Confidence rides high as Tigers eye big second half
Defending AL champions aim to pad division lead with all-around team effort
DETROIT -- The reigning American League Most Valuable Player is enjoying the kind of season the Tigers haven't seen from a hitter since Hank Greenberg was in his prime.
The pitcher Tigers fans hoped could vault himself alongside Justin Verlander among the nastiest pitchers in the game put up the best start to a season by a Major League starter since Roger Clemens 27 years ago.
The team, meanwhile, is hanging in there.
Detroit fans have gotten used to the concept of individual dominance not always translating directly to the team. As the Tigers prepare to emerge from of the All-Star break and begin their season's second half against the Royals on Friday, however, that sense is a little stronger.
Compared with last season, when they entered the break in third place in the AL Central, they'll take the 1 1/2-game lead they carried into the intermission this year. Compared with what some forecasted from them in this division, though, it's nowhere near reality.
The seasons they're getting from Miguel Cabrera and Max Scherzer do not temper those expectations.
"I think we've done pretty good," manager Jim Leyland said last Saturday. "We probably haven't lived up to the unrealistic expectations of some people, because I think some people think we're supposed to walk away with the Central and be in the playoffs and go to the World Series. It just doesn't work like that."
That's pretty much the sense coming out of the clubhouse. They're not playing as well as they'd like as a whole, but they're in a better spot than they've been.
"I don't think we've showed our potential yet," Verlander said. "I think we've been a little bit inconsistent, but hey, you can't be too upset. We're in first place and that's where we want to be."
Cabrera's first half has earned him comparisons to the best years Greenberg put together, including his AL record 183 RBIs during the 1937 season. Cabrera was the first Major Leaguer ever to top 30 home runs and 90 RBIs before the All-Star break, though Chris Davis joined him a few days later.
MVP: Miguel Cabrera When your first half is mentioned in the same sentence with Greenberg, you're off to a good start.
Cy Young: Max Scherzer Even if you believe the record is fluky, the pitching stats behind all those wins are not.
Rookie: Avisail Garcia Not many choices here, but at least Garcia helped fill the void when Austin Jackson went on the DL.
Top reliever: Drew Smyly Joaquin Benoit deserves high mention, too, but Smyly has filled so many roles.
Cabrera goes into the second half with a real chance to become the first player ever to win back-to-back batting Triple Crowns. No matter what happens with the Tigers as a team over the final two months, Cabrera is a storyline worth following as the season unfolds.
So, too, is Scherzer, even after his perfect record ended at 13-0. He could split wins and losses over his starts in the second half and still likely become Detroit's second 20-game winner in three years. If he maintains his current strikeout rate, he could well keep the AL strikeout crown with the Tigers for a third consecutive year.
Individually, the Tigers have dominant seasons going. As a team, it doesn't work that way, in large part for what has gone around those stellar performances.
"I certainly didn't expect to run away with anything," Leyland said. "I think we've done pretty good. We've had our issues. You can look at a lot of them. Some of them, you can start with me managing good enough. Some of them you can start with we didn't score runs late. Some of them have been bullpen issues. So we've had our issues."
They're different issues than those that followed them into the break in years past. The rotation, which has received a boost at the previous two Trade Deadlines, is pretty well set. Despite a recent spate of injuries and inconsistencies, and the lingering question of Verlander's pitching prowess, Detroit's rotation still leads the AL in wins, winning percentage, ERA, innings pitched, home run rate and lowest on-base and slugging percentages.
They can get leads to the late innings fairly easy. Finishing them off has been a work in progress all year, and it probably isn't done progressing yet. If the Tigers make a move at this year's Trade Deadline, it'll almost surely be for a relief arm -- maybe two, and not necessarily a closer -- to help put their bullpen in some semblance of order,
Their list of reliable relief arms comes down to setup man turned closer Joaquin Benoit and former starter turned long reliever turned setup man Drew Smyly. It's the same short list they had near the end of April. While consistency in the bullpen is desirable, they can't survive consistently short on big outs.
Players to watch in second half
Victor Martinez All those hard-hit outs finally began falling a couple weeks ago.
Justin Verlander Tigers have to get him going if they're going to make another postseason run.
Miguel Cabrera Get ready for another Triple Crown run.
They also can't acquire enough relievers to fill the other holes. At some point, somebody else among their current group will have to emerge.
"It would be real significant," Leyland said, "if we could get one guy that we have as we speak, in-house, today, to be doing a little bit better on a more consistent basis. They've all shown signs for the most part, but it's got to be more consistent."
Consistency was a serious problem for the Tigers offense until the last couple weeks, despite a league-best .281 batting average and second-best totals of 477 runs scored and a .785 OPS. Their .225 average, .632 OPS and 97 runs scored from the seventh inning on remain last in the AL, compared with league-best totals in all three categories for the first six innings.
They have largely the same nine hitters for all of the innings. This is not a team that pinch-hits a lot, nor does it really need to. The expectation is that the totals will even out.
Just as big for confidence has been the team's recent history. After several years of torrid first-half paces and late fades, the Tigers have spent the last two years as a late-season team. They don't have nearly as much to come back from this year, bringing to question the urgency, but they have the confidence.
"I think it's typical with the guys we have there and the veterans we've got, we've been a second-half team," Verlander said, "because we know what it takes to prepare yourself to play 162 and not just the first half."