Tigers manager Jim Leyland has been hot several times in recent weeks, especially during Thursday afternoon's game against the White Sox. (Robin Buckson/Detroit News)
Detroit — Welcome to Jim Leyland’s wild ride, where there always seems to be something going on with the Tigers.
The Tigers are baseball’s best reality series, even though they don’t have cameras following them 24 hours a day.
Already this season, they’ve survived closer by committee, then no closer, then the Papa Grande Meltdown II.
The team celebrates every hit by shortstop Jhonny Peralta, then worries if he will be around when Major League Baseball lowers the boom on the supposed 20 players or so suspected of being linked to a Miami clinic that specialized in performance-enhancing drugs.
We’ve seen brushback pitches and shoves, angry words and suspensions.
Meanwhile, the Tigers motor along in first place, even if not at the pace everybody expected.
It seems like a wild ride. But Leyland insists the seas are calm. This is old news for the old skipper. He never lets you see him sweat unless, of course, somebody is throwing at his players and getting away with it unpunished.
Leyland was in chill mode before the Tigers took on the Rangers at Comerica Park. He’d calmed down after Thursday’s rage. He looked forward to the final games before the All Star break, then leading the American League in Tuesday’s All-Star game at Citi Field in New York.
“It’s another baseball season,” Leyland said, calmly, while stretched out across a couch in his office. “A lot of hard work. A lot of tough games. A lot of tough breaks and a lot of happy moments. The first half has been all that.”
'Business as usual'
The view from the dressing room isn’t much different. Justin Verlander has pitched in 251 games as ace of the Tigers. He hasn’t been around the block as many times as Leyland, but said the Tigers aren’t a team that allows the outside to get to them. Maybe some individuals do from time to time, but the team remains even keel, which follows the lead of the manager.
“It’s business as usual for us,” Verlander said. “This is a pretty low-key team. We are very laid-back, but at the same time very businesslike. We have a lot of veterans that know what to do to prepare themselves. That creates an atmosphere. Once we get on the field, guys know what they have to do. That is why I say it is business as usual.”
There is much more potential turbulence on the horizon. What if Peralta is suspended? What if Jose Valverde returns? What if a shaky bullpen does not improve? The only guarantee is the Tigers will win the American League Central.
Beyond that, there are no guarantees — because this is a sleek ship with a few holes in it.
“We are in first place, so it does not have to be a lot different,” Verlander said. “I think we can play more consistent baseball, but typically we are a team that plays better in the second half anyway. I am not saying that is a crutch to fall back on, but we start hitting our strides, guys get more comfortable and we play better when it matters most.”
Verlander is right.
'We've done pretty good'
The Tigers love sending panic into the community in June. And by September, you wonder what all the fuss was about. In the last two years, the Tigers were 82-80 the first half of the season and 101-61 the second half. They were 51-41 heading into Saturday’s game against the Rangers, which actually puts them ahead of the pace of the past two seasons.
The bottom line with the Tigers is they are a team that revs up the engine even when there is a lot of outside noise. It might not be the most comfortable ride, but this is what baseball is all about.
No matter how good you are, you will slump. No matter how well you hit, there will be power outages. And there will be fights and brawls and cuts and scratches along the way.
Been there, done that.
That seems to be the theme as Leyland’s team prepares to take a break from a turbulent pre-All-Star session.
“We’ve done pretty good,” Leyland said. “We probably have not lived up to the unrealistic expectations of some people because I think some people think you are supposed to walk away with the Central Division, get to the playoffs and go to the World Series. It doesn’t work like that. For us it is just work. It is grind it out to the end and see who is standing. It is what we did last year. It is what you do in this league.”