June 2, 2014 at 11:44 pm

One-third in, Tigers are on pace to a fine season

Anibal Sanchez is 2-0 with 1.77 ERA in three May starts. (/Paul Sancya / Associated Press)

Detroit ó Everyone has their own mile marker, the stake in the ground at which they measure progress.

Sparky Anderson had the first 40 games.

You have your month.

For me, itís 54 games.

I like measuring the season in thirds. Itís tidy.

After a third of the season, impressions arenít superficial. They might turn out to be wrong because seasons have considerable time to get better or worse, but at least the impression youíve formed is based on a substantial number of games.

Fifty-four is that substantial number. Itís a third of the season, and tonight, with the Blue Jays in town, the Tigers play their 54th game this season.

Beginnings are no longer beginnings after the 54th game. You are into the meat of the season when you get to June. Thereís no such thing as calling it a good start anymore. Itís either looking like a good season or not a good season, instead of a good start or not a good start.

Judging whatís happened, Iíd have to say it looks like a good season.

Despite the downturn of the last 14 games, in which they are 4-10, the Tigers havenít sprung any gushing doubts about themselves.

They can withstand the challenge of Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer stumbling a time or two and still lead the division.

They can go from looking like a super-team to being a stupor-team as a recent brush with being outscored 34-6 in three games proved.

But it was only three games.

True, Detroit went 1-7 during that stretch, but itís not fair to give the lopsidedly bad games a larger share of the impression than the consecutive series it swept in Baltimore and Boston or the 11 consecutive games it won on the road.

The Tigers, in other words have looked good in more games than theyíve not.

It can be said they do their share of pin-balling from good to not-so to good again. But their foundation is still too strong to worry about the White Sox yet, let alone the three teams for whom the American League Central race right now is for third ó and very well could remain their only race the rest of the year.

Much good in May

Hereís why the Tigers, with a 17-12 record, didnít have a bad May, however, even when it looked like they were having one.

Did you see the hitting totals of Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez and Ian Kinsler? Isnít it more important that those upon whom the Tigers most heavily lean hit a combined .360 than the .213 combined average of three they donít ó Alex Avila, Nick Castellanos and Andrew Romine.

Thatís no knock of those three. But none was expected to be part of the offensive core carrying the team.

And none of the three has been. Theyíll all have their moments, theyíll all have their struggles as well.

Avila goes through spurts of hitting the ball hard, but still strikes out too much.

Castellanos is doing his best to figure out major league pitching and is showing increasing patience at the plate.

And Romine never figured to be a starting shortstop for any major league team this season, let alone a first-place team. Heís tough on himself when his contributions lag, but thatís only natural when you try so hard to do your fair offensive share.

The second reason May wasnít as bad as it sometimes looked is the starting pitcher who gives the Tigers a security net when there is struggling taking place elsewhere in the rotation.

Rick Porcello was 5-1. For much of the month, he looked like an All-Star in the making.

But itís not Porcello who provides the net weíre talking about. Itís Anibal Sanchez.

Porcello, while improving his consistency, canít yet be compared in that department to Sanchez.

When Verlander and Scherzer struggled in the same turn of the rotation, which happened more than once in May, it was Sanchez with his steadiness who made it look like the abnormal wasnít becoming the normal.

The biggest injustice of the month was the masterpiece in Oakland that Joe Nathan couldnít preserve for Sanchez. But any rotation so deep that it has a starter such as Sanchez restoring order, when order has temporarily lapsed, wonít ever turn completely upside down.

A second third of the season from Porcello like his first third would be an enormous plus, of course, and itís not being said here that heís not capable of continuing to pitch well.

In short, though, heís not won an ERA title like Sanchez has. He still hasnít earned the trust that Sanchez has.

The third reason May was better than itís being given credit for was the translucent image of a bullpen suddenly taking on a more solid appearance.

If youíd had your choice at the beginning of May of a bullpen coming together or Austin Jackson hitting more than .200, you would have taken the bullpen, right?

It wasnít a great month for Nathan because of how he flailed in save situations at the end, but the fact remains, he saved eight games in May.

And it also remains that Joba Chamberlain had a 1.38 ERA in May and that two other relievers, Al Alburquerque and Ian Krol, had ERAs under 2.00.

So the big problem might not be the big problem anymore.

Anyway, thatís the kind of May it was.

And thatís the state of the Tigers on the brink of 54 games.

tom.gage@detroitnews.com
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