What’s surprising about the suddenly startling Tigers is that unofficially they’re not 4-4 eight games into a season in which they were supposed to be awful.
They’re more like 5-3, counting an Opening Day game killed by some invasive replay virus that denied them a 10-inning victory they otherwise had nailed.
Folks locally wonder if this merry first stanza to a town’s 2018 baseball season can be sustained. And the not-so-unequivocal answer is: Probably not.
Ignore, for now, probabilities. As they get ready for another chill-fest at Cleveland beginning Monday night at Progressive Field, what can be said about the Tigers is (a) they suggest, as was anticipated, a rebuilding team can still be interesting, and (b) baseball teams that pitch always will get their share of hides.
The Tigers got a 1-0 victory Sunday against the White Sox, a day after they had laid a 6-1 lump on Chicago at Arctic-aired Guaranteed Rate Field. This came after the series opener, which saw the Tigers decide that being down, 7-3, in the eighth was no big deal. They won, 9-7, in 10 innings.
The pitching was so good, in the last two games, anyway, the Tigers won Sunday with two hits, both singles by a guy whose name most Detroit fans are still learning to pronounce: Leonys Martin (Lay-oh-niece Mar-TEEN).
They have been doing so many things right that a Comerica Park customer is to be forgiven for thinking these might be season-long traits.
They have played tidy defense, a happy new trend for the Tigers, which has given their pitching a boost. They have been running the bases not as inattentive slowpokes but as aggressive, shrewd gamblers bent on beating the house’s percentages.
Ron Gardenhire is the team’s new skipper and deserves credit. Defense and baserunning were his pet projects during spring camp and the team has been making gains there, in mindset as well as in execution.
Toss in some fresh blood — center fielder Martin, second baseman Dixon Machado, outfielder JaCoby Jones, rookie one-man band Niko Goodrum — the Tigers have been working to infuse into a roster that at times last year resembled a corpse, and, presto, a newer, fresher baseball product has been uncrated at Comerica.
It helps that Miguel Cabrera is a healthy superstar hitter and first baseman rather than an athlete trying to swing a bat with bulging back-disks. He drove in Sunday’s only run and, even as gripping bats have felt more like swinging icicles in the season’s early days, Cabrera is looking like the old, heavy-hammering Cabrera.
As for realities and advisories, there are several.
The Tigers might have been socked by some diabolical evil from baseball’s schedule-maker, playing three series in the north’s deep freeze, but they also caught a relative break.
They drew three lower-rung teams — the Pirates, Royals, and White Sox — for their initial eight games.
The calendar’s good fortunes end beginning Monday night when they play the mighty Indians four times in four evenings, followed by a weekend home set against the Yankees.
Tune in next Monday for an update that might not be as heady as today’s report following those three whippings of the White Sox.
Optimists are free to rebut any such warnings as they focus on Detroit’s pitching.
Francisco Liriano throws Monday night for the Tigers and earned at least a blue ribbon for his last start, which got the Tigers their first victory of 2018.
Jordan Zimmermann has been strong this spring, at least when it has been warm enough for a baseball to feel like a baseball and not a Popsicle. Michael Fulmer has All-Star stuff as he confirmed Saturday. Matthew Boyd has been fine. Mike Fiers, who loomed as potential trouble, instead threw shutout baseball Sunday.
Add to that the Tigers’ back-end bullpen, which looks as if it belongs somewhere other than Detroit given the team’s long travails there, and you have at least a shot at turning some early expectations upside down.
Shane Greene is hit-man cool as Gardenhire’s closer. Kid fire-thrower Joe Jimenez is turning into the wipe-’em-out reliever he had always been during his minor-league apprenticeship. Meanwhile, bullpen lifeguard Alex Wilson has been crisp, which is one way to win games the Tigers figured to be coughing up even in these early duels against some of the leagues’ lower-retail teams.
Baseball is supposed to be fun, no matter at what point on the construction spectrum a team happens to be. The Tigers are re-crafting themselves with an eye toward being an official contender a few seasons from now.
It doesn’t mean in the interim you can’t win friends, influence people, and put a lump on the noggins of teams that thought the Tigers might be a piñata waiting to be bashed.
This, in the early days of frosty April, is an intriguing bunch. Those games in Cleveland won’t be easy. But the best baseball surprises never are.