavez had 22.