We work with the league, Miggy. Can we test what's in that Gatorade cup?

We work with the league, Miggy. Can we test what's in that Gatorade cup?

Heading into the All-Star weekend in St. Louis, Detroit fans should be thrilled with the success their Tigers enjoyed in the first half of the season.

At this time last year, the Tigers sat at .500 even, 6 1/2 games behind AL-Central leading Chicago. We all remember how that season turned out, as Detroit fell off in August and ended up dead last in the division. A lineup that was projected to score 1,000 runs and cruise to a pennant instead floundered with hitting and pitching and limped toward the finish line, finishing well below the lofty expectations at season’s start.

Turn the page forward one year, it’s a different story. Detroit sits at nine games over .500 and leads their division by 3 1/2 over the White Sox. The Tigers have done it with solid starting pitching, timely hits and a solid – though admittedly sometimes shaky – bullpen. The Tigers boast the second-best home record in the league, which is good news for a squad that has a majority of their remaining games at Comerica Park. The team is represented by four All-Stars in third baseman Brandon Inge, centerfielder Curtis Granderson and starting pitchers Justin Verlander and Edwin Jackson. Their best player, Miguel Cabrera, one of the most feared hitters in the game, was somehow left out of the midsummer classic.

The most exciting thing for fans is that the Tigers haven’t even played their best ball yet.

Throughout the season, the team has been hurt by injuries, from Carlos Guillen – 2008’s lone All-Star representative – to pitchers Jeremy Bonderman, Nate Robertson and Dontrelle Willis. Yes I know, the Dontrelle experiment has proven to be a failure, but the fact of the matter is Detroit can use some help with the back end of the rotation, and Bonderman and Robertson could provide that spark. Verlander and Jackson have proven to be horses throughout the season, with Verlander returning to his dominant form and is one of the most feared power pitchers in the game, leading the AL in strikeouts. After coming to Detroit from Tampa Bay in a deal that sent heralded prospect Matt Joyce to the Rays – a move that was hammered by writers and fans – Jackson has been nothing short of magnificent and is among the leaders in ERA and WHIP. 20-year old phenom Rick Porcello has been surprisingly effective as well, and will someday be someone’s ace.

Granted, the quality pitching has been rendered ineffective when the offense sputters, which has really been the only Achilles’ Heel that the Tigers have shown. The main culprit has been Magglio Ordonez, whose numbers are bordering career lows. Just two years ago, ‘Maggs’ was one of the top hitters in the game, leading the AL in hitting percentage with a .363. He also hit for power, hitting 90 extra base hits, and was runner-up for the league’s MVP honors. At this point, to say Ordonez is in a slump is a slight understatement. His totals through 87 games: .260 with 4 homeruns, 10 doubles and no triples and sporting an OPS of .673, almost four-tenths of a point below his 2007 final number.

Granderson, although an All-Star, as been far from spectacular at the plate as well. His power numbers are on track for career highs, but he has shown little patience at the plate, batting well below his career average and striking out way too often. His ability to strike fear in defenses with his base running and his stellar play in the outfield have been major reason for his invitation to St. Louis.

While these two have been somewhat disappointing (I would really only describe Maggs’ season with that adjective), there have been many pleasant surprises, highlighted by Inge’s career-season. Inge has been a journeyman on his own roster, having gone from catcher to third baseman to outfielder to third baseman. Some thought he’d be playing for a different team at this point of the season.

But you can’t argue with his results this season.

His 21 homeruns rank in the top ten of the AL and he is well on his way to ecplipsing his career-highs in dingers and rbis, which he set in 2006. He is often regarded as one of the best fielders in the game, which has turned a Detroit’s annually offensive defense into something more respectable.

That defense has helped a rotation that was supposed to be the weak link this year. As in the previous season, experts believed the Tigers’ bats would keep them in contention, but the pitching would lead to a downfall. The starting pitchers have held their own for the most part, and the bullpen, which has a penchant to make things interesting in late innings, has achieved solid results. Closer Fernando Rodney has been the brunt of harsh criticism, despite his ..950 ERA and his perfect 19-for-19 clip in save opportunities.

When all is said and done, the Tigers and their fans have to be happy with where they are. Anyone that thought Detroit would be one of the top teams in baseball at this point of the season should go out and purchase lottery tickets STAT. The feeling in Motown has been similar to that of the 2006 season, when the Tigers stormed to a World Series appearance. While there is still plenty of room for improvement on both sides of the ball, Detroit has played well above expectations and will undoubtedly have their say when the pennant race comes to a conclusion.

Here's to you, Steve!

Here's to you, Steve!

During the past few weeks, network news stations and talk radio has spent much of its time discussing the recent string of deaths among our celebrities. Several famous people have passed on, most notably Michael Jackson.

But none are as tragic as the murder of former NFL quarterback Steve McNair and the sordid details that are constantly emerging on a daily basis.

Not too demean the other deaths, but they weren’t quite as shocking. Whereas the others died of old age, cancer or drug overdoses, McNair was shot to death by his mistress in the dead of night as he slept in his recliner. Soon after, his mistress took her own life. The circumstances surrounding McNair’s untimely demise are still quite unknown, but the facts seem to be that he was running around behind his wife and the killings were a murder-suicide.

From all accounts, McNair was a stand-up guy who gave back to his community. He was raised in small-town Mississippi and attended Alcorn State, a traditionally African-American school. During his time there, his football talents earned him the nickname “Air McNair” and the media flocked to his games to witness his awesome athletic ability. In doing so, he also did a lot for coverage of black colleges.

Throughout his NFL career, McNair was nothing short of the consummate teammate. He showed up early and left late during practice, was a leader by example and was the true definition of a warrior, often playing in games with several injuries. His only concern was to be on the playing field with his teammates, and not on the sidelines watching. He may have not been the sharpest passer or most elusive runner or the coolest cat on the turf, but players acrossed the league said there wasn’t a better teammate. His playing days were probably most defined by his late-game performance in the 2000 Super Bowl where he drove the Tennessee Titans to within one yard of the game-tying touchdown as time expired.

Off the field, McNair was a well-known personality in his small-town community and in Nashville as well. He loaded trucks full of relief items for Hurricane Katrina victims in 2004. Despite his recent indiscretions, he was known as a good family man who loved his four sons dearly. He was all about kids. He founded the Steve McNair Foundation (www.officialstevemcnair.com) with the mission for community awareness and helping local youth, and just this year solely funded three separate football camps. Since his retirement in 2008, McNair was working on plans to start a large farm just north of Nashville that concentrated on eco-friendly harvesting tactics and healthy food for children.

Of course the media chooses to dwell on the darker side of the story. Sex and murder sell, not community involvement.

Not to say McNair was perfect, as the details prove so. Theories behind the murder-suicide were that McNair was involved with another woman besides his mistress and his wife. Who knows if there was more to it besides a lover’s quarrel? No one will ever know the whole story. To me that’s a good thing.

But the fact of the matter is America lost another of its heroes in a tragic way.

R.I.P. Air McNair.

Justin Verlander has become one of the top pitchers in the league

Justin Verlander has become one of the top pitchers in the league

Last season at this time, the Detroit Tigers were playing .500 baseball and stuck in the middle of the pack of the AL Central. Fast forward one year, and Detroit is leading the division by three games, with Chicago and Minnesota both trailing and tied for second in the standings. With a three-game series at Minnesota over the weekend, the Tigers are setup to make a huge statement as far as their postseason hopes are concerned.

The Tigers have currently played 10 more games on the road than they have at home. The confines of Comerica have been much more friendly to them than opposing ball parks, but a 20-24 record away from Detroit is nothing to scoff at. That said, if the Tigers can sweep the Twins this weekend, that would put them in great position to distance themselves from their division rivals. Many experts have the Twins winning the division when all is said and done, but the Tigers have been a pleasant surprise all season long and have led the AL Central for much of the season so far. After the three-game series at the Metrodome, the Tigers have two series at home against Kansas City and lowly Cleveland, two key homestands that they should definitely win. Heading into the All-Star break, the Tigers will have played more than half their games on the road, which means a softer home schedule in the second half of the season.

But sweeping the Twins will not be easy. The Tigers bats have fell silent in road swings in Houston and Oakland, and reliable starters like Justin Verlander and Rick Porcello have been uncharacteristically mediocre as of late. The offense needs to pick up the pace and not get behind on pitch counts early for them to have a chance. The fact that Detroit just got dominated by subpar lefty pitching over the past week does not bode well for what’s to come. No one is pushing the panic button just yet, but maybe the front office needs to go after one more left-handed hitter. Or just one more hitter in general. Matt Holiday is a name that has been thrown around. With the decline of Magglio Ordonez, and the disappearance of Carlos Guillen to the DL, only a handful of Tigers have done their part with swinging the stick. Brandon Inge and Curtis Granderson have great power numbers, but both are hitting below .270 right now. The only one in the lineup batting over .300 is Miggy Cabrera, who might be the most under-appreciated hitter in the majors right now.

The pitching will be solid at best from here on out. We can expect quality starts from Verlander, Porcello and Edwin Jackson (who might have been a trade steal of the year) every day, and even Armando Gallaraga has come around as of late. Offense is the main question mark now. If the Tigers can find some consistentency there, it could make for an entertaining and thrilling summer.