DETROIT -- The last time the Tigers had a perfect homestand of at least seven games, Jim Leyland was managing them to their third straight American League Central title. That was in 2013.
The last time Detroit won seven in a row at any point in a season, it was trying to climb back in a playoff race behind Justin Verlander and J.D. Martinez. That was in 2016.
As the Tigers slugged their way in front Thursday afternoon and held on for a 7-5 win over the Rangers, their 7-0 homestand didn’t have nearly the same implications for October baseball -- though Detroit’s regular-season schedule runs through Oct. 3. But considering the doldrums where this team has been recently -- not just in recent years, but this season -- it’s a big milepost on the journey towards where the Tigers want this club to be.
The Tigers have a golden opportunity to pick up momentum in July with a four-week stretch against teams with losing records. A four-game sweep in Minnesota before the All-Star break seemingly spoiled that, but the Tigers used this homestand out of the break to heat up, sweeping those same Twins and then the Rangers. Detroit outscored its opponents by a 41-11 margin this homestand, and trailed after only one of 60 innings.
“It felt [like] a bad taste in our mouth over the All-Star break,” starter Tyler Alexander said. “We had four days to simmer over it and think about how we can be a lot better. We’ve done a really good job thus far.”
The Twins and Rangers became the sixth and seventh teams swept by the Tigers in series of three or more games this season. Detroit had six such series sweeps over the previous three seasons combined.
Had the Tigers split their series in Minnesota before the break, Thursday’s win would’ve moved them to .500, an incredible feat for a team that suffered a 9-24 start. Detroit still has an opportunity to get there with 10 more games against sub-.500 teams, including an upcoming road trip to Kansas City and Minnesota, and a four-game home series against the Orioles around the Trade Deadline. If the Tigers win seven of those 10 games, they’ll be a .500 team when the Red Sox visit Comerica Park on Aug. 3.
“It’s still just about the next game,” manager A.J. Hinch said. “It’s not about what we’ve already done here, not about a road trip in its entirety. We had a nice homestand. We’ll acknowledge that and we’ll get to Kansas City and get to the next game.”
The reasons for improvement are almost too many to count, but here are three ways the Tigers were able to capitalize this homestand:
Starting pitching stabilizes
That’s a bold statement in a week when the Tigers put one experienced starter on the injured list (José Ureña) and learned another will miss the season with Tommy John surgery (Spencer Turnbull). Yet Detroit has had enough effective starts recently that Hinch can follow Leyland’s old adage about using the bullpen because you want to, not because you have to. Alexander, the only pitcher to start twice this homestand, delivered 3 2/3 innings of one-run ball, striking out four as he continued his transition from the bullpen.
“They all call me Starter Todd,” Alexander said. “I would say I’m more of an opener until I go five innings. I’m not going to call myself a starter until I go farther.”
By the time the Rangers rallied off Erasmo Ramírez and Buck Farmer, Detroit had built a 6-1 lead. As much as the Tigers have drawn respect for a never-quit attitude, they’re better when they don’t have to play from behind, like any team.
Grossman thriving in middle of order
Hinch’s decision to put Akil Baddoo in the leadoff spot for most games resulted in Robbie Grossman moving down, eventually landing him third in the order behind Jonathan Schoop. The combination has worked. Schoop went 11-for-27 with six runs scored and seven RBIs this homestand, while Grossman went 7-for-24 with three home runs and seven runs scored.
Grossman scored first-inning runs in each of the last three games, including two solo homers. He added a key insurance RBI on Thursday with a two-out single in the seventh after the Rangers rallied to within a run.
“Answering their innings was big,” Hinch said.
Soto rides All-Star momentum
Lost in the glare of the silver glove Gregory Soto wore at the All-Star Game was a slump heading into the break. The Tigers closer allowed four runs on seven hits over his last three appearances of the first half, including a blown save in Minnesota. He gave up a J.T. Realmuto homer in the Midsummer Classic, too.
Since returning to Detroit, however, Soto has regained the form that earned him an All-Star nod, saving four of the Tigers’ seven wins, including the last three victories. He recorded saves on three consecutive days for the first time in his brief big league career. They weren’t always easy, including the potential tying run on base Wednesday and a leadoff walk on Thursday. But his clutch outs included retiring Joey Gallo twice, including a strikeout with a runner on Thursday.
“Normally back-to-back will tax your body pretty good,” Alexander said. “Soto’s a workhorse. He’s a strong guy, so we knew he could do it, but it’s impressive nonetheless.”