Detroit — One night, one week, one month, they look like World Series favorites. The next night, week or month, they look like a weary bunch. In the most unpredictable sport, the Tigers are impossible to define, although one word fits pretty well — scary.
It’s scary how good they could be, or should be, especially with their starting pitching. And it’s scary how easily their flaws could derail them. It’s why Dave Dombrowski probably will keep cell phones smashed to both ears right up until 4 p.m. Thursday, because nothing is set until a championship is won.
One game, the Tigers are giving up seven runs in the seventh inning to the White Sox. The next game, they’re scoring six in the first on their way to a 7-2 victory Wednesday night that ended a four-game losing streak.
Like every contender in baseball, they have holes. As they stand at today’s non-waiver trade deadline, they don’t look like a team poised to win the World Series, not until the bullpen shows some level of competence. But go back to the fear factor — you think the A’s or Angels or Orioles would feel comfortable facing Detroit in a playoff series?
The Tigers already made their big move, trading for Joakim Soria last week, but that hasn’t stopped the arms race. Soria’s rocky outings don’t change the arms race, either. The A’s have picked up two starters, Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel, and reportedly are chasing the Red Sox’s Jon Lester. So are the Orioles. And as hot as the Rays have been, they may yet deal David Price or a left-handed bat such as Ben Zobrist or Matt Joyce.
Dombrowski should find out what it would take to pry a prize away from the Rays, and if that means going hard after Price, go for it. He’s a lefty starter who would be a great answer in case Max Scherzer leaves in free-agency. He’d also soothe some of the sores for the universally panned Doug Fister trade.
The Tigers can’t get comfortable, not that they ever do. They need another left-handed hitter, and the bullpen isn’t fixed yet. Even if it was, it usually doesn’t stay fixed. That’s why a trio of lefties — the Phillies’ Antonio Bastardo, the Red Sox’s Andrew Miller, the Diamondbacks’ Oliver Perez — are intriguing trade possibilities.
The Tigers’ record (58-46) and five-game division lead are decent, but the numbers aren’t as healthy as they could be. You keep waiting for one of those scorching streaks, but they haven’t sustained it. The biggest puzzle is their 27-26 home record, including a few routs, such as the White Sox’s 11-4 victory in the opener Tuesday.
Now, let’s be clear on one thing. Soria will not continue at his current Tigers pace of multiple hits and runs every outing (OK, only two outings). He was one of the best relievers on the market and is a valuable addition. But maybe it’s time to stop focusing on the Tigers’ bullpen arms and start focusing on the Tigers’ actual bullpen? You know, the area itself, just beyond the leftfield wall. Was it built on an ancient burial ground or something, cursing all those who trod upon it? You got a better explanation?
Relievers come to Comerica Park and generally don’t enjoy lengthy stays. Jose Valverde was good and then gone. So was Joaquin Benoit, who was doomed by the grand slam he surrendered to David Ortiz that changed the Red Sox series.
Joe Nathan arrived with an impeccable record and has spent the season trying to find his arm slot and velocity. Bruce Rondon was going to be the eighth-inning guy but hurt his elbow in spring training. Phil Coke is the ultimate fizz-no-fizz guy. If you want real misfortune, go back to the star-crossed Joel Zumaya and his 100-mph flair, wrecked by injuries.
It kind of makes you miss the sweaty, steady rockiness of Todd Jones or Fernando Rodney, doesn’t it? The point is, the Tigers have tried to relieve the stress, and have to keep trying.
This team can’t take anything for granted, even when the evidence — a messy AL Central — suggests it can. For all their successes, the Tigers haven’t won it all, and can’t assume they’ll just roll out Scherzer, Anibal Sanchez, Justin Verlander and Rick Porcello and win any playoff series. Although if Scherzer keeps pitching the way he is, they certainly can win the opener of any series. After beating the White Sox, he’s 13-3 with a 3.27 ERA, and said he’s “throwing the ball as well as I ever have,” even after last year’s 21-3 Cy Young effort.
As for the up-and-down nature of this team, Scherzer shrugged it off, which is how players survive the travails of a long season.
“You play 162 games, you’re gonna lose a few in a row and win a few in a row,” Scherzer said. “The fact we’d lost four in a row really doesn’t mean anything to me, because I know how good this team is and how much talent we have.”
The majors are as parity-soaked as ever, and the Tigers have the fifth-best record. Eighteen teams are within five games of a playoff spot, making it difficult to differentiate between buyers, sellers and window-shoppers. The Tigers are always buyers, and as good as some of Dombrowski’s trade-deadline acquisitions have been, they haven’t solved everything.
Streakiness is not a unique concept in baseball but the Tigers test the extremes, individually and collectively. Just when you think Verlander or Nathan might be figuring it out, they slip. Just when you think Austin Jackson and Torii Hunter are fading, they pick it up. The Tigers lead the AL in games of 10 hits or more with 49, suggesting they’re prone to bursts of production.
Scherzer and Porcello have become two great constants, but the Tigers have to count on more the rest of the way, especially because Miguel Cabrera and Verlander haven’t yet recaptured their power after offseason core-muscle surgeries.
The home record is curious, maybe an aberration, or maybe a sign the Tigers get a false sense of security and suffer mental lapses. We’ve spent four months — eight years, actually — debating their championship worthiness, with no definitive conclusion. All we really know is, when they turn it on, they’re very good. Keeping it on remains the challenge.