July 15, 2014 at 1:00 am

Tigers at the break: First half had its ups and downs -- and plenty of exciting moments

The Tigers' Rajai Davis, right, reacts as he rounds the bases after hitting a walk-off grand slam against the A's in the bottom of the ninth inning Monday, June 30, 2014, at Comerica Park in Detroit. The Tigers won, 5-4. (Elizabeth Conley / Detroit News)

Detroit — Well, it could’ve been better.

But, boy, it could’ve been worse, too.

The first half of the 2014 regular season for the Tigers was a test of emotions for the team — and its passionate fan base.

They won big early, lost big later, and won big again — the end result being a 53-38 record, third-best in baseball, giving Detroit a 6.5-game division lead that is among the heftiest in franchise history.

There simply was no streakier team during the opening three-and-a-half months than the Tigers, who had winning streaks of eight, seven, six, five and four (twice), to go with losing streaks of five, four and three (four times).

“Guys, we play 162 games,” Max Scherzer was saying the other day. “You’re going to get on streaks.”

Peaks and valleys are one thing — but with these Tigers, it’s felt more like Mount Everest and the Grand Canyon.

All together, it’s made for a wildly entertaining start to the season in Motown.

At the All-Star break, here’s a look back at that first half.

Three best games

1. June 30 — In a pivotal opening game of a series against the best team in baseball, the A’s, the Tigers found themselves in a big-time trouble, down three runs entering the bottom of the ninth inning and facing uber-tough reliever Sean Doolittle. But Nick Castellanos started with a single, Alex Avila followed with a single, and, after a Eugenio Suarez strikeout, Austin Jackson worked a classic, nine-pitch walk to load the bases. Two pitches — and one hanging slider — later, the Tigers were winners, on Rajai Davis’ walk-off grand slam.

Bonus props: The call from Dan Dickerson was absolutely priceless.

2. March 31 — Opening Day is such a special day in Detroit, but when it ends in walk-off fashion, it’s that much better. The Tigers and Royals were tied at 3 entering the bottom of the ninth inning, and facing a nasty Royals bullpen that’s given many teams fits for quite some time. Not on this day, though. Avila worked a one-out walk off Wade Davis, and Castellanos followed with a single. That brought in Royals closer Greg Holland to face Alex Gonzalez, the spring-training pickup who played hero on Day 1 with the winning single. Twenty-one days later, Gonzalez was gone — but he’ll always have March 31, 2014.

3. May 16 — In their first game back at Fenway Park since last fall’s heartbreaking American League Championship Series, the Tigers made a statement — in a supreme pitching duel between Detroit’s Max Scherzer and Boston’s Jon Lester, two men set to become free agents at year’s end. Both were on their game, but Scherzer was just a little bit better — with six scoreless innings — and was aided by Torii Hunter’s first-inning RBI single. That was all the offense the Tigers would need, as Joe Nathan sealed the 1-0 victory with a 1-2-3 ninth inning. That game was the start of a rare sweep in Boston.

Three worst games

1. May 21 — You’d be hard-pressed to find a game uglier than this one, particularly if you’re a fan of great defense and great pitching. In the second of three games in Cleveland, the Tigers jumped out to a 4-0 lead — a lead that quickly was history just an inning later. The Tigers still managed to take a lead again in the eighth, only to lose it in the ninth on a blown save by Nathan. The Tigers led again in the 13th, only to lose in the bottom of the 13th, 11-10, on Al Alburquerque’s walk-off balk. That was the defining moment of a stretch of baseball in which the Tigers would go an unbelievable 9-20.

2. June 17 — From March 30 through June 16, the Tigers didn’t spend a single second out of first place in the American League Central. By the second inning of this game at Comerica Park, it was clear there would be no wire-to-wire run for Detroit in 2014. The hard-charging Royals posted a seven-spot in the second off Scherzer, who would end up giving up 10 runs in his four innings. The rather-forgettable 11-4 loss was the Tigers second drubbing in a row at the hands of Kansas City, and put the Royals atop the division — albeit ever so briefly. The Tigers regained control three days later, and remain in first.

3. June 3 — It had the makings of a great game, the first-place Blue Jays against the first-place Tigers in the first game of a three-game set that evoked memories of their classic rivalry in the 1980s. And for a while, it lived up to the hype, the teams trading zeroes for eight innings and taking a scoreless game into the ninth. That’s where the Tigers’ bullpen, Nathan in particular, imploded. The Tigers’ closer allowed four runs on two hits and two walks, and by the time the inning was over, Detroit trailed 5-0. Only a J.D. Martinez three-run homer in the bottom of the inning made the final score respectable.

First-half MVP

Picking this is as tough as they come, given the Tigers have received big-time contributions from all corners of the roster. But while I’d have a really hard time going against Ian Kinsler, while also considering Scherzer, Rick Porcello, Miguel Cabrera and J.D. Martinez, it’s almost impossible not go with the Tigers DH, Victor Martinez. A guy with a phenomenal career is having a career year — and the fact it’s coming in a year when the Tigers needed a cleanup hitter and some lineup protection for Cabrera in the wake of the Prince Fielder trade, that makes his first half even more impressive.

First-half LVP

For the confused, that’s “Least Valuable Player.” And for the team with the standing of the Tigers, there aren’t nearly as many candidates here as there were for MVP. Sure, there are a host of relievers to choose from, but I’m going with center fielder Austin Jackson. The Tigers needed more out of him than he’s provided, on offense (.317 OBP) and defense (his range has greatly diminished). It’s been disappointing for a team that expected big things from the guy without all the pressure of batting leadoff. At least there are encouraging signs lately — now that he’s back batting first again.

Biggest bargain

This is a three-horse race, between Davis, J.D. Martinez and Joba Chamberlain. Davis has given this team an element they’ve lacked for so long — speed — and has been dandy as a starting outfielder in the wake of Andy Dirks’ back injury, all for the low, low price of $10 million over two years. But Martinez? Well, the Tigers got him for next to nothing after the lowly Astros cut him loose. Now just consider these numbers between Toledo and Detroit: 23 homers and 65 RBIs in 82 games. His MLB OPS is a sick 1.035. It’s hard to imagine any team has had a more pleasant surprise.

Biggest bust

The Tigers finally thought they were getting their lockdown closer, in Nathan. And how could you think otherwise, given the year he had last year with the Rangers? But Nathan, 39, after signing a two-year, $20-million deal, hasn’t looked anything like the guy who went 36-for-36 in save chances against the Tigers during his days with the Twins and Rangers. He’s already blown more saves (four) than last year, he’s allowed more than twice as many runs, and more than twice as many home runs. There are signs he’s turned a corner, after a mechanical change, but his woes have the Tigers searching for relief help.

Best pitching performance

It should be a tie — a three-way tie between two starts by Scherzer and one by Porcello. But we’ll give the nod to Scherzer for his June 12 masterpiece against the White Sox in Chicago. There had been so much talk about the ace’s inability to record a complete game, but he shut them down this day — with nine glorious innings, during which he allowed just three hits and three walks while striking out eight. He needed just 113 pitches to shut down a potent White Sox offense that, at the time, really was clicking, behind the emergence of Jose Abreu.

Best hitting performance

Tough to say, given the trifecta of Cabrera and the two Martinezes have filled up their share of stat sheets this year. So we’ll give it to two of them for two sings May 13 in Baltimore. The Tigers trailed 1-0 entering the ninth. Avila reached on a single off Tommy Hunter, pinch-runner Davis stole second, but then Don Kelly and Kinsler lined out to put the Tigers down to their final out. Up stepped Cabrera, who took a breaking ball on the outside corner and hit it a mile to left-center as only he can do. The next pitch, Victor Martinez hit a bomb to the warehouse to make it 4-1.

Did that just happen?

You’ve seen this in Little League games before. But in the major leagues? Well … But on April 20, in a Sunday afternoon game against the Angels at Comerica Park, Kinsler brought the crowd to its feet with some daring — if not foolish — base running. In the first inning, he was stealing; Cabrera walked, but Angels catcher Hank Conger still threw down to second — and threw wildly. That moved Kinsler to third, and when center fielder Mike Trout’s throw in was thrown to nobody in particular, Kinsler scampered home ahead of pitcher Hector Santiago’s relay. Yes, Kinsler scored from first … on a walk.

Did that just happen … again?

The Tigers had some rough days in May, a couple in particular against the Rangers at Comerica Park. But manager Brad Ausmus still gave fans something to cheer about in routs May 22 and 24, inserting backup infielder Danny Worth — and his legitimate knuckleball — into pitch. The first inning featured two strikeouts, albeit one on a gift call from plate umpire Ron Kulpa, who clearly got caught up in the moment. The next outing, not so great. He allowed a run on three hits. Still, Worth now has a major-league ERA, of 4.50, and some back-of-the-brain thoughts about a possible future on the mound.

Wait, he said what?

There were two postgame comments that got Tigers fans up in arms. The one that got me going came May 28, after a loss to the A’s out in Oakland. Nathan blew it, and afterward seemed to throw the rookie third baseman, Castellanos, under the bus for his ninth-inning error, rather than taking blame for the meatball he threw Josh Donaldson, who hit the walk-off homer. Then, after a loss June 18, Ausmus made his dumb — albeit not-the-end-of-the-world — “I beat my wife” joke. Ausmus quickly made many public apologies; I’d be surprised if Nathan didn’t make a private one, in the clubhouse.

Five golf claps

* Porcello has made tremendous progress. One could argue he’s been their best starting pitcher.

* Chamberlain was viewed as a blah signing back in December. He’s been their best relief pitcher.

* Castellanos has had his ups and downs, but his defense and plate discipline have improved greatly.

* Eugenio Suarez has cooled, but has played well enough to keep Detroit from trading for a shortstop.

* The Tigers set out to win the close games, and they have. They’re now 16-10 in one-run games.

Three hisses

* Hunter still has a lot of pop left in that 38-year-old bat, but not much, at all, left on defense.

* The trade haul for Doug Fister, as expected, is looking like a disaster. Not sure that’ll ever change.

* Ausmus has done fine, but the stubborn insistence on batting Hunter second was a head-scratcher.

* We were sold on a Joel Hanrahan sighting in early June. It’s mid-July, and he’s nowhere in sight.

* Fans continue to be hard on Avila. Never mind his .343 on-base percentage is fourth on the team.

Diamond digits

1 — Career ejection for Ausmus, May 21 in Cleveland. Cabrera, again, was handed a quick ejection for arguing balls and strikes — it’s become a trend — which prompted Ausmus to sprint out and drop a string of f-bombs. Plate umpire Tim Timmons wasted no time in booting Ausmus.

6 — Home runs in the ninth inning for J.D. Martinez, to go with 13 RBIs and a .333 batting average. One of the homers, his first with Detroit on May 19 in Cleveland, tied the game in the ninth.

96 — Strikeouts for Justin Verlander, in 129 innings. The 6.7-strikeouts-per-nine-innings ratio is his worst since his rookie season, in 2006, when he averaged six K’s every nine innings.

13-4 — Tigers record against teams currently in first place in their respective divisions.

25-14 — Tigers record against teams currently over .500.

tpaul@detroitnews.com

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