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 Tigers' hopes? It depends on stars - 14 Jul 08

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PostSubject: Tigers' hopes? It depends on stars - 14 Jul 08   Mon Jul 14, 2008 11:42 am

Monday, July 14, 2008
Bob Wojnowski
Tigers' hopes? It depends on stars

DETROIT -- Normally, you'd look at the statistics and standings, at the inconsistent offense and sketchy pitching, and you'd simply say, no chance. The odds are too long. Forget about it.

I say this about the Tigers: It's not a normal team, it hasn't been a normal season, it's not over yet.

The Tigers finally beat the terminally annoying Twins, 4-2, Sunday and arrived at the All-Star break exactly as mixed and muddled as their record shows. They're 47-47, half-good, half-bad, all-confusing.

In this victory, which prevented a four-game sweep by the Twins, the pitching stars were Justin Verlander and Todd Jones (thoroughly expected), and the home-run hitting stars were Matt Joyce and Clete Thomas (thoroughly unexpected).

We've seen stirring glimpses and a nice recovery amid tough injuries, but we still don't know what these Tigers are. We've seen enough to know their pitching isn't good enough and probably won't be good enough, barring a trade. (Yes, Dave Dombrowski, you desperately need another starter.)

We know their celebrated hitting has been decent but should be much, much better. We know Gary Sheffield, his average down to .217, is at a critical juncture here, with Joyce earning more at-bats. We know the Tigers are seven games behind the White Sox and 5 1/2 behind the Twins and are 14-24 against A.L. Central rivals, 5-10 against the Twins.

Ugh. So where's the evidence it's not over yet? Oddly, I see in the Twins what the Tigers must be.

Still a chance

Minnesota's pitching (team ERA 4.31) is almost as bad as Detroit's (4.39). And yet the Twins scrap hard and ride the amazingly broad backs of superstars Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer, second and third in the league in hitting at .323 and .322, respectively.

Why can't the Tigers ride Magglio Ordonez, back from the disabled list after the break, and Miguel Cabrera that way? Why not Curtis Granderson or Carlos Guillen or Placido Polanco? Why not?

Jim Leyland looks at his roster, and without ratcheting up the pressure, wonders similar things.

"I'm telling you the exact, cold, hard facts -- I really believe we got a chance," Leyland said. "And I'm not the type that will sugarcoat anything. We've got to play really, really well and (the White Sox and Twins) gotta hit a couple bumps. But that's very possible. I believe 100 percent in this team. We still haven't been consistent offensively, and hopefully Maggs coming back will pick us up, but we got a shot."

It's not as long a shot as your normal .500 team. In the absence of lockdown pitching -- outside of Verlander and half-season-marvel Armando Galarraga, it's not here -- the Tigers must be carried, in the short term, by their star sluggers.

Cabrera seems to have shaken early nerves and extra weight (figuratively and literally) to post solid numbers -- .284, 16 home runs, 57 RBIs. Ordonez won't match his .363 batting championship, but he's still at .307.

More hard work

A year ago, the Tigers had five All-Stars. Today, they have one, Guillen. We all figured the pitching had holes and the hitting would obscure some of them. It's not the ideal way to contend but it's what the Tigers must do.

"We can't give at-bats away," said Polanco, hitting .305. "Look at the Twins. They're hungry, they all have good at-bats, they all run hard. Not that we weren't hungry, but we gotta be hungrier."

That's a telling statement from the soft-spoken Polanco and it's dead on. The Tigers rode their enormous reputations into the season, but the puzzling, damning truth is, they have given at-bats away, and they're not producing enough in the clutch.

It's unbelievable the Tigers have scored two or fewer runs in 32 games and been shut out 10 times. (The Twins, with a pesky, patchwork offense outside of Morneau and Mauer, have 27 games of two runs or fewer and six shutouts, so there's your difference in the standings.)

"I think the pitching will be OK, and if we score the way we're capable of, we'll be fine," Leyland said. "All of us, for whatever reason, had a tough time living up to expectations. I think they were probably trying too hard. Some guys got a little stage fright but it wasn't because anybody didn't care, didn't try or wasn't working hard."

The Tigers have to work much harder to get back in it. That's the message Leyland plans to deliver in Baltimore, where they open after the break.

"I'm just gonna tell 'em one thing -- look, there are two teams ahead of us, and this is not disrespectful to those teams, but I wouldn't trade my team for either one," Leyland said. "So either I'm a (horrible) manager or we haven't played the way we're capable of. And if it means enough to you, let's find out."

It should mean even more to the players now, with their lofty expectations being shredded. The division is still there for the plucking. The Tigers' pitching isn't dominant enough to win it but the hitting is, or should be, or can be.

Stars can carry a team, at least for a while, and that's the message the Twins have tattooed on the Tigers' behinds much of the season. It's the message the Tigers sluggers should take to heart, then take to the plate, then swing like it really, really matters.

You can reach Bob Wojnowski at bob.wojnowski@detnews.com
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