Tigers Look to Build Off First Half

July 13, 2009

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.

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