Detroit — There’s music in the clubhouse and smiling in the dugout. Open displays of exuberance have replaced open displays of exasperation. Five days after it was all ugly — and all over, by some accounts — the Tigers have stirred anew, and the next step is to prove it’s real, not just a sugar buzz.
Is this the energy boost you’re supposed to get after plowing through Twinkies? Well sure, the Tigers’ sweep of the woeful Twins is part of it, extending their winning streak to four with the Tampa Bay Rays in town tonight. But there are signs this is more than a temporary stirring, and more than a spiked response to Brad Ausmus’ job status.
The difficulty in a long, blurry baseball season is determining what’s real and what’s an illusion. The Tigers are not a 1-11 team, as they were for two weeks, nor are they a 4-0 team. They’re 19-21 and smack in the middle of the division race — five games behind the first-place White Sox and one behind the world champion Royals — despite riding dizzying highs and lows.
All the troubling signs haven’t disappeared — hello, have you seen the starting rotation? — but encouraging ones are emerging. The Tigers have a chance to regroup and quell the talk about the manager’s fate for a while, and partly because of the schedule, I think they will. But can they actually return to contender status? It depends on what you think is legitimate and sustainable. And at the risk of looking like a fool in another week, I’ve attempted to figure it out.
I’m willing to declare the recent offensive production sustainable, with a top-to-bottom lineup that should be as strong as any in baseball. The Tigers have cranked it up, led by the scorching Ian Kinsler and Nick Castellanos, and haven’t yet seen Miguel Cabrera fully crank it up, and you know he will. I’m even willing to suggest the enthusiastic boost provided by center fielder Cameron Maybin is more than a fleeting flash.
View from the mound
It’s also time to declare Justin Verlander’s rejuvenation authentic. Since Aug. 9 last year, when he was forced to evolve from pure power guy to crafty power guy, he’s been very good. He’s gone at least six innings in 18 of 20 starts, with 133 strikeouts and 40 walks. He’s healthy and confident, and if he somehow recaptures true dominance, the Tigers suddenly have a menacing duo at the top of their rotation.
That’s because Jordan Zimmermann’s stellar performance seems real so far. There was debate whether he was worth the $110-million contract, and he did get knocked around by the Twins in his last start, the dramatic 10-8 victory. He’s 6-2 with a 2.45 ERA, durable and dependable.
After Verlander and Zimmermann, there are illusions galore, and the guy who can make the rotation legitimate is on the mound tonight. Anibal Sanchez remains a riddle, sometimes very good for five innings, followed by very poor. If his numbers — 3-4, 5.91 ERA — don’t improve, the Tigers’ chances are a mirage, because Mike Pelfrey isn’t getting the job done and Michael Fulmer is promising, but young. The wild card is Shane Greene, who teases with his potential and should return soon.
In the bullpen, Francisco Rodriguez has converted 11 straight save opportunities since blowing his first attempt. He can get a little wobbly, but I actually think on the Tigers’ 1,945th attempt to find a closer, they got one steady enough to delay the hunt for No. 1,946.
The rest of the bullpen is a mix of possibilities and delusion. The Wilsons, Justin and Alex, are the keys, and both have been alternately superb and shaky. The starters need to stretch games out to give the relievers a chance to rejuvenate, although I’m not sure Mark Lowe and Drew VerHagen are revivable.
If the Tigers are to turn their Twinkie roll into a real roll, it has to come from the starting pitching, and that’s iffy. So for now, it comes from the lineup, which is legitimate.
Will Castellanos continue to lead the AL with a .350 batting average? Highly unlikely. But it’s possible, at 24, he’s just now growing into the job and sniffing stardom.
Victor Martinez is hitting .331 and that’s not an aberration. J.D. Martinez has eight home runs, and his track record is officially credible. There are two significant holes right now in left fielder Justin Upton and catcher James McCann, and both can’t be this anemic all season. Some of Upton’s numbers — 63 strikeouts, eight walks — are so far outside his norm, there has to be a correction.
It’s hard to say Kinsler’s power — 10 home runs after hitting 11 all last season — is sustainable, but I wouldn’t doubt anything about him right now. He has homered in four straight games and is hitting .319 and playing flawless second base. Just as important, he’s displaying the edge and fiery leadership needed in a leadoff hitter.
And then there’s the new-old guy, Maybin, the prodigal son returned. He’s real fast and real enthusiastic, but is five-for-nine with three stolen bases in three games for real? No, but this isn’t some youngster just finding his way. He was the Tigers’ No. 1 pick in 2005, and after nine unremarkable seasons elsewhere, he’s only 29 with a deep perspective and a chance to finally, fully fit.
The puzzle is still a puzzle, with more pieces needed. How’s this for symbolism: The Tigers’ highest point came in the same game as their lowest point, and it might have produced their turning point. It was the 8-0 lead over the Twins that incredibly became 8-8, then became a 10-8 victory that featured Ausmus’ hoodie-shedding outburst.
When you watched that game, what did you see? Good hitting, bad hitting, good pitching, bad pitching, good fielding, bad fielding, all wrapped by a tidy tirade. That’s the point of the season so far, that the Tigers are capable of just about anything, real or imagined.