July 3, 2014 at 6:08 am

Bob Wojnowski

Tigers back in groove at midseason

Detroit — If the Tigers keep this up, there won’t be anything left to pick at, or pick on. Their starting pitching looks fearsome again, their lineup has patched some potholes and the bullpen hasn’t done anything egregious lately.

The second half of the season begins today and the Tigers are back where they started, sort of. After sweeping the A’s with a 9-3 victory Wednesday, they have the second-best record in the AL (behind Oakland) and third-best in the majors.

Of course with the Tigers, it’s never about where they’ve been, but where they’re going. At 47-34, they posted their best first-half mark since 2007, and did it in ways no one imagined, from the rise of Rick Porcello to the stunning arrival of J.D. Martinez. Those are great stories, two huge reasons the team rebounded, but the Tigers can’t bank on players performing way above their norms.

That’s why the most important sights on a sunny afternoon were Austin Jackson and Torii Hunter rifling line drives, each collecting three sorely needed hits. It also helped to see Justin Verlander flash his old heat, dialing up to 97 while escaping a sixth-inning jam. Maybe there’s something about the A’s, the team they’ve beaten the past two postseasons, that ignites the Tigers. Raise the competition, raze the competition? (They get a chance to raze the resurgent Rays next).

The Tigers have won 11 of 13, after losing 20 of 29, after winning 27 of 39. They’ve gone from topsy to turvy and back to topsy, and gotten blurry-eyed in the process. As expected, their formidable starting pitching is regaining form, led by Porcello’s 11-4 mark, which surely will earn him a spot on the All-Star team. And as per custom, Dave Dombrowski will make a trade to bolster the bullpen.

But any issues with the lineup should be solvable from within. And it starts with Jackson, who’s back in the leadoff spot for now, and nudged his batting average to .245 with his three hits.

“Austin has been a good player the first few years of his career,” Brad Ausmus said. “So the idea is, let’s put him back in the leadoff spot, see if we can get him comfortable, get him in familiar surroundings and hopefully get him swinging the bat.”

Jackson, Hunter are key

You could say similar things about Hunter, who has been moved around the lineup and was the designated hitter Wednesday. Jackson and Hunter are bookend keys the rest of the way. When Victor Martinez returns from his muscle strain, the order could be set, stretching solidly from leadoff to Hunter at No. 6.

For it to work, they have to make it work more often, as they have in the past.

“I’ve been hitting the ball hard since the day I got back from my hamstring injury,” said Hunter, hitting .257 with an anemic on-base percentage of .281. “When you see 0-for-4, if you’re not watching the game, you don’t understand I’ve been killing the ball. They just haven’t been dropping.”

He could be proved correct, although at 38, slumps are viewed differently. At some point, more will be needed from Hunter and Jackson, just as Rajai Davis was needed for clutch hits against Oakland.

Naturally, it’s important to keep perspective. The Tigers are solidly in first despite an inexplicable, protracted slide by their starting rotation. And as hot as Miguel Cabrera has been at times, he’s not yet mashing consistently following offseason surgery. Verlander also hasn’t been Verlander as he works through mechanical issues, and Joe Nathan hasn’t been Joe Nathan.

If Jackson can be Jackson again, and Hunter can be Hunter, look out. The Tigers already lead the AL in batting average (.275), on-base percentage and slugging percentage.

J.D. staying hungry

The J.D. Martinez story is magical, and he absolutely has saved the offense for long stretches. In fact, the Tigers have gotten downright gluttonous with their Martinezes, signing 16-year-old Dominican Julio Martinez Wednesday.

“With good teams, that’s what happens,” Ausmus said. “The Miguel Cabreras, the Justin Verlanders, there’s gonna be days, or even weeks, where they’re off. And that’s where the gaps get filled by players you might not expect, whether it’s Rick Porcello or J.D. Martinez.”

Martinez is hitting .315 with 10 home runs and 34 RBIs since the Tigers picked him up after his release from the Astros. He doesn’t want to hear about his gaudy numbers, though, and scrawled the word “Next” on his glove to remind him to keep looking forward.

“If I think about it, it’s gonna start taking that hunger away,” J.D. Martinez said. “Baseball is a game of, what will you do for me next? The moment you get happy or satisfied, that’s when it’ll eat you right up.”

The Tigers can never be satisfied because next is always next, and always unpredictable. When they get cold, they get numbingly cold, and when they get hot, they get scorching hot. And if they get it all figured out, they’ll be very tough to beat.

Bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com
twitter.com/bobwojnowski

Justin Verlander gave up two home runs in the first, then pitched five shutout innings for his first win since May 30. / Elizabeth Conley / Detroit News
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