Wojo: Tigers back in Central mix, plot next move

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
Tigers' Victor Martinez congratulates Cameron Maybin, right, after Maybin scores on a double by Miguel Cabrera in the third inning to tie the game.

Detroit – The Tigers showed it all — timely hitting, crisp pitching, terrific defense — in their most-impressive series of the year. They made their move in the Central Division by sweeping the White Sox, and if they keep this up, they just might get a chance to make bigger moves later.

It essentially begins over now, with the Tigers back to .500, back in the muddled Central race. This will get crazier before it gets settled, with four teams separated by a mere 31/2 games, and there’s less time than usual to mess around.

Box Score: Tigers 5, White Sox 2

That’s why something like this had to happen, a three-game pounding of a division rival. Justin Verlander was excellent again in the 5-2 victory Sunday, his sixth straight strong start. Production popped from every spot in the lineup, even from Justin Upton, finally.

So now you know, the Tigers aren’t the only confounding team. A month ago, the White Sox were 23-10 and held an 81/2-game lead over the Tigers, but have lost 18 of 24. Now it’s bunched so tightly – Cleveland (31-24), Kansas City (30-26), Chicago (29-28), Detroit (28-28) — it’ll take more than a load of victories over poor Minnesota to separate them.

If you’re gonna make a move in this division, you can’t wait too long to do it. That means clinging close until you get hot. That means making the right move at the right time, not necessarily waiting until the Aug. 1 trade deadline. The White Sox, who already had the best ERA in the AL, acquired starter James Shields on Saturday, recognizing how quickly things can slip away.

I’m not saying GM Al Avila needs to go grab a veteran pitcher today, but decision time might come sooner this year. The Tigers bought some time with Verlander’s resurgence, Jordan Zimmermann’s fast return from a groin injury and the tantalizing performances of young Michael Fulmer and Matt Boyd. Anibal Sanchez was demoted to the bullpen, but Mike Pelfrey has been better lately and Shane Greene is back from his blister problem and could be a fortifying factor in the bullpen.

Offense asserts itself

Nothing is as dire as it appears in the first third of a season, but we’re past that marker now. The Tigers’ 1-11 stretch in early May wasn’t indicative of who they are, but was indicative of how suddenly things can turn either way.

“It feels streaky, but the last couple years I feel like we kind of went through the same thing,” Brad Ausmus said. “It may boil down to who gets hot late. If you subscribe to the theory it’s gonna be a tight race, then any time you beat a team inside your division, it’s important. But I’ll take a sweep anywhere, anytime.”

Verlander stars again, Tigers sweep Sox

It’s impossible for a baseball team to be completely streak-proof, but there’s only one way to avoid long droughts. That’s to have good starting pitching, and the Tigers showed some of their own, while banging up the White Sox’s touted group.

The Tigers had struggled against left-handers but hit all three lefty starters, including the great Chris Sale and AL ERA leader Jose Quintana. The Tigers chased Sale on Saturday and did the same to Quintana on Sunday. His league-best 2.13 ERA jumped to 2.58 as the Tigers collected 12 hits and knocked him out in the fifth.

Make no mistake, the Tigers have the most lethal lineup in the division, especially if dynamic Cameron Maybin is a lasting revelation, and if Upton busts out of his funk. There are signs he is, including his two-run double in the fifth, when Ausmus gave him the green light on a 3-0 pitch.

Ex-Tiger Lemon never overlooked by teammates

Upton said he was surprised he got the chance to swing on 3-0, but appreciated the confidence boost.

“I’ve been terrible up to this point, I’ll be the first one to tell you,” said Upton, who leads the league with 76 strikeouts, but had two hits Sunday and raised his average to .220. “I know what I can contribute, and I know at some point they’re gonna be leaning on me. Hitters are gonna hit, and I don’t think it matters what side of the mound you’re throwing from, we’re a team that can hit.”

Checking the market

That’s why they’re always a threat to rough up solid pitching. The Royals have been a bigger overall threat because of their amazing bullpen, but they’ve been wracked with injuries. The Indians might be the biggest threat because of their young pitching.

You get the sense for the next 105 games or so, each team will be one hot streak — or one key move —from grabbing the lead. The Tigers don’t necessarily have to match the White Sox’s deal for Shields, but if something presents itself well before the deadline, they can’t hesitate. There will be a scramble for pitchers, and someone like Oakland’s Rich Hill might be an intriguing and affordable option.

Nothing has been decided yet, and ultimately, nothing will be decided until the Tigers’ final 32 games — 26 against Central opponents.

“Basically what everybody kind of predicted is taking shape,” Verlander said. “We’re all gonna beat up on each other, and we all have very good teams. I see it being a tight race the whole way. … We know we have the capability to go out and win a bunch of games and win them in a hurry. If we’re gonna be streaky, man, let’s just be streaky and win a bunch.”

The Tigers have had a five-game winning streak, two four-gamers and their current three-gamer. Now they’re back in the four-team pack, hoping the next big move is theirs.