Tigers have rediscovered swagger in knick of time

Lynn Henning

Detroit — In the minds of a Tigers front office, and in the fantasies of Detroit’s baseball faithful, the Tigers were going to win a World Series in 2014.

They would do it with a formula, not unique to this team. They would hammer you with power starting pitching. With help from Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, or from another high-caliber bat, they could expect to score heavily enough to support their Panzer pitcher and beat good clubs, particularly as those two elements wore down enemy units in October’s playoff series.

It is one thing to conceive a script for winning. It is quite another, as this team has displayed through much of 2014, to play in a manner envisioned or idealized.

Friday night at Comerica Park, the Tigers got closer to becoming that team. They beat the Indians, 7-2, on a crisp, football-chilly evening as 38,341 showed up to see the Tigers maintain a sudden aura they began to craft earlier this week.

They at last look like a playoff club. You could see it beginning with Sunday night’s thumping of the Giants and then in this week’s crucial Royals series. Of five games played since Sunday, the Tigers have lost only once, when Kansas City’s maestro, James Shield, flat-out mauled them Wednesday.

Otherwise, the component parts are clicking with a couple of weeks left in the regular season and with the Tigers back in first place following Friday’s triumph.

“It’s where we are in the standings, and where we are on the calendar,” Tigers manager Brad Ausmus said, referring to this week’s team disposition, which no doubt is helped by a crew that knows its way around September — and October — thanks to three consecutive division titles and three deep playoff runs.

Ironically, the two players who factored heavily in Friday’s conquest, the two who could prove lethal to playoff opponents in October, were a pair of men who were not in Detroit on Opening Day.

New to the fray

David Price, wheedled from the Rays in one of front-office chief Dave Dombrowski’s daring July trades, pitched Friday night like the celebrity left-hander he is, and like the supreme starter the Tigers believe can take hold of a best-of-five or best-of-seven playoff series.

J.D. Martinez, the guy Tigers assistant general manager Al Avila pushed to sign when the Astros gave up on Martinez last March, smashed his 21st homer of the season and tossed in a sky-scraping triple to right-center, good for four RBIs.

Alongside the 1-2 punch Price and Martinez unloaded, the Tigers got their usual immaculate defense from Ian Kinsler at second base. They made no errors and overall played an air-tight baseball game that became the Tigers’ 81st victory of the season.

J.D. Martinez and the Martinez who hits in front of him, Victor, combined Friday night for four hits and five RBIs. They are a marvelous double-barreled blast when hitting in front of Victor is a man named Miguel Cabrera.

But offense won’t be as decisive as starting pitching if the Tigers have finally shed their pogo-stick ways and win this division for a fourth consecutive time.

The edge, if Detroit is to have any meaningful advantage, will be in its starting pitching. It will be embodied by Price and Max Scherzer and by their firepower down September’s stretch and, if the postseason is clinched, during those first two pivotal games of any playoff series.

Mound presence

Price had not been himself during his first six weeks in Detroit. Most of the time, yes, anyone could see in his pitches the power and prowess he had flaunted at Tampa Bay. But in his early weeks with the Tigers he seemed out of rhythm, and maybe out of place. He pitched more like an interloper than like an ace.

And that should have surprised absolutely no one. Any person who has changed jobs and locations understands it takes time to acclimate. Different co-workers (teammates), a different living arrangement, and a new culture all made Price’s move to Detroit anything but seamless.

“My first couple of starts here,” he said after Friday’s game, “still felt like a road game.”

Friday night’s performance was the essential Price. Fastball on the inner or outer edges of home plate. Cutter either in on a batter’s hands or back-doored against a right-handed batter. Change-ups and curveballs for reinforcements.

His marksmanship with those pitches is exceptional: 75 of 107 he threw Friday were strikes. It finally wore down the Indians and, with the Martinez boys slamming Cleveland’s pitching corps, the Tigers won easily.

They still have a bullpen to worry about if October and some inevitably tight, late-inning playoff games arrive. But that’s a challenge for next month. For now, a team is finally behaving like the Tigers team Dombrowski assembled, and like a contending team fans so desperately want to see win it all.