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 In thick of 2012 AL Central race, Tigers set to pounce

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PostSubject: In thick of 2012 AL Central race, Tigers set to pounce   Thu Jul 12, 2012 9:48 pm

In thick of AL Central race, Tigers set to pounce
After frustrating first half, Detroit has plenty of opportunity to make big run

By Jason Beck / | 07/11/12 12:25 PM ET

DETROIT -- To hear the Tigers talk about the season's first half, you'd think they'd just gotten off a thrill ride or endured a marathon and were looking for a T-shirt. For a team that hadn't won or lost more than three in a row since April until last week, went nearly two weeks alternating wins and losses in May and came within a game of .500 eight times in seven weeks before finally topping it over the weekend, it has been a crazy ride.

In the end, their 44-42 record is one game off their pace from the same point last year.

"I think overall, we've survived pretty good," manager Jim Leyland said last week. "I guess that would be the best way to sum it up."

To look at their list of lineups, including the transactions lists on and off the disabled list that has resulted in 42 different players seeing game action, you get an idea why.

"That's a good way to put it," Justin Verlander said. "Stayed in it, I guess. Surviving's the right way to say that. There's been opportunities where we could've made a move and didn't, and there's been opportunities where we could've gone backwards and didn't."

In a lot of other situations, the Tigers would have been a disappointment, a team hovering around the break-even point, struggling to find its form. Yet for all their faults, they've kept within hailing distance of the division lead.

They're within 3 1/2 games off the American League Central lead, a game and a half back in the AL Wild Card. They have 10 games remaining against the division-leading White Sox, and 12 games left with the second-place Indians.

"We've survived some coming and going and some good performances and some not-so-good performances, and we're hanging around," Leyland said.

They have frustrations and concerns, but they also have hope, as the last two weeks have shown. They're a team built to win, holding onto their chance to do it. Now is the time.


First-half awards

MVP: Miguel Cabrera
New infield position, same scary production. Two hitless skids proved to be blips on his record.
Cy Young: Justin Verlander
Win totals aren't the same, but nasty stuff is.
Rookie: Drew Smyly
Quintin Berry deserves consideration, but Smyly has helped steady rotation.
Top reliever: Joaquin Benoit
Quietly, he's putting up a similar season to the 2010 campaign that prompted the Tigers to sign him.

"I know it has been frustrating for us," Verlander said. "It has been frustrating for the fans and the city, but I think they should hang with us. I think maybe the second half holds good promise."

Verlander has been one of the few constants, despite his first stretch of three consecutive losses in four years. The offensive support behind him, as well as the rest of the rotation, has been more turbulent.

The Tigers rank third in the AL in batting average, fourth in on-base percentage and fifth in slugging. They rank 10th in home runs, below such offensively-challenged teams as the Rays and Athletics, and sixth in RBIs.

Their All-Star duo of Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder has lived up to the billing, even though Fielder has done more damage as a pure hitter. Together, they account for about 36 percent of Detroit's RBIs. Their supporting cast, which provided balance in the lineup last year, has largely struggled, though Austin Jackson's third-year tear has made up for some of it.

The supporting cast, especially lower in the order, is where the improvement has to come, from Delmon Young's four-game homer streak to a return to health for Alex Avila to Quintin Berry's big league emergence at age 27. A team that at one point had about twice as many games with four runs or less than five or more, ran off 11 higher-scoring efforts in a 14-game stretch just before the break.

"I think the offense has perked up a little bit," Leyland said. "We still haven't blown games open when we've had opportunities, which we did pretty good last year. So hopefully we'll get that going a little bit better."

Either one more heated hitter, such as Brennan Boesch, or a right-handed hitter as a trade acquisition, could be the ignition.

The improvement already has been plenty for a starting rotation coming together around Verlander. After the inconsistencies of Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello left the pitching staff out of sync, both have rebounded. Scherzer has quietly found his 2010 form to take over the AL lead in strikeouts per nine innings. Porcello has lowered his ERA by about three-quarters of a run over his last four starts despite a .330 batting average.


Players to watch in second half

Al Alburquerque
His slider is the strikeout pitch this bullpen is missing.
Victor Martinez
Tigers badly miss him, not only in their batting order, but their clubhouse.
Max Scherzer
The inconsistencies are fading, and the strikeout totals are rising.

The Tigers need a rebound from Doug Fister, even if it's nowhere near his stretch run from last year. If not, they could need help, whether from a trade or from top prospect Jacob Turner, notably if Drew Smyly begins to fatigue.

All the keys to a rebound look reasonable. They are not automatic. Either way, the Tigers are a team to watch for the second half.

"At some point, you will have to put together a pretty good streak," Leyland said. "You can't assume that's going to happen because it happened last year. A lot of people are talking about that. I don't buy into that. Different years are different years. You've just got to go out and do it.

"Do I think we're capable? Yes, I think we're very capable. But you can't just sit around and anticipate that we're going to get it going and run off 18 out of 24 or something. You've got to go do it."

Jason Beck is a reporter for Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason. 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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