May 14, 2010 at 3:12 pm

Bob Wojnowski

Hair-raising Tigers seem to have found the right mix for success

Wojo: A 'telling series' with the Yankees
Wojo: A 'telling series' with the Yankees: The Tigers close out the 4-game stand with a 6-0 victory, and Bob Wojnowski says the Tigers present a very intriguing mix of talent.

Detroit

They're doing it these days with an enticing mix of the probable and the improbable, the young and not-so-young, the nicely combed and the crazily shorn.

The Tigers are having fun, which is easier to do when you just beat the Yankees three of four games, when you just hammered the powerful CC Sabathia, when you just showed again you've got a dominant ace in Justin Verlander and one of baseball's great sluggers in Miguel Cabrera.

The clouds parted fortuitously Thursday for the Tigers and they used the opportunity to reveal more glimpses of what they could be. Verlander continued his roll by blanking the Yankees, 6-0, while Cabrera continued to be simply unstoppable. He hit a home run, drove in three to raise his league-leading RBI total to 36 and lifted his average to a gaudy .376.

The Tigers are 20-15 heading into a big weekend against the Red Sox, and while it's honestly difficult (and premature) to tell for sure what's unfolding here, it's not hard to see fresh, unusual signs, some even in the shape of a Mohawk.

How crazy is this: Outside of Cabrera, the Tigers' two most-dangerous hitters have been rookies Brennan Boesch and Austin Jackson.

How crazy is this: The Tigers were next to last in the majors in fielding and starting pitching ERA, yet shut out the defending champion Yankees twice in two days. The series didn't produce a ton of drama -- the last three games went 2-0, 0-8, 6-0 -- but it showed the Tigers' best can play with baseball's best. It also showed the Tigers can win with fancy superstars and the right amount of ugly.

By ugly, I'm referring to the sudden outbreak of Mohawk haircuts in the Tigers clubhouse, a humorous trend that sort of started a couple weeks ago with Johnny Damon, and spread wildly to the relievers between games of the double-header Wednesday. About 10 Tigers are sporting freshly sheared heads, and frankly, if the bullpen guys keep producing, they could dye their hair orange and that'd be fine.

"Not gonna happen for me -- I told those guys, I'm way too pretty for that," Verlander said, smiling, after his four-hit, four-strikeout performance. "I think the team's unity is off the charts here. Everybody gets along very well, and those guys in the bullpen, man, they know they're good and they have a swagger about them."

Shave and rave

Joel Zumaya, whose ERA is down to 2.11, and newcomer Phil Coke precipitated the Mohawk frenzy. In the grand scheme, unity doesn't mean as much as two-out hits and quality starts. Jim Leyland doesn't overly tout chemistry, but lets his team have its fun, within reason.

This isn't just about spiky hair, although the images are priceless, right down to reliever Fu-Te Ni, who phoned his parents from the clubhouse to get permission to do it. This is about contentment and determination, particularly from the Tigers' best two players.

Verlander has an $80 million extension, and seems driven to prove he's among the top two or three right-handers in the game. Cabrera is rebounding from his nasty end to last season and subsequent treatment for alcohol issues.

"That changed me a lot," Cabrera said. "I think a lot about, what was I doing? I want to be a better player, like when you see (Derek) Jeter, (Albert) Pujols, (Joe) Mauer, (Justin) Morneau. You want to be up there with these guys. God gave something to you, a gift you can't throw away."

Verlander (4-2) took his gift and threw it right past the Yankees, again and again. And what should excite Tigers fans is not just that Verlander and Cabrera are putting up numbers, it's that they're evolving as all-around players.

Cabrera, 27, is on an amazing pace, and sounds like a guy both chastened and motivated by past mistakes. Verlander, 27, has become less reliant on his heat and more on his smarts, and has three straight victories and a 3.88 ERA.

"There definitely are some times you want to rear back and let it go and just try to blow everybody away," Verlander said. "But I've kind of learned over the years, if you save those bullets, when you need it, it's there."

That's maturity, something the Tigers still need to expand, something that will get tested in key places. What rookie outfielders Boesch (.368 batting average) and Jackson (.345) are doing is remarkable. Jackson was supposed to be the centerfielder, but wasn't supposed to hit this productively, this soon.

Kid Dynamite

Boesch wasn't expected to be much of a factor at all this season, but got his shot when Carlos Guillen got hurt. On this day, Boesch, a 25-year-old Californian, had two more hits, including his third home run. Unbelievably, he's third on the team with 16 RBIs.

He has contributed in every way, with clutch hits and aggressive swings and extra-base power. But, uh, no, he wasn't going to meld even further with a snazzy haircut.

"I couldn't do it -- I didn't want to see my mom cry," Boesch said, chuckling. "But it's so easy to fit in here because the veterans go out of their way to make the rookies feel comfortable. If I have a bad at-bat, Johnny (Damon) has something positive to say almost every time. Of course, I think you fit in when you produce."

I think the kid's correct. Fitting in and standing out -- for a team to win, it needs elements of both. Verlander and Cabrera stand out like few in baseball. Others, from dominating closer Jose Valverde to the hot rookies, are finding their spots. If the Tigers keep uncovering pieces like these, and winning series like this, it might be wise to keep the hair clippers handy.

bob.wojnowski@detnews.com">bob.wojnowski@detnews.com

Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera finishes the trot following his opposite- field homer in the fourth. Two innings later, he smoked a two-run double to give him 36 RBIs, seven more than next-best in the American League. / Robin Buckson The Detroit News
Since starting slow again -- 1-2 with a 5.53 ERA through five starts -- ... (Robin Buckson/The Detroit News)
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