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 Upcoming stretch pivotal for Tigers

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PostSubject: Upcoming stretch pivotal for Tigers   Fri Apr 16, 2010 12:32 am

Upcoming stretch pivotal for Tigers
Twenty-seven of next 30 games against 2009 winning teams

By Jason Beck /

04/15/10 2:37 PM ET

DETROIT -- The Tigers' season just began a week and a half ago. Their biggest test of it begins Friday.

It continues all the way into mid-May. By the time it's over, they should have a very good idea whether their team is good enough to stay in the American League Central until the end.

That's a lot to say about an early-season stretch that includes mostly out-of-division foes. But it says plenty when a manager who usually never says much about the schedule, says a lot about it.

"We're going to find out about mental toughness," Jim Leyland said Wednesday morning, "because the [most brutal] trip that you can find is coming up, as brutal a schedule as you've got in baseball coming up in the next however many days."

It begins Friday in Seattle, where Felix Hernandez awaits the Tigers to start a three-game series with the Mariners. It continues next week with four games at the Angels, then four more at the Rangers, without an off-day the entire trip. For that matter, they don't play a day game in Anaheim or Texas on getaway day, which is partly the source of Leyland's concern.

"It's going to be tough," catcher Gerald Laird said. "You've got good teams out there. Early in the season, a long road trip is always tough. It kind of can set the tone for your year."

Still without an off-day, the Tigers return home early in the morning of April 27 to begin a three-game series with the Twins, their first showdown since last October's division tiebreaker that ended up a heartbreaker for Detroit. The Angels come to town for three more games from April 30-May 2 before the Tigers make their first visit to Target Field in Minneapolis for another key series against the Twins.

Not until May 6 do the Tigers have their next off-day. Until then, they'll play 20 consecutive games in five different cities against teams that all finished .500 or better last season.

If that wasn't enough, they'll return home from three games in Cleveland for a nine-game homestand against the Yankees, Red Sox and White Sox.

Add it up, and 27 of Detroit's next 30 teams will be against teams with winning records from last season. Twenty of those games are against teams that made the postseason. In fact, the only American League team with a winning record last year that the Tigers won't face in that stretch is Tampa Bay.

If the Tigers wanted to see how they stack up against the best, this is it.

"This is going to be a tough stretch for us," Laird said. "It could define our season. I know it's early, but after that stretch, we're going to have close to 40 games in, and we're going to be able to tell you what kind of team we are."

Laird, like former Tigers manager and Hall of Famer Sparky Anderson, believes the 40-game mark is a good point to judge teams, giving enough time for the momentum of a hot or cold start to wear off. Rarely has that assessment seemed more true from a scheduling standpoint than this one.

It made these first nine games against the Royals and Indians far more vital than the records would suggest, putting a priority on the Tigers getting as many wins as it could find. In that sense, the Tigers at least held their own with a 6-3 record.

They also found out some of the issues with the team that will either help them through this upcoming stretch or potentially hound them before it's over. The Tigers' four comeback victories in the sixth inning or later showed a more versatile offense in which hitters are having better at-bats and showing more discipline in key situations.

"It's a lot different from last year," Carlos Guillen said. "We've been working [pitchers] more, I think. We've been more patient at the plate, every at-bat. Everybody's getting good at-bats, you know, putting pressure on the defense."

The flip side is the struggles the Tigers have shown trying to score runs off opposing starters, helping put them in deficits in the first place. Paired with Detroit's issues getting its own starters through the sixth inning -- Rick Porcello on Wednesday was the first Tigers pitcher to do so since Dontrelle Willis last week -- and a team that was supposedly based around strong starting pitching has been outpitched on the starting side.

Opponents have outscored the Tigers by a 26-16 margin in the first five innings, including 11-4 in the first two innings; the Tigers hold a commanding 33-18 advantage from the sixth inning on.

As Leyland pointed out, they can't come back all the time. Given the opponents they'll be facing the next few weeks, including strong rotations from Seattle, the Angels, New York and Boston, they'll be challenged to hit early.

"Good teams win ballgames when they come from behind," Guillen said. "But it's not going to happen every day, so we need to figure out a way to get ahead early in the game, put less pressure on the late innings."

If they're going to succeed, Guillen said, they're going to have to take a short-term view. To think about the next 30 games is daunting. To think about Hernandez on Friday night is slightly less so.

"We have to play one by one," Guillen said.

The silver lining for the Tigers is that the schedule pays them back almost immediately after this rough stretch. They head back to the West Coast in mid-May, but it'll be their last trip out west for the season, giving them a big advantage on travel for the final four months. Starting Memorial Day weekend, they'll face the A's and Indians in Detroit, visit the Royals and White Sox, then enjoy an Interleague Play homestand against the Pirates, Nationals and D-backs.

If they can hold their own over the next month or so, the Tigers have a potentially big advantage going into the summer that could fuel the kind of June surge that put Detroit in command in 2006. If not, they're going to have to make up some ground.

Jason Beck is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

“It takes pitching, hitting and defense. Any two can win. All three make you unbeatable.”    
–Joe Garagiola
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