It is hard to get a handle on the Tigers. At times, they look the team most likely to overtake the surprising Indians in the American League Central, such as when they ran off seven wins in a row earlier this month. At other times, they appear to have no chance of contending, like when they lost seven straight games from April 26 to May 2. Their 23-23 record says the Tigers are a middle-of-the-road team.
"We've been inconsistent," manager Jim Leyland said. "We've played good and we've played bad. I do think we have some pretty good players on this roster, and we are capable of winning a lot of games if everything comes together for us."
What makes the Tigers difficult to figure is that their hitting has actually been better than their pitching, relative to the league. Their 4.33 runs scored a game stands seventh in the American League and 11th in the majors, while their 4.40 runs allowed ranks 10th and 23nd.
However, Leyland and most everyone else associated with the Tigers believes they need to score more runs to be a true contender, especially in light of the fact they have managed just 16 runs in their last eight games.
"If you look at the stat sheet, it shows we've scored a pretty fair amount of runs," Leyland said. "It doesn't seem like we have, though. We just haven't been very consistent offensively. We'll go through stretches where we score a lot of runs, but then we'll go through stretches where we can't get anything going. We need to be more consistent from an offensive standpoint."
First baseman Miguel Cabrera is having another stellar season with a .364 True Average. Catcher Alex Avila (.323), designated hitter Victor Martinez (.317), and shortstop Jhonny Peralta (.305) are also having fine years. However, right fielder Magglio Ordonez (.170) has been slow to recover from last season's broken ankle and is currently on the disabled list, and third baseman Brandon Inge (.215) has also failed to produce at even replacement level.
"It comes and goes," center fielder Austin Jackson said of the Tigers offense. "You try to stay positive for as long as you can. You're going to go down those roads where you really have to battle, and that's where we've been at a lot this year. Nobody is hanging their heads. Everybody is staying positive, and that's why I think we're going to be all right."
Leyland attributes some of the inconsistency to youth. Jackson is in his second full season in the major leagues, while second baseman Scott Sizemore and outfielder Brennan Boesch have yet to log a full season and left fielder Andrew Dirks made his major-league debut last Monday.
"It takes time for guys to get used to the major leagues, and we're just going to have to be patient," Leyland said.
The frustrating part for the Tigers is that they have wasted a lot of good starting pitching thanks to their inconsistent offense. The Tigers have lost 12 games in which their starter posted a quality start, including six by ace Justin Verlander. Even though Verlander's record is just 4-3 through 10 starts, his .559 Support Neutral Winning Percentage ranks eighth in the AL. Brad Penny (.523), Rick Porcello (.504), and Max Scherzer (.503) also have SNWPs over .500.
"They've been throwing strikes and locating pitches, basically all year," Avila said of the rotation. "They make my job behind the plate very easy. We've gotten to know each other well, and it's amazing how we're always on the same page. We do a great deal of preparation together and they all go to the mound knowing exactly how they want to approach each hitter. Then they do such a great job of locating that, most of the time, I just have to set my target and they hit it."
Starting pitching could be the separator for the Tigers in the division race. Their starters' 3.51 ERA is tops in the division; the Indians are second at 3.58, followed by the White Sox (3.85), Royals (4.55), and Twins (4.75).
"It's huge knowing that you're going into the game every day and have a chance to win—that's really all you can ask for," Avila said. "And to go this far into the season with the same five starters is rare, and that's made a big difference for us. Our guys have been very consistent."
The bullpen also shoulders some of the responsibility for the wasting of so many quality starts. The Tigers' 6.03 relief ERA is the worst in the major leagues.
Despite the scoring and relief woes, the Tigers are still in better shape than the other two teams who were expected to contend for the AL Central title when the season begin. The Tigers are in second place, seven games behind the Indians. Meanwhile, the White Sox are nine games back and in fourth place, and the last-place Twins are a whopping 14 1/2 games off the pace.
"I think the White Sox and the Twins are going to be there in the end," Leyland said. "The White Sox have been playing a lot better, and they are too good to be held down all year. In the Twins' case, it's tough when your horses are at the vet instead of on the track. They've got a lot of guys hurt. When they get them back, they'll be tough to beat."
The Tigers got a first-hand look at the Indians during the final weekend of April and were swept in a three-game series at Progressive Field in Cleveland. Leyland is convinced the Tribe isn't a fluke.
"I have a lot of respect for that Indians' ballclub," Leyland said. "I didn't think their pitching would be as good as it has been, but they're a real good team. They aren't going away. I think this division is going to be very interesting before all is said and done. I think our offense is going to work itself out, I really do. If we can get our relief pitching straightened out, then I think we have a chance to be in this thing until the end."
Rumors and Rumblings: The Mariners believe top second base prospect Dustin Ackley is ready to hit in the major leagues now, but are keeping him at Triple-A Tacoma so he can work on his defense. … The Rockies are considering calling up third baseman Josh Fields from Triple-A Colorado Springs to add some punch at the hot corner. … Rangers infielder Michael Young has been working out in the outfield during pre-game drills and is likely to see some occasional action in left. … The Angels are considering using left-hander Scott Kazmir in relief when he eventually is activated from the DL. … The Brewers fear that left-hander Manny Parra will need season-ending Tommy John surgery. … The Braves will call up left-hander Mike Minor from Triple-A Gwinnett on Wednesday to sub for an ailing Tim Hudson against the Pirates at Pittsburgh.
Rockies first baseman Jason Giambi: "That three-home run game he had in Philadelphia [last Thursday] might wind up being the most improbable event of the 2011 season. He looked like he had nothing left before that game. Hitting three homers was like a bolt out of the blue. That being said, I still think he's at the end of the line."
Reds left fielder Jonny Gomes: "I think at some point the Reds are going to have to pull the plug on him and try [Chris] Heisey every day in left. He's really lost his bat speed this season and is getting beat by even average fastballs. He's also a liability with the glove."
Braves right-hander Tim Hudson: "He's had a few rough outings this season, but what you've got to love about him is how he never loses his confidence. Whether it's a good start or a bad one, he's constantly attacking the strike zone because he truly believes in his stuff."
Angels right fielder Torii Hunter: "He's really struggling, and it hurts to watch because you knows how much he cares. He knows he has to provide power with Kendrys Morales out for the season and Vernon Wells struggling, and he's swinging for the fences every time up. The harder he tries, the worse it gets for him."
Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols: "I know he hasn't hit for his usual power and he's grounding into a ton of double plays, but I don't think he's too far away from getting on track. It's not like he's going up to the plate looking completely lost. It's just that things aren't happening for him."