September 1, 2013 at 1:00 am

Lynn Henning

Middle-infield upgrade improves Tigers' championship chances

Detroit — I don’t know if the Tigers will last more than three games in October’s playoffs. Assuming the AL Central Division goes their way, as it should, whatever team Detroit draws will be a blue-chip bunch capable of winning the World Series.

The playoffs can be freaky. The Tigers are imperfect. We’ll see what happens during a postseason run that generally puts at least one well-constructed team on ice.

But what you know about the Tigers of 2013 is how much better equipped they are to handle playoff matchups. The reason has to do with how dramatically they have changed in slightly more than 14 months at a pair of up-the-middle infield positions.

Omar Infante was reunited with Detroit in July of last year and second base instantly went from a problem-child case to one of the most secure and stable spots on the field. He hammered a couple of home runs in Saturday night’s 10-5 thumping of the Indians at Comerica Park and is batting .318 on the season.

The Tigers’ pulse is calm and steady when Infante is in the lineup. He nails down the infield’s right side. He gets big hits. He is a metronome in his consistency and tempo.

Iglesias impact

The other half of the Tigers’ peace-and-prosperity combination is Jose Iglesias. He showed up a few weeks ago and has worn out everyone’s ooh-and-aah vocal inventory. He makes plays you couldn’t dream up with computer generations.

He has skills on offense that differ entirely from those of his predecessor, Jhonny Peralta, who was an extra-base and over-the-fence hitter, and a good one, until he ran into a 50-game suspension as part of the Biogenesis performance-enhancers investigation.

Iglesias has a different approach. He gets a sprinter’s jump from the batter’s box and can turn infield choppers into singles. He makes decent contact and slaps his share of hits. And, as he has twice shown since he changed into Tigers togs, he can bunt an ugly pitch as a baserunner steams toward him on a suicide-squeeze call.

This job isn’t for everyone. It takes skill and nerve to execute the suicide squeeze, and those qualities aren’t always in sufficient abundance to make the play a high-percentage call, at least in the view of manager Jim Leyland and a few others.

But this has been the bonus derived from Dave Dombrowski’s whopping trade a month ago that brought Iglesias to Detroit.

As much as Peralta’s heavy bat was helpful in the back end of Leyland’s order, the Tigers were still a slow-poke bunch, always vulnerable to the double play, and often short-of-breath when it came to sustaining innings.

Iglesias brings a different dynamic. In the same manner that he chops off potential big innings with his glove, he does enough things with the bat and with his legs to make bigger innings possible for a Tigers team that had too few of them through the season’s first 100 games.

He is hitting .320, with a .765 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) in 90 games he has played for both the Red Sox and Tigers in 2013.

His offense is strictly gravy. The Tigers had understood for a couple of years that shortstop needed to be more of a defensive plus than ever could be gleaned from Peralta.

Vacuum cleaner

The Tigers appreciated Peralta, his reliability, his ethic, and the pop from his bat. But they coax an abundance of ground balls from opposing batters and ideally wanted a defensive artist who could make the brand of head-spinning play Iglesias made Friday night against the Indians, when he turned a sure single, and a potentially big inning for the Indians, into a double play that put the Tigers on track to win.

Iglesias is master of the three-out inning, which isn’t as obvious as it sounds. It’s because ground balls that sneak past the infield for singles never reveal themselves, statistically, to be what they are: an extra out for the offense.

Iglesias, in that he covers everything from Miguel Cabrera’s left to Omar Infante’s right, reduces those extra-out singles to put-outs that clamp down on big innings and keep a starter’s pitch-count from ballooning.

Throw the new shortstop into an infield mix that had already gotten a gear better when Infante returned to his original team, and the Tigers have all but revamped and re-branded themselves by way of Dombrowski’s back-to-back July deadline deals.

Pitching has always been considered the bigger trophy from Dombrowski’s trade-deadline forays, with Doug Fister and Anibal Sanchez the heavy names added in 2011 and 2012.

But what has enabled those pitchers to do their jobs so much more efficiently and successfully are the two guys playing over either of their shoulders who also were July pick-ups: Infante and Iglesias.

If the Tigers win the division and play deep into October, Detroit’s infield will be on display and in the consciousness as major reasons why a good team became just that: a high-achiever driven by up-the-middle defense and by just enough offense to let the other players and elements flourish.

Tigers second baseman Omar Infante went 2-for-5 with two homers and five RBIs in the team's 10-5 victory over the Indians Saturday. / Robin Buckson / Detroit News
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