August 15, 2013 at 1:00 am

Bob Wojnowski

Tigers stem slump with victory, but rising Royals await for big series

Detroit — So, there might be a pennant race around here after all, huh? Well, it’s not for sure and maybe not for long, but if the Tigers planned to bury their division rivals, they’ll have to dig a little deeper.

Here comes Kansas City — words that seldom faze anyone, but oddly, sometimes shake the Tigers. The Royals are in for a rare five-game series, and while the Tigers hold a 7˝-game lead — six over the Indians — they’re not yet running away and hiding. More like limping away and biding (time).

This is the series that could change it, or just about end it, unless the Indians persist in teasing. The Tigers should have motivation to start padding, partly because they need to find rest for ailing Miguel Cabrera. The quicker they assert themselves, the quicker it can happen.

They squeezed one victory out of the horrible White Sox, cleverly using their most effective strategy — the three-run homer by Cabrera. For the moment, that lessened lurking danger. After the 12-game winning streak that made a September saunter seem inevitable, the Tigers lost four of six, which means they’ll need more of their Comerica Park karma.

Huge crowds are expected again, and although Jim Leyland appreciates that, he’d rather not deal with rising tension. The Royals’ long-rumored renaissance appeared to be happening, with 17 victories in 20 games, until they lost two straight to the Marlins. Meanwhile, the Tigers were showing their vulnerabilities in New York and Chicago.

Cabrera remains the best hitter in the solar system, but his various aches and muscle strains make it painful for him to move. If that were the Tigers’ biggest concern, they could live with it. The last time they were threatened was precisely a week ago, and they swatted it aside with a four-game sweep of the Indians.

But it’s not so easy swatting aside struggles at two key spots — leadoff and cleanup hitter. Austin Jackson’s batting average is down to .264, and the notion of him becoming a speed threat is practically moot. He has six stolen bases, although he plays a stellar center field.

Slugger Prince Fielder is the bigger puzzle, and his funk would be really troubling if Victor Martinez hadn’t returned to star status. All Fielder’s numbers are down, especially the power numbers. He has 17 home runs, only one in his past 29 games. His OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) is at a career-low .782. He looks more sluggish than sluggerish at times, and Leyland might face a tough decision.

Fielder’s consecutive-games streak of 462 is impressive and noble, but if he needs a break, he needs to take it. He reportedly is dealing with a personal issue, and frankly, that’s another reason he could use a break, and the streak shouldn’t be a factor.

Here’s another reason: As desperately as the Tigers need Cabrera’s bat, his injuries limit him at third base. He could use a stint at designated hitter, pushing Martinez to first base. In the dog days of August, freshness is key.

Listen, the Tigers are overwhelmingly likely to make the playoffs. The always-handy ESPN playoff-percentage meter pegs their chances at 97.5, not far from the Braves’ 99.9. In the NL East, the Braves are being chased by no one. In the AL Central, the Royals and Indians have taken turns scorching.

A Royals pain

The pesky Royals won seven straight series before gagging against the Marlins. They’re 5-3 against the Tigers and can be a Royal pain in the (butt). Historians will note the Tigers had the division practically sealed in 2006 but were swept at home by the Royals and settled for the wild card. If you really want to crank up the angst, you might recall 2009, when the Tigers had a seven-game lead on Sept. 7 but ended up losing to the Twins in a one-game showdown.

Am I here to scare you? Goodness, I would never do that. I mean, it’s not like fans frighten easily, and neither do the Tigers.

When challenged, they generally respond, winning the division the past two seasons and now armed with excellent starting pitching and an improved bullpen. The Royals have one of the best bullpens in the AL with a superb closer in Greg Holland, and they have ace-level starters in James Shields and Ervin Santana. They have a few dangerous bats, including Eric Hosmer and Billy Butler, who hits about a shade under 1.000 (or so) against the Tigers.

Since muddling along at 23-32 on June 4, the Royals are 39-24. Then again, the Indians were as hot as anyone before getting unmercifully pawed.

For a first-place team, the Tigers do have some issues. Catcher Alex Avila is sidelined with a concussion, which can be tricky. The left-field platoon of Andy Dirks and Matt Tuiasosopo is producing little, which could spur the promotion of minor-leaguer Nick Castellanos. I’d give the kid a shot, but I certainly wouldn’t expect it to dramatically boost the offense.

And then there are the issues of Cabrera’s pain and Fielder’s strain, and whether both can be healed. I think they can, especially if they take care of the Royal pain first.

Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera, here watching his three-run home run in the third inning Wednesday, needs time to recuperate from a strained abdominal, which is why the AL Central leaders would be wise to put some distance between themselves and second-place Cleveland. / Scott Eisen / Associated Press
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