Ask why his Tigers have ascended to the top of the American League Central, and manager Jim Leyland will give a succinct answer. “Pitching,” he says.

The numbers say that the Tigers aren’t as pitching-dominant as Leyland would suggest. They’re eighth in the major leagues in runs allowed with an average of 4.3 per game, and 11th in runs scored with a 4.9 average. Yet that doesn’t change the opinion of anyone in the Tigers’ clubhouse. “We haven’t hit like we should be hitting, and we haven’t all season,” hitting coach Lloyd McClendon said. “It’s kind of perplexed all of us. We’ve gotten a lot of dominant starting pitching performances from the top of our rotation, and that always makes a difference,” said Leyland. “When you have a couple of horses who give you innings and keep you in the game, it takes the pressure off everyone else, the starting pitchers, the bullpen, the offense.”

Leyland was referring to hard-throwing right-handers Edwin Jackson, acquired from the Rays in an off-season trade, and Justin Verlander, who helped lead the Tigers’ charge to their first World Series berth in 22 years back in 2006 when he was the AL Rookie of the Year. Jackson is fifth in the majors with 3.4 SNLVAR, and Verlander is seventh with 3.1. Both have had quality starts in nine of their 13 outings this season, with all of Verlander’s coming in his last nine starts. “For the first two and a half months of the season, I don’t think you’d find a better one-two punch in baseball,” said Leyland. “Those guys have been lights-out more often than not. Even when they haven’t been, they have still kept us in the game. They’ve done a heckuva job.”

Leyland is correct when he says that no team has had a better combination. Just two other teams have two starters in the top 20 in the majors in SNLVAR; the Giants with Matt Cain (2.8, 10th) and Tim Lincecum (2.7, 12th), and the Mariners with Felix Hernandez (2.4, 16th) and Erik Bedard (2.4, 19th).

The 25-year-old Jackson has always been long on potential. He made his major league debut on his 20th birthday in 2003 with the Dodgers, beating future Hall of Famer Randy Johnson, but Jackson has only had a positive WARP3 in two of his six seasons before this year, and his high was 1.1 in ’03, when he pitched just 22 innings. “I think everyone knew that Jackson had a great arm,” said Leyland. “He always threw hard, but it takes time for a pitcher to develop. Very few guys step right into the major leagues and dominate. He’s been around and taken his lumps, and now he is figuring some things out.”

Verlander, 26, appeared to be on his way to superstardom as a rookie, but he took plenty of lumps last season when he led the AL with 17 losses and was 87th in the majors in SNLVAR with a 2.9 mark. “Everybody is eventually going to have rough times in the major leagues-it just happens later for some guys than others,” Leyland said. “I think in Verlander’s case, he was a kid who came up at a young age and had success, but when things started going bad for him it took him awhile to make the adjustments physically and mentally. He’s gotten over the hump now, and he’s having a helluva season.”

Leyland said a sign of Verlander’s maturity came in his most recent start on Wednesday, when he beat the White Sox on a six-hitter. “Our bullpen was pretty beat up, and we needed some innings out of Justin and he knew it,” Leyland said. “If this were last year, he probably wouldn’t have been able to handle that. He would have pressed, starting overthrowing, and been out of the game in five innings. He’s really matured into a number one-type starter.”

Meanwhile, rookie Rick Porcello has 2.1 SNLVAR despite his being just 20 years old, and the bullpen is starting to round into shape after some rough stretches early in the season, with good work coming from power arms Ryan Perry (0.076 WXRL), Joel Zumaya (0.221), and closer Fernando Rodney (1.433).

It is the offense, however, that continues to be cause for concern for Leyland. Star first baseman Miguel Cabrera (.300 EqA) and resurgent third baseman Brandon Inge (.292) are the only regulars having above-average seasons. Right fielder Magglio Ordonez (.255) has been in a season-long power outage, and left fielder Carlos Guillen (.188) has been out since May 5 when he suffered a bruised shoulder crashing into the outfield wall while making a catch. “We’ve got to find a way to start scoring some runs and getting some production from the middle of our lineup from someone besides Cabrera,” Leyland said. “We’ve pitched great, but you’ve got to score some runs or it’s eventually going to jump up and bite you. That definitely worries me. I like my team, but I’d like it better if our hitters took some pressure off our pitchers.”

The World Series is still more than four months away, but Yankees left fielder Johnny Damon is already looking ahead to the Fall Classic. There is nothing he would like more than to face the Dodgers, who are managed by ex-Yankees skipper Joe Torre. “That would be fun,” Damon said. “I think that’s what everybody wants.”

Damon has his reasons for wanting a crack at Torre. In Torre’s book, The Yankee Years, co-authored with Sports Illustrated‘s Tom Verducci, the skipper wrote of one of the “old guard” Yankees telling the manager of Damon, “Let’s get rid of him.” Damon said that he was greatly bothered by that remark because he was playing hurt, and he also feels that Torre was unfair to him and former Yankees first baseman/designated hitter Jason Giambi in the book. “Me and Jason weren’t the reason we were losing,” said Damon. “If [Torre] feels that way, then oh well, but I’ll tell you one thing, me and Jason were the reason why we made the playoffs [in 2007, Torre’s final season with the Yankees]. We made that push. As soon as I got healthy, this team got going.”

Damon seems to be having the last laugh this season with a .297 EqA, and he credits the book for motivating him. “It fired me up, it really did, because it was a private matter,” said Damon. “This game is a team game, but it fired me up in a good way. I’ve moved on. I’m playing with a group I enjoy playing with. I’m enjoying baseball now more than ever. I think I’ve proven people wrong.”

Up until the past two weeks, Pirates chairman Bob Nutting had been giving the impression that he sincerely wanted to turn around the franchise whose 16 consecutive losing seasons tie the 1933-48 Philadelphia Phillies for the longest such streak in American professional sports history. Nutting was lauded in baseball circles for hiring Major League Baseball’s chief labor lawyer, Frank Coonelly, as club president two years ago. Coonelly, in turn, hired former Indians assistant general manager Neal Huntington as GM, and John Russell, a one-time Baseball America Minor League Manger of the Year, was brought in as manager.

The Pirates’ commitment to winning has come into question this month, however. On June 3, less than four months after signing center fielder Nate McLouth to a three-year, $15.75 million contract, they traded him to the Braves for three minor leaguers in a move that could be construed as a salary dump, though the Pirates vehemently deny it. They then seemed to make a big reach with the fourth overall pick in this past week’s first-year player draft by selecting Boston College catcher Tony Sanchez, who quickly signed for $2.5 million.

The Pirates, however, insist that the moves are just another part of trying to rebuild a moribund franchise. They claim the three players acquired from the Braves added depth to an organization shy on talent, and the money saved in the first round of the draft gives them the opportunity to spend more in the later rounds on some high-end talent.

It was interesting to hear McLouth’s take on the Pirates’ direction so soon after the trade. He had a chance to face his old team when the Braves hosted the Pirates in a four-game series this past week. Despite being blindsided by the trade, McLouth said he believes that the Pirates are sincere in their efforts to become a winner. “I’m convinced they want to put a winning team on the field, and I wouldn’t have signed the contract in February if I didn’t feel that way,” said McLouth. “Trades are part of the business, though I didn’t expect it to happen to me at this point in time. Still, I understand why they did it. They feel they can help their organization by acquiring three prospects, and they had a really good young player [Andrew McCutchen] to plug into my spot in center field. I didn’t want to leave, but it’s what they decided to do. I wish them nothing but the best. There’s a lot of negativity there because the fans have been through so much losing, so I’d like to see them win again so the people have something to celebrate, like they did with the Steelers winning the Super Bowl and the Penguins [winning the Stanley Cup].”

The White Sox are in that in-between stage, trying to decide whether they will eventually become buyers or sellers on the trade market. They are 29-34 and in third place in the AL Central, 5½ games behind the Tigers.

White Sox GM Ken Williams says that he is not yet sure what he’s going to do. “Hard decisions always have to be made, but very clearly we are in a transitional phase, and if this team doesn’t pick it up at some point, I’m going to have to do some things that maybe aren’t the most popular, but are in the best interests of the club,” Williams said. “Those things are a little ways away. We still have time to right the ship and start playing a little better, but you have to produce in this game and we have expectations of winning.”

The White Sox have had problems offensively all season long; they are 26th in the majors in runs scored with 4.1 per game. Left fielder Carlos Quentin is on the disabled list with plantar fasciitis and a torn tendon in his left foot, and is likely out through the All-Star break.

Williams may have a hard time pulling off a major deal if he does become a seller, as the players he most likely would offer in trade are right-hander Jose Contreras, set-up reliever Octavio Dotel, right fielder Jermaine Dye, and designated hitter Jim Thome. There is some feeling that Williams could try to use closer Bobby Jenks as bait in a potential blockbuster.

Some interesting facts:

  • Verlander is 7-0 with a 1.10 ERA and 91 strikeouts in his last nine starts. The last Tigers pitcher to go 7-0 with an ERA below 1.10 in a nine-start stretch was Doyle Alexander, when he went 8-0 with a 0.96 ERA from August 20 to September 27, 1987.

  • Angels right fielder Bobby Abreu became the fifth Venezuelan to reach 2,000 hits when his double last Sunday against the Tigers enabled him to join Luis Aparicio, Omar Vizquel, Andres Galarraga, and Dave Concepcion.

  • Albert Pujols‘ two-run sacrifice fly last Sunday against the Rockies was the first by a Cardinals player since Tommy Herr in the 1982 World Series.

  • McLouth became the third player since 1980 to have at least three hits and a home run in his first game against his former team when he did so for the Braves against the Pirates on Monday. The others were Fred Lynn for the Tigers against the Orioles in 1988, and Jorge Fabregas for the White Sox against the Angels in 1997.

  • Left fielder Raul Ibañez became the fastest Phillies’ player to reach 20 home runs when he did it in their 56th game of the season on Tuesday against the Mets. The previous fastest was Thome, who needed 77 games in 2004.

  • The Yankees did not lead at any time in four straight games against the Red Sox, on May 4-5 and on Tuesday and Wednesday, only the fourth time that has happened in the 107-year history of the series, and the first time since 1974.

  • The Yankees beat the Mets 9-8 on a walk-off error on Friday night as second baseman Luis Castillo dropped Alex Rodriguez‘s two-out popup in the bottom of the ninth inning to allow the tying and winning runs to score. The last time the Yankees won on a game-ending error was on June 7, 2003, when Hideki Matsui scored as Red Sox second baseman Todd Walker misplayed Curtis Pride‘s grounder.

  • The Rangers‘ 1-0 victory over the Blue Jays on Thursday was just their fourth by that score since The Ballpark at Arlington opened in 1994. The Rangers’ shutout wins over the Dodgers on Thursday and Friday were their first back-to-back shutouts at home since posting four in a row from April 27 through April 30, 1981 at old Arlington Stadium.

  • Mariners right fielder Ichiro Suzuki has a .372 lifetime batting average against the Orioles, the best average achieved by any player against the franchise since it moved from St. Louis in 1954.

  • The 15-inning game between the Braves and Pirates on Monday night was their longest since a 16-inning affair on May 6, 1992.

Major League Rumors and Rumblings:
The Cubs appear to be the suitor most interested in free-agent pitcher Pedro Martinez, especially now that Padres right-hander Jake Peavy has a partially torn ankle tendon and is no longer a viable trade option for them. Though the Rays have also been linked to Martinez, their interest is said to be minimal. … The Cardinals would like to acquire Astros shortstop Miguel Tejada in trade. … Despite his outstanding play of late, Dodgers outfielder Juan Pierre will head back to the bench when Manny Ramirez returns from his 50-game suspension for steroids use on July 3. … Frank Thomas is still on the free-agent market and still wants to play, but says he has no interest in joining a National League team strictly as a pinch-hitter since he can no longer play first base.

Three series to watch this week, with probable pitching matchups (all times Eastern):

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My guess is that Damon is taking the Clemens route to juicing. Iron man player gets injured diminishing performance significantly as he ages. Club official takes shot at him, and all of a sudden he gets healthy and has a career year late in his career. As we have seen this is not a natural career progression.
Why would the Cubs want Pedro Martinez? He's barely a six inning pitcher by now and it'll overexpose an already weak Cubs bullpen.
No doubt sgshaw. I'll treat if Damon and Ibanez aren't on something.
I don't get it. So, all you have to do to hit at an all-star level in the major leagues is steroids? Because that is what you are saying Guns and Butter and sgshaw. Honestly, it's an ignorant notion and one that BP has done much to disprove. I don't know how you can be any kind of regular BP reader and write something like that, unless your purpose is just to get a rise out of people.
Please don't feed the trolls.
Ibanez's performance isn't at all out of the oridinary for him. He's always been really streaky.
No - that's not what I'm saying. We're talking performance spike at advanced ages. Not "hitting at an All-Star level." There are drugs out there that mask the use of steriods. Players surely use them. Raul Ibanez, a good hitter who hits between 25-30 homers a year, is suddenly going to hit 45-50 at age 37. Yeah, I'm skeptical.
Going from Seattle to Philadelphia can be good for your home run numbers.
Absolutely...but twice the production?
I believe Ibanez has to continue his pace to double his production. And last time I checked, we're only half way done. let's see if he cools down the 2nd half before calling him Manny Ramirez light.