July 18, 2014 at 1:00 am

Tigers at the break

Tigers' blueprint for success: Road to World Series manageable, but rocky, too

The Tigers are sitting pretty atop the American League Central. But that doesn't mean the second half necessarily will be a cake walk. (Illustration by Kim Storeygard/Detroit News)

Itís tempting to say on July 17 the Tigers need only avoid something catastrophic (choose metaphor: Custer at Little Big Horn, 1929 Wall Street crash, replacing Jay Leno with Conan OíBrien, etc.) to win their fourth consecutive American League Central Division and scurry into the playoffs.

The Tigers, after all, are 6.5 games in front of the second-place Royals and 7.5 to the better of those third-place Indians. They have some of the best starting pitching in baseball. They have Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, and emerging hero J.D. Martinez anchor-chained to a lineup that also features Ian Kinsler and a decent supporting cast.

And their bullpen, while prone to the occasional debacle, is at least more reliable than it has been in some earlier months and seasons.

But then you remember, like an unpaid water bill, that life can turn worrisome. Think back to May 18. The Tigers had a seven-game lead. They were about to turn the Central into their personal amusement park.

Exactly one month later they trailed the first-place Royals by 1.5 games.

To avoid any such misery and to complete a division and playoffs march they havenít for 30 years turned into a world championship, the Tigers have crafted a blueprint (OK, someone else has). Itís a methodical approach, an exercise in careful assembly, and it represents obvious and not-so-obvious moves and performances this team requires if it has any serious World Series plans.

Get at least one more bullpen arm

The Tigers understand why they missed playing in, and probably winning, last yearís World Series. Their bullpen came unglued in Game 2 of the American League Championship Series. In the view of some, it was their single greatest one-game disaster since they blew a next-to-last-day game against the Angels in 1967.

They will not risk any such conflagrations in 2014. Not after they nearly blew the 2013 playoffs, as well, because of late-inning breakdowns.

It is known the Tigers last week were scouting two Rangers relievers: Joakim Soria and Neal Cotts. Soria, a right-hander, is the top prize, with a powerful closerís arm and numbers that confirm how deadly he could be in Detroit: 32 games, good on 16 of 17 save opportunities, 30.1 innings, 20 hits, 40 strikeouts, four walks, .175 opposing batting average, all good for an almost invisible WHIP (walks plus hits per inning) of 0.79.

Soria, 30, also will be expensive for any team hoping to snatch him from Texas, and those teams include some of Detroitís potentially most dangerous October enemies, beginning with the L.A. Angels.

Cotts, a left-hander, is 34 and doesnít come close to Soriaís stats. But he has 40 strikeouts in 40 innings, a 3.60 ERA, and at least qualifies as a possible plus.

The Tigers have the trade chips (primarily minor-league prospects) to get either. Dave Dombrowski, the Tigers front-office chief who annually dons top-hat, white gloves, and magicianís jacket and pulls some brand of July hocus-pocus, no doubt will attempt before the July 31 deadline to add a bullpen arm. More likely it will be later in the month when prices tend to dip just enough to justify a deal.

Joe Nathan, of course, is central to how badly the Tigers will need that extra arm. He is the teamís closer and has had an, uh, uneven season. But even if he settles into traditional Nathan form, the Tigers will want another arm, which is why they signed Joel Hanrahan in May. Hanrahan, though, is showing why it can sometimes take two full years to return from Tommy John surgery.

He is by no means certain to pitch this season. And thatís one more reason Dombrowski will undoubtedly be on safari for another reliever ahead of the July 31 cutoff.

Stay rested and healthy during a July-August schedule blitz

ESPNís Buster Olney wrote this week about the toughest schedules remaining for 17 playoff contenders from both leagues. He ranked the Tigers second behind the Orioles.

His reasoning was based on a commonly overlooked fact: The Tigers have played the fewest games of any team (91). Early rainouts mean Detroit will play 54 games in the next 55 days. That brand of schedule can wipe out a bullpen, force a front office to seek spot-rotation help from Triple A Toledo, and wear down regulars no matter how many times manager Brad Ausmus sprinkles Bryan Holaday, Don Kelly, or Andrew Romine into his daily mix.

As early as Saturdayís day-night doubleheader against the Indians (making up for an April 15 washout) the Tigers will be shuttling a pitcher from Toledo (Drew VerHagen) for a spot start necessary to keep their regular five on a five-day routine.

The Tigers want to avoid any calamities here ó and not only because theyíre trying to win that fourth straight division flag.

They want home-field advantage in any playoff situation that right now favors two West Division contenders: the Aís and Angels. Dombrowskiís teams have been uncanny in winning all four of their best-of-five Divisional Series since the Tigers began their most recent playoff ways in 2006. But one of these years that string will break, and against two West toughies on a par with the Aís and Angels, the Tigers need home field, which 100-plus years of sports history shows can make all the difference in any playoff series.

Hope Austin Jackson and Alex Avila continue their revivals

It never quite made sense why two players, each 27, and each with past records of hitting for lengthy stretches, would have been having such lousy first halves this season.

But the offensive equivalent of a Polar Vortex might, as it applies to the bats of Jackson and Avila, have lifted.

In the last 28 days, Avila is hitting .279, with a .353 on-base average, and .475 slugging percentage, good for a quality OPS of .828. Those numbers are not quite as robust as some of Avilaís past work (.895 OPS in his All-Star season of 2011; .876 during his 2013 second half) but they represent what all along figured to be Avilaís capacity to help a team.

Jackson of late has been better: .846 OPS in his last 10 games and 1.029 in his last four, with a return as Ausmusí leadoff batter perhaps helping a man who during his best times in Detroit always batted first.

No one knows if two hitters prone to blackout periods will stay hot. But they tend to be streaky, either way, and for long interludes. It suggests two batters who can individually bust apart games might be settling into rhythms that could make Detroitís offense a handful heading into October.

Avoid surprises in the rotation and daily lineup

The Tigers arenít asking for much here. They already coped early this season with mini-disasters in losing Jose Iglesias, Bruce Rondon, and Andy Dirks. But they cannot forfeit, say, Cabrera to the brand of injury (in last yearís case, a sports hernia) that all but finished him in the summer of 2013 and hamstrung him during the playoffs.

Neither can they lose a starting pitcher, particularly during that 54-games-in-55-days stretch. Justin Verlander has had his problems, but he has, at the very least, gotten in his innings and pitched with sufficient competence to have kept a rotation and bullpen from overly fraying.

In short, the Tigers have made it through 56 percent of their season. They find themselves with a fat lead in a division they, unless something crazy happens, should probably win for a fourth consecutive year.

But inspect again those May 18 and June 18 standings. What you see is an old lesson affirmed. And that lesson, one the Tigers have learned all too many times, is that the game they play is baseball, and baseball can make fools of teams and their plans.

lynn.henning@detroitnews.com

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