Wojo: Tigers rising to challenge with playoffs on line

Bob Wojnowski, The Detroit News

Detroit — You could sense it in the chilled air, hear it in the pop of the bats and see it in the rising energy. The Tigers are churning forward and trending upward, and their playoff possibilities are rapidly becoming real.

It’s all about timing, and the Tigers’ key hitters are finding theirs at the right moment. It’s also about the timing of the schedule, and the Tigers now are pounding weaker opponents. They did it again Friday night, blasting the Kansas City Royals 8-3 for their fifth straight victory.

As the Tigers draw closer to a wild-card spot, this is why you should like their one-game odds — the power at the top of their rotation and in the middle of their lineup. On consecutive nights, Michael Fulmer and Justin Verlander plowed through batters as they have most of the season. If the Tigers get in, one of them probably will pitch in the one-game showdown, and the history of wild cards suggests it only takes one victory to light something.

In the postseason everything narrows — the length of the rotation, the margin for error. Obviously, the Tigers will need more than Fulmer and Verlander to make a run, but with nine games left, no one’s ready to talk about a long run. We are ready to talk about the wild card.

At the moment, Detroit (83-70) holds the second wild card, a half-game ahead of Baltimore and a game behind Toronto for the first wild card. No, the Tigers won’t overtake the Indians in the division, and no, they’re not suddenly reviving World Series hopes. But from where they were a week ago, after splitting a four-game series with the woeful Twins, they’re making you think.

Showing their strengths

Fulmer had a big bounce-back performance after a couple of rough outings. He went seven innings, striking out nine and walking none, lowering his ERA to 2.95. Justin Upton continued his remarkable power surge with his 27th home run, and the Tigers’ wounded have started returning to form.

“I thought there was a palpable difference in the ballpark,” Brad Ausmus said. “I think there’s a bit of a sense of urgency now. This is our last homestand, our last chance at home to try to do something in the standings. I thought our batters did a great job fighting off good pitches and getting pitches to hit. I was really impressed by how they went about their business.”

It certainly was a palpable difference against the Royals’ Danny Duffy, who has been tough on the Tigers, as many lefties have. But they pounded him for seven hits and four walks in less than four innings, with home runs from Upton, Victor Martinez and Cameron Maybin.

The Tigers haven’t suddenly fixed their flaws, but they’re now flexing their strengths. The power has cranked up, and Martinez keeps producing against the odds, with a badly bruised knee. Maybin has returned to his productive ways, despite a nagging thumb injury. Ian Kinsler missed three games with a concussion but was back at the leadoff spot, collecting two hits.

And then there’s Upton’s rise, the biggest difference between the forlorn Tigers and the feisty Tigers. When he was striking out at a prodigious rate, it sapped the middle of the lineup. In his last 29 games, Upton has been incredible, with 14 home runs and 35 RBIs.

“He’s had more big home runs in the last month than probably any other player has had the entire year,” Ausmus said. “In terms of giving us the lead, game-winning home runs, three-run home runs, home runs in important series.”

In the driver’s seat

They’re all important now, with two more home games against the Royals and then four against the Indians. The Tigers close the season in Atlanta, where the Braves have been better of late but still have the second-worst record in baseball.

The Royals had no discernible interest in being here Friday night, just as the Twins were abysmal against the Tigers the previous three games. But let’s not change the argument now. We always knew the schedule was going to lighten up down the stretch, which means it was weighted heavier earlier. And the Tigers weren’t taking full advantage of the softies, until now.

In the daily grind of baseball, it’s easy to lose sight of the big picture. Every time Ausmus makes a decision that bites him, or every time the lineup inexplicably gets shut out (11 times), it’s easy to jump to a damning conclusion. And if the wild cards didn’t exist, the conclusion would be accurate — the Tigers wouldn’t be a playoff team.

But if you really want to stretch the big picture, they’re 68-49 since their 15-21 start. Shorter picture? They’re 37-27 since the All-Star break and have the third-best ERA in the AL at 3.72 in that time.

This probably will go down to the last few games, and probably come down to their star pitchers and sluggers. It would help if the bullpen ever levels out, but at least closer Francisco Rodriguez has been stellar. And oddly, it also might help that the Indians have virtually clinched the division, although they’d still have the incentive of playing for home-field advantage.

That’s not something the Tigers can worry about. They’ve narrowed their focus, and it’s more and more noticeable.

“We control where we end up, we’re in the driver’s seat right now,” Kinsler said. “Every game’s important, just like they’ve been all year. But we all know what’s at stake.”

They’re playing like they know it, and want to do something about it. It’s a short-term view now. You get in, and all possibilities are real again.