June 7, 2013 at 1:10 pm

Bob Wojnowski

Tigers need their bats to be more than just hit and miss

Detroit Everyone knows this is an all-or-nothing season for the Tigers, and its perfectly reflected by their all-or-nothing offense. It swings from exhilarating to exasperating, and Id suggest you get used to it, except you probably already are.

Its a tough way to win consistently, and we shouldnt be surprised the Tigers are looking like the team they were in 2012. Thats not a bad thing, considering they made it to the World Series, but its not the easiest way to navigate a long season.

The Tigers were back to thumping Thursday, pounding 13 hits to beat the Rays, 5-2. Detroit is 32-26 and in first place in a division it could win swinging blindfolded. (Guys, thats a joke, not a suggestion).

It helps to have superb starting pitching, and Max Scherzer keeps making the spectacular look mundane. He moved to 8-0 one day after Doug Fister was even better, but got stuck with a loss. The Tigers have wasted a few sterling pitching performances, but this team was built for the long, slugging haul.

That doesnt excuse the offensive inconsistencies, but it explains them. Can they change? Not really, not with such little speed, although the pending return of leadoff catalyst Austin Jackson could help manufacture runs.

Martinez a key

The relevant question is, can the Tigers win this way? If they pitch like this, of course they can. The rotation has delivered quality starts in 12 of the past 13 games, yet the Tigers are 6-7. For all their hitting prowess, they have the 12th-best record in baseball.

The Tigers lead the majors in average and on-base percentage and are third in runs. One way they can push more toward all than nothing is if Victor Martinez recaptures past form. He flashed it in this one, with a two-run homer and RBI single, vital in the middle of the lineup.

Opposing managers wake up every day dreaming of intentionally walking Miguel Cabrera, and Prince Fielder has done a decent job making them pay. The next guy also must make them pay with clutch hits. After missing last season with a knee injury, Martinez needed time to find his stroke, and if hes finding it, look out.

Its hard not to get frustrated, said Martinez, hitting .231. I dont have anything on my mind about how I lost a year. Ive never had any excuses in my career.

There was a hint of frustration in Martinezs voice, a function of the teams expectations. The Tigers have, arguably, the best starting rotation. They have the best 3-4 punch in Cabrera and Fielder. They have a shaky bullpen back-ended by the riddle that is Jose Valverde, who pitched a perfect ninth Thursday.

While we cant take our eyes off the relievers, thats really not the primary puzzle. The Tigers have softball-lineup qualities, and I mean that in a respectful way. When theyre slugging, theyre wildly entertaining. When theyre not, they move base to base, if they move at all.

I recognize the silliness of the argument, that a team that scores prolifically has to score even more. But it does. The Tigers have tallied 10-plus runs eight times, which is positively frightful. Theyve also been shut out a league-high six times, almost as frightful.

Thats why the rotation has tremendous ERAs Anibal Sanchez (2.65), Scherzer (3.24), Fister (3.27), Justin Verlander (3.70) yet outside of Scherzers 8-0, the rest of the foursome is 18-12. Somehow, the Tigers are the lowest-scoring high-scoring team around. If theyre not hitting the ball over the fence or up the gaps, they can get four singles in an inning without scoring (hey, it happened against the Pirates).

Jim Leyland said the production fluctuations were mind-boggling, but theres no sense fretting about it.

You have to understand and Im not complaining at all theres a few guys in our lineup who dont run too good, so we sometimes dont get that extra run, Leyland said. I like our offense very much, but its a different type of offense. We dont have the capability to be real, real creative.

Running nowhere

People usually pounce on two solutions more bunts and steals but its not that simple. First of all, bunting generally is a waste of an out, and by nature of their power composition, the Tigers arent good bunters.

As for speed, the Tigers are 28th in the majors in stolen bases, but you know whos 30th, 29th and 27th? Why, its the Reds, Cardinals and Braves the three best teams in the National League.

The Tigers wont run around the bases, but they still could run away with the division. For all the local angst, the gambling site Bovada.com recently posted updated World Series odds, and the Tigers remain favorites to win it.

Thats partly a function of the weak AL Central. The once-hot Indians come to town this weekend, and if the Tigers do what they do, theyll score in sporadic bunches and hope their starters shut the other guys down. In one sense, its not so hard to figure out why the Tigers are so hard to figure out.

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com
twitter.com/bobwojnowski

Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera races home Thursday to score on a single by Victor Martinez, whose resurgence is key for Detroit. / Robin Buckson/The Detroit News
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