April 6, 2013 at 1:00 am

Lynn Henning

Offense finds its groove -- and Tigers might've found a closer

Detroit — Notes, thoughts, items after five games of real-deal baseball by the Tigers and their big-league brethren:

The Tigers have constructed quite a batting order.

Minnesota doesn't count. The Tigers should have been playing hockey rather than baseball during those frigid days at Target Field last week when their hitters did little and the Twins took two of three, at least in part because of Wednesday's ninth-inning bullpen blowup.

But on Friday, the sun shone and a civilized baseball game could be played. And a team that had not hit a home run in three games at Minneapolis slammed three against the Yankees. In Saturday's game, an 8-4 stomping of the Yankees, the Tigers had 17 hits.

A thought coming into 2013 was that manager Jim Leyland's gang would score 100 more runs than they did in 2012. One hundred sounds about right. Still.

The difference-makers already are making a dent. Torii Hunter is solid gold at the No. 2 slot that was one of six spots in Leyland's lineup that was a habitual dud in 2012.

Not for a day during spring camp nor during a game this week has Victor Martinez shown he will be anything but the .300-hitting Martinez the world has come to regard as a super-skilled hitting craftsman.

Alex Avila will have a season closer to 2011 than to his off-year in 2012. Omar Infante, a good man with the bat, is Leyland's pick in the No. 9 spot that typically houses a banjo hitter.

It tells you how good this offense should be all season long. And why that 100-run differential could easily hold up.

Joaquin Benoit pitches the ninth and puts down three Yankees left-handed hitters in the win.

Leyland had said even before Saturday's 3-hour, 28-minute marathon ended at Comerica Park that he wanted to get Benoit involved in ninth-inning situations.

It has to do with the right-handed Benoit's skill at pitching to left-handed hitting batters. It's a talent you also need during the set-up eighth inning, which tends to be Benoit's province, but Leyland will try and nurse the eighth with other combinations as the Tigers deal with their closer-deprived bullpen.

Benoit has worked save situations before. He was the fill-in closer during his days with the Rangers when either Eric Gagne or C.J. Wilson needed a 24-hour vacation.

"I don't know why, but I feel really comfortable facing left-handers," Benoit said after he got Lyle Overbay on a ground ball, struck out Ichiro Suzuki, and put away Brett Gardner on a soft fly to center. "I feel like part of the plate I can dominate is always open."

To which fans will say: Then make Benoit your closer.

The Tigers, in fact, might be in the process of doing just that. The catch comes if your eighth-inning replacements have the same problem the Tigers ran into during Wednesday's game at Minnesota. And if the eighth gets away, the ninth becomes all but academic.

The solution, of course, is simple. If all the relievers pitch well, the back-end inning arrangements will be silky smooth. If not, you can configure pitchers and roles any way imaginable and you'll come away with a grand guarantee: blown leads and lost games.

Ramon Santiago to start on back-to-back days.

This is a potential prelude to the Tigers saying goodbye to one of big-league baseball's certified angels. The Tigers want to give Santiago a shot at sticking with the team. They feel they owe it to a player who can help them, defensively, and whose bat as recently as two years ago had enough extra-base pop to make him a handy occasional starter or pinch player off the bench.

But the Tigers saw Santiago take a tumble in 2012. A switch-hitter who had batted .260-.284 during his previous five seasons in Detroit batted .206 in 2012. A player who turns 34 in August was obliged to find his old swing during spring camp. But he was hurt early and was badly outplayed by Danny Worth. Leyland said loudly when those final roster cuts were made that Worth deserved to make the team.

Worth's problem is that he didn't have a $2.1 million contract for 2013. He also had a minor-league option remaining. In such situations, all big-league teams tend to make the same decision. The contract goes north. But the grace period can be brief.

This is tough stuff for the Tigers — both ways. Santiago is utterly beloved by his teammates. Worth, though, did not warrant a ticket to Toledo. The Tigers would like to add his heftier bat, as well as his flexibility and his baserunning.

It is not a decision that rests on how Santiago does today after he struck out three times and ripped a line drive to right that was caught during Saturday's game. But the situation is apparent to all. And probably also to Santiago, who is as smart as he is good.

Time is running out on one of the best men to have ever worn a Tigers uniform.

Crowds, crowds, crowds.

You can feel it. More accurately, you can see it. The passion, that is. Detroit is nuts over its baseball team.

More testimony Saturday at Comerica Park: On a day that typically offers a lull after Opening Day's love-fest, the ballpark was packed: 42,453, only 24 hours after the second-biggest crowd in Comerica history had turned out for the opener.

Never mind 48 degrees. The seats were jammed and the standing-room walkway was filled.

The Tigers can't make any firm projections a few days into April, but it would require bad weather, a bad turn in team fortunes, or an early lock-up of a playoff spot, to miss drawing 3 million for the fourth time in six years.

The Tigers are approaching 24,000 in full season-ticket equivalencies — partial, packages and 81-game packages that total the equivalent of 24,000 seats purchased for the entire year. They have already sold more than 2 million tickets. That leaves 79 more dates to bring in the extra 1 million, or about 12,658 customers per game by way of walk-up sales and advance purchases.

That should be doable. The team is good and its fans are hungry, as was obvious on a sleepy gray Saturday that was indistinguishable from a pennant-race weekend in August.

This city and baseball have a romance that threatens to turn love into an emotion that defies all the more any adequate description.



Tigers reliever Joaquin Benoit pitches in the top of the ninth inning Saturday at Comerica Park. / Elizabeth Conley/Detroit News
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