May 8, 2014 at 1:00 am

Lynn Henning

Balanced lineup propels Tigers' league-leading offense

The Tigers' Don Kelly (32) connects for a single in the bottom of the fourth inning Wednesday night. Kelly had two hits, raising his average to .333. (Elizabeth Conley / Detroit News)

Detroit — How long it lasts is debatable. Hitting a big league pitch is ridiculously hard, every inning of every game. You probably can project pitching with more reliability than you can depend upon a team’s offense.

But here were the Tigers, heading into Wednesday’s game against the Astros at Comerica Park:

First in the American League in batting average: .288, well above the second-place Orioles’ .265. First in on-base percentage: .342. First in slugging percentage: .433. And, therefore, first in OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage): .775.

“There was a stretch early on when we were having trouble scoring runs,” said manager Brad Ausmus, whose team, later that evening, swung gentler bats in a game the Tigers won, 3-2, with only five hits, two of which were home runs by Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez.

“Lately, we’ve been putting numbers on the scoreboard. But it’s not like this happens every night. We’ve really relied on our starting pitchers and (back-end relievers).

“The caveat is that we’ve only played 20, 30 games.”

He is right, of course. He also is right when he says the Tigers have been scoring in bunches only during the past couple of weeks. It’s another way of saying his team is hot in part because it has been beating up on teams and pitchers who might not be as rugged now as they will be when the schedule changes and pitchers warm up.

The Tigers had scored 68 runs in their last 10 games ahead of Wednesday’s scrap. That’s almost one-half of the 143 runs they scored in the first 28.

Where the case for a 2014 offense that could be stronger than might have been expected gets sturdier is when you analyze a typical Ausmus lineup. Look at the batting order in segments and you see a balance that rarely was part of the Tigers recent run of playoff teams.

Last year’s Tigers were first in hitting and OPS but were only sixth in runs, either because they killed innings when too many plodders were aboard, or because guys such as Alex Avila (.229), Austin Jackson (.272), Andy Dirks (.254), or even Prince Fielder (.279) had an uncommon number of off-games.

Solid like in '06

This team in 2014 more resembles the 2006 Tigers. It was Jim Leyland’s first year in Detroit and his ’06 Tigers were less potent overall than some more recent Tigers playoff teams. But that particular bunch, which, remember, did not have Miguel Cabrera, was solid from 1-through-9 in the order.

The 2006 Tigers were so evenly built they had No. 8 and No. 9 hitters who combined for 55 home runs (Craig Monroe 28, Brandon Inge 27). They got their up-the-order clout from Curtis Granderson, Placido Polanco, Pudge Rodriguez and Magglio Ordonez, with a little Marcus Thames and (early on) Chris Shelton tossed in. It was a team loaded with tough outs.

The 2014 Tigers will never match the 2006 team’s tail-end power numbers, but Nick Castellanos is tied for second on this year’s team in homers and Alex Avila, who has been looking more like the hitter he should be, slammed a pair of homers last weekend as he began moving closer to habits formed during 2011 and the second half of 2013.

But again, those No. 7 and 8 hitters are key. They could allow the 2014 Tigers to escape with Andrew Romine (.231) and keep the lineup’s back end from fading as it did in some of those earlier years. Think back two seasons ago for a study in how an uneven batting order can ruin a team. How a lineup of haves and have-nots nearly cost Detroit a division title.

The Tigers offense that season was basically Jackson, Cabrera, and Fielder. Bite on these batting averages and you see why Detroit was three games behind the White Sox with a couple of weeks to play: Jhonny Peralta .239, Avila .243, Brennan Boesch .240, Delmon Young .267 (and a lousy .707 OPS).

Speed helps

This crew not only hits you with more punches — including taking pitchers deep into counts — it has a dimension you were free to believe had been outlawed in Detroit: speed.

No longer do innings consist of Cabrera and Fielder standing somewhere on the basepaths waiting for a double or home run as their primary ticket home. If a gazelle on the level of Rajai Davis is batting first or second — or even ninth, as he was Wednesday — with Ian Kinsler at the order’s top, and Jackson and Torii Hunter somewhere in the mix, the Tigers avoid strangling on a nightly noose of double-play grounders.

Pitching still rules in this game. And pitching will be tougher than the Tigers have seen in games such as Tuesday’s 11-4 rout. But this club also beat up James Shields and a red-hot Jason Vargas last weekend in Kansas City before it tore into Brett Oberholtzer on Tuesday.

It’s a sneaky-good offense. Or, rather, it appears today to be just that — stealthy. The kicker is this offense could become more energized in the days to come, all because a lineup with speed and a decent collection of legitimate hitters is showing more sock than might have been envisioned.

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