August 17, 2013 at 1:00 am

Lynn Henning

Lost amid folks drooling all over the Royals: These Tigers are darn good -- and tough

Detroit — Something different and distinctive — maybe fascinating is the word — is happening during this 2013 baseball season in Detroit.

It is not so much a classic or charmed year, which was a better description for the Tigers’ breakthrough season of 2006, when they led their division most of the way and barged into that autumn’s World Series.

But this 2013 team has more of a streetfighter’s air to it.

The starting pitchers are talented brawlers. The heavyweights in Jim Leyland’s mid-lineup are guys who lift this team the way Olympic weight-lifters raise hundreds of pounds over their heads. And the big boys have the backs of their less-gifted gang members.

For now, that’s enough to rule the particular block Detroit occupies, the American League Central Division.

The irony is that Leyland’s team is so busy fending off division rivals, not to mention critics, you have to remind yourself the Tigers are 72-51. It seems at times as if the Tigers camp is so distracted by bullpen holes, or by batting flame-outs, or by left field’s issues, or by Alex Avila’s serious concussion symptoms, that the prevalent emotion in Detroit has been anxiety.

Everyone worried for weeks about the Indians. Now, it’s the Royals — a very good and talented team, as Leyland has said repeatedly — who have everyone captivated with their starting pitching, back-end bullpen, and base-path dashes.

Leyland had to call a halt to his Royals tributes after Saturday night’s game, a thriller of a stage play at Comerica Park, which the Tigers won, 6-5, in the ninth courtesy of yet another curtain-call home run from Miguel Cabrera.

“We’ve been the team in first place,” Leyland said, correctly, as the Royals hosannas flew, from media questioners, and from his own mouth, during the postgame press briefing.

“We’re pretty good, too.”

Maybe more than good, this team is accruing some crust as it sorts through its series of 2013 issues.

They've had their issues

There was no bullpen closer at the season’s outset. There still was no closer until Joaquin Benoit, a month ago, became the answer man there. Now there is a closer, but other relievers at other times can make fans wonder why they put up with this bunch.

And then there was the Jhonny Peralta odyssey. His impending suspension hung over Leyland, his clubhouse, and the front office for months. Ironically, the Tigers had been trying for more than a year to trade for a new shortstop that might give them the defensive edge they needed, not only to win a division, but to match up against playoff teams where series are often decided by pitching and defense.

Peralta’s high-horsepower hitting in 2013 lessened the urgency to find a new man, but the Tigers jumped — thanks to Dave Dombrowski’s trade process — three weeks ago in bringing aboard an infield sentry named Jose Iglesias. Ask his pitchers how much they treasure Iglesias and his knockdown defense at short.

Saturday night, the new kid contributed three hits, including a suicide squeeze bunt, which confirms that Leyland likes this team’s capacity for showing guts in stare-down moments.

His guys pulled the same trick late in the game when the Royals looked as if they would steal their third straight game from the Tigers and move closer to a playoff ticket they’re relentlessly chasing.

Tigers relievers made enough pitches to get enough ground balls to keep the Royals from breaking open a Saturday night contest that was as tightly wired as a package bomb.

The escape was Bond-movie dramatic and set things up for Cabrera to win it with one more of his exercises in disbelief, a home run that no other mortal probably could have hit. Not to the same place, against the same Aaron Crow pitch.

But what else is new from the toughest out in baseball? From maybe the toughest out the game has seen in however many years, or generations, you care to delineate.

If the script fits

Earlier in the evening, Prince Fielder, who has had a rugged time off and on the field of late, rocketed his second homer in 48 hours into the distant right-center field seats. It was telling, because he, too, is a guy you don’t want to mess with in a lineup that has in Cabrera and Fielder a pair of Sopranos-brand enforcers.

But remember something about that exquisite television series HBO delivered to us a decade and more ago.

The magic was that the Sopranos characters could be so tough, and yet so flawed. They were terribly awful people and yet, on occasions that left us bemused if not awed, they were family. They had about them an aura, a get-it-done manner that enabled them to preside over dysfunctional homes at the same time they were taking care of their particular brand of business.

These Tigers aren’t far from the parallel. They have problems galore. They frustrate themselves and their observers. They occasionally draw derision from those who think they should know better and do better.

But in the end, they are there for each other. And, by extension, for their fans, 41,850 of whom packed the place again Saturday, riveted to, and bound by, this incredibly unique baseball team and season.


Tigers starting pitcher Doug Fister holds back catcher Brayan Pena after Pena got thrown out of the gamed Saturday night. / Elizabeth Conley / Detroit News