1st-place Tigers exceeding expectations

April 7th, 2019

DETROIT -- The strobe lights were still blinking in the Tigers' clubhouse as reporters walked in Sunday afternoon. They’re an increasingly common part of victory celebrations in big league locker rooms, but it’s still a unique sight, especially in Detroit after the struggles of the past two years.

But if you’re going to change mindsets, it’s worth changing the lighting.

“Guys in the clubhouse are having fun,” manager Ron Gardenhire said after Sunday’s 3-1 win over the Royals completed a three-game sweep, a 7-3 start to the season and extended Detroit’s winning streak to five.

While Gardenhire was talking with reporters, the Phillies were finishing off a 2-1 win over the Twins. With that, the Tigers were alone atop the American League Central standings, a seemingly mundane stat except that Detroit hadn’t been in that position since April 25, 2017.

Time will tell if this is a hot start from the Tigers or the start of a surprising season. A week and a half in, they’ve done their part to disrupt the narrative.

“You can’t get too high about this stuff,” Gardenhire said. “I mean, it is early-early in the season, and our goal is to go out and compete, try to compete every day. And we’re doing a really nice job of that, and guys are into it, having fun in the dugout. If we give up a couple runs, they’re coming right back in there and they’re hooting and hollering, ‘Let’s go, let’s go.’ So it’s a fun atmosphere.

“It’s always fun when you’re winning ballgames. You know sometimes you’re going to go through a little stretch, and we’ll see how everybody reacts then, and we’ll kind of figure out who we are.”

It’s actually Detroit’s third 7-3 start in four years, last season’s 4-6 start being an exception. But this one went further against expectations than the other two, when Detroit was still in win-now mode. It also comes with some encouraging signs for the Tigers when things get tougher.

“We’re excited,” outfielder Christin Stewart said. “I mean, we played good baseball. We made great plays defensively. The pitchers shoved, which is always great to see. And we swung the bat good enough to get the job done for them. So it’s always fun when all cylinders are working together.”

Two turns through the rotation, Tigers’ starters boast a 2.02 ERA and 69 strikeouts over 58 innings, allowing three earned runs or less in every start this season. Ross (1-1) was the first of the Tigers' starters to record a win because they’ve been in so many low-scoring games.

“Our whole staff, from the starters to the bullpen guys, they’re all being really aggressive,” catcher John Hicks said. “Their offspeed stuff has been really good. So it’s been fun. It’s been really fun.”

Detroit has scored just 27 runs this season, but much of the contribution has come from supporting hitters. Stewart’s second-inning triple and sixth-inning single continued his team lead with 10 RBIs this year, more than double that of any other Tiger. Detroit has churned out victories without star hitters Nicholas Castellanos and Miguel Cabrera heating up, let alone carrying the offense.

“We need to pick it up on the offensive side to kind of help these pitchers out a little bit more,” Gardenhire said. “But we’ll take [wins] any way we can get them.”

Stewart was 1-for-22 and hitless since his go-ahead home run on Opening Day when the series began. He responded against the Royals with two doubles, a go-ahead grand slam Saturday, and a triple and two-out single for RBIs on Sunday. The latter continued his maturation process as a hitter, escaping an 0-2 count by centering the fourth consecutive mid-90s fastball he saw from Royals starter Brad Keller (1-1).

“I was trying to stay short to the ball, like I did the other day,” Stewart said. “He was throwing pretty hard, but I honestly just kept to my approach. He kept on throwing heaters. Early on I was late, but then I just shortened up everything and tried to stay quick to the ball and was able to get it over for a single to score that run.”

The Tigers are playing better defense than they did at virtually any point last season, including three plays to retire Royals baserunners Sunday. ’s first career outfield assist retired trying to stretch a leadoff single in the fifth inning. Hicks threw out his old California League nemesis trying to steal second base two batters later.

The biggest out came in the eighth, when Hicks threw out Whit Merrifield trying to steal second with runners at the corners. He risked Hamilton scoring from third knowing that with a two-run lead, the more important run was Merrifield.

“The tying run, we have to keep him off second for sure,” Hicks said.

Once Goodrum made a diving catch in shallow center to rob Hunter Dozier, Shane Greene became the first pitcher in Major League history with seven saves in his club’s first 10 games. And the Tigers became a first-place club once again.

They’ll get an important test this coming week with a three-game series against the American League Central champion Indians and a three-game weekend set at Minnesota. They’ll have to maintain their starting pitching with Matt Moore joining Michael Fulmer on the injured list and Daniel Norris slotted into the rotation. But with a sweep of the Royals, following a series win at Yankee Stadium and a season-opening series split at Toronto, the Tigers gave themselves reason to feel confident.

“We know we’re a good squad,” Stewart said. “We play together as a team. We just have to lean on each other and we’ll be a good ballclub.”