September 5, 2014 at 11:32 am

Tony Paul

Five keys for the Tigers as they enter the home stretch

Detroit — Twenty-two games to go. That’s it. It seemed like only a Bruce Rondon ago, the Tigers were breaking camp — down a man or two, sure, but certainly equipped enough for another American League Central championship.

Now, just a little over one-eighth of the regular season remains, with the Tigers’ playoff hopes well alive — they’re a half-game up on the Mariners for the second wild card, and one game* behind the Royals in the division.

That deficit is more like a half-game, given K.C. trails in a suspended game to be made up later this month.

That’s good news for the Tigers.

There’s more good news, too. The Tigers are playing well again, having won nine of 13. Plus, a grueling part of their schedule that saw them play 49 games in 49 days, and just 18 of those at home, came to a close Thursday night in Cleveland — with a 11-4 triumph that, oddly, took 11 innings.

While the Tigers lived August out of a suitcase, they’ll get to walk their dogs in September. Just one more road trip remains, and features just two easy, breezy puddle jumpers to Minneapolis and Kansas City.

Of course, they’ve played better away from Comerica Park than any at home, a trend they quickly must reverse. And the schedule features four tough series out of seven — three games against the surging Giants, starting tonight; six uber-important games against the Royals, three here, three there; and three more against the not-going-quietly Indians, who’ve split the first 16 games in the season set after losing 15 of 19 a year ago.

The Tigers also don’t know when reliever Joakim Soria (oblique) is coming back, or if starter Anibal Sanchez (side) is coming back at all. Even if Sanchez does, it’ll likely be late, and likely only as a reliever, given he won’t have enough time to get stretched out for six- or seven-inning assignments.

That means more Joe Nathan and more Kyle Lobstein, until further notice — not that they’ve been all that bad lately. Nathan’s opposing OPS is down substantially, .610 since July 1, and Lobstein has tossed two stunningly impressive gems.

If they keep that up, and if guys get healthy — Torii Hunter, Alex Avila and Miguel Cabrera all are banged up, though active — the Tigers’ outlook is substantially rosier.

Of course, there’s nothing Brad Ausmus and Co. can do to make sure any of that happens.

Instead, it’s best to discuss areas within the Tigers control.

Here are five things that most stand out on that front.

1. The kids are all right

It’s tough to remember a contending team that needed September callups more than these Tigers. Think about it. Big Steven Moya gives Ausmus a legitimate power threat off the bench. James McCann gives them a catcher who should — though might not — be starting against left-handed pitching. Tyler Collins gives them good pop and speed in late-inning situations. Hernan Perez can steal a base. And Robbie Ray can get a tough left-handed hitter out, in relief. Now Ausmus just needs to be willing to utilize every tool at his disposal. Thursday was a good start. Now, the kids don’t have to do too much, but used correctly, they can make a difference. Let’s just call this the “Jim Walewander Theory.” A rookie in 1987, the infielder saw action in 21 September games — mostly as a defensive replacement, but he hit a little, too — as the Tigers would go on to beat the Blue Jays by a single game in the old AL East.

2. Stop squandering

This offense is weird. They lead the world in batting average and on-base percentage. This week, they even overtook the A’s for most runs in baseball. And, somehow, they’re even the most efficient team when it comes to batting with runners in scoring position. Now just imagine how good they’d be if they didn’t waste so many golden opportunities. I mean, at one point Tuesday night, they had 15 base runners — and one run. And even when they succeed, they fail, like Thursday night at Progressive Field, where they scored four in the first inning, but still left three men on base — three pivotal men, it would turn out, as the offense then flat-lined for nine innings, and the Indians rallied to give the Tigers a scare. It’s not a new dilemma. A lineup consisting of Cabrera, Victor Martinez, Ian Kinsler, Hunter, J.D. Martinez, etc., has to deliver knockout blows more often than it does, or, at least, has done lately.

3. No time to sweat

Most of the Tigers players have been here before. And Ausmus, too, has been here before — at least, as a player. But this, the pressure and heat of a playoff chase, is all new to Ausmus the manager. So it’s more essential now than ever that he remains himself. Too much out-of-character activity at this point in the season can give off the sense to the players, notably some key rookies, that he’s panicking. And that’ll do this team absolutely no good. So Ausmus must stay the course — with everything from keeping up his joking, bantering ways before ballgames, to not altering the starting lineup too much. This goes for in-game maneuvering, too. (For instance, I wouldn’t go intentionally walking guys in the first inning, like Terry Francona did Thursday. That seemed desperate.) Of course, a lot of moves I’d consider panicky, Ausmus does anyway, like bunting and playing the infield in, even early in the games.

4. All eyes on starters

Bless Lobstein’s heart. The kid had a WHIP near 1.500 in 26 appearances at Triple-A Toledo, yet somehow has done big-time, big-boy work in three major-league appearances — his debut, a 100-pitch relief outing during that disastrous start to the Twins series, followed by fantastic starts against the Yankees and Indians. Golf clap. OK, a little louder. But can he keep it up? The odds are against it, so it’s imperative the rest of the rotation does what it’s supposed to do. That means David Price has to have gotten his dud out of the way. That means Max Scherzer starts pitching deeper into games, and starts making three- or four-run leads hold up. That means Rick Porcello keeps rolling. That means Justin Verlander stops reeling. The bullpen is what it is, and Lobstein is who he is. The top of that rotation has to get it done, at a high-percentage rate, for there to be October baseball in Detroit again this year.

5. Forget about the others

If I’m working in ballpark operations, I cut power to Comerica Park’s out-of-town scoreboard starting tonight. Let the fans fret about how the Mariners are doing three time zones away. Let the fans worry if Alex Gordon is going to hit another walk-off home run. The Tigers, they don’t need to be consumed with their chief playoff competition, nor can they afford to get caught up in it. They need to go take care of their own business. And if they beat the teams they’re supposed to (hello, Twins and White Sox), and take it to the Royals during their six September showdowns, there’s a good chance those obnoxious “We Own The Central” t-shirts will be granted an additional year of shelf life. Certainly, at least a wild card would be theirs, given the Mariners brutal remaining schedule. But if you’re planning on the Royals helping your cause, Tigers, you’re gonna be sadly disappointed. They’re absolutely legit, just like you.

tpaul@detroitnews.com

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First-year Tigers manager Brad Ausmus will be put to the test during the final three weeks of the regular season. / Robin Buckson / Detroit News