September 14, 2013 at 1:00 am

Lynn Henning

Tigers still face questions, but answers will come in October

Detroit ó They lost a brutally tough game to the Royals, 1-0, Saturday night at chilly Comerica Park, where if you showed up in a parka and wearing mittens no one would have flinched.

And itís possible, at least mathematically, the Tigers could lose a division lead they have owned for most of 2013 and even miss a playoff spot.

But calamity probably isnít part of the remaining script, not in September, which invites a question about just how ready manager Jim Leylandís team might be for a playoff series that should begin 19 days from today.

It comes down to three factors, which should probably be approached in this sequence:

Check on the playoff teams and their temperatures 2Ĺ weeks from now.

Timing is everything in baseball and, really, in all of sports, whether itís the NFL playoffs or the NCAA basketball tournament.

Thirteen days ago, on Labor Day, the Tigers beat the Red Sox, 3-0. That victory gave Detroit an 8Ĺ-game lead over the Indians in the American League Central.

That same victory left the Tigers with an 81-57 record, which put them one half-game behind the Red Sox (82-57) for the best record in the league. The Tigers were a couple of games up on the Aís and Rangers, who were at 79-58.

Itís not even two weeks later and lots has happened. The Red Sox are 91-59, the Aís are 87-61, the Tigers are 85-63, and the Rangers have slumped to 81-66.

You can argue that these up-and-down gyrations are likely to continue during the regular seasonís final two weeks. You can look at standard timelines in 2013 and conclude that at least one of these teams is going to cool off while another team (or more) heats up.

In other words, any Doomsday scenarios or parade plans should be reserved for October, when teams can look different from their uncertain September personas, which the Cardinals and Giants have shown with their four world championships during the past seven years.

The Tigers still have the best starting pitching.

They have the biggest edge a team can take into October. No, it doesnít accomplish much if, as happened Saturday night, Doug Fister pitches a jewel of a game and Detroit loses, 1-0.

But starting pitching is the first priority. And the Tigers have baseballís cornerstone covered.

Of course, they also have a bullpen that could be compared to those bend-but-donít-break football defenses that drive plenty of teams and their fan bases nuts. The Tigers tend not to blow you away in the fashion of elite bullpens.

But, as Leyland mentioned Saturday, the Tigers typically get the job done. And one of the reasons their relief corps survives is because itís not overly taxed by starters who hang around for six or seven innings.

That leaves the coinís flip side to be considered. And the question is Ö

Will the offense cooperate?

And the answer is: I donít know.

The Tigers have a great case for believing their lineup is settling into battle mode. Most of Leylandís cast is hitting after various members (Austin Jackson, Victor Martinez, Alex Avila, Andy Dirks, even Prince Fielder, etc.) had varying degrees of slumps during the past five months.

It was suggested Saturday to Leyland, before the Tigers and Royals convened, that his batting order was probably clicking at its best pace 1-through-9 that it has during any point in 2013.

He did not disagree. After which the Tigers went out and lost, 1-0.

Itís a funny bunch. They can score 19 runs or none. Part of their problem, for sure, is they are so cement-footed through the middle of their order. That shortcoming was on display Saturday night when Fielder was thrown out to end the game after trying to score the tying run from first on Omar Infanteís double.

I, along with a few thousand others at Comerica Park, had my eye on the dugout as quickly as Fielder reached first, believing Leyland had to pinch-run for him. But the manager is firm: He will not pull either of his Bash Boys, Fielder or Cabrera, from a tight game, and the argument isnít only Leylandís.

Plenty of managers, I know, would make the same case. A bunch more would also have pinch-run for Fielder.

This is a roundabout way of saying the Tigers arenít a perfect team and Leyland isnít ó he really isnít ó going to be a deciding figure in determining whether this team wins or loses in October.

Not having a perfect team means you canít always have it both ways. You want speed? Then donít expect the thunder that has been Detroitís primary offensive weapon. You want muscle? Then youíre not going to win any races on the basepaths.

You want a tie score in the ninth with no Fielder coming to the plate afterward? Then, be prepared in extra innings to see Cabrera trotting to first base and your scoring bids further compromised.

I still would have pinch-run for him, but thatís not a debate that will likely have any relevance on the heavy matter at hand, which is this teamís capacity to win a series or two ó or three ó in October.

Iíd go back to that first point. Wait a couple of weeks. Remember in 2006, when the Tigers lost the division on the last day of the regular season, then, with their dobbers down, cleaned up the Yankees in three straight after losing the first game of the division series?

This is baseball. This is sports. Wait and see how a good team is performing in those days leading into October of before you make any daring Las Vegas wagers. /Lynn_Henning

Prince Fielder's inability to score from first on the game's final play pointed up the Tigers' lack of team speed. / Robin Buckson / Detroit News
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