Stretching the Field: It's all good in Tiger town

 

The Sports Network

Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - A dark cloud seemed to be in a holding pattern above Comerica Park last week and spewed loss after loss upon the Detroit Tigers.

Detroit's lead atop the American League Central was no longer, as the Kansas City Royals came out of nowhere to take over the division with 10 straight wins. The Tigers never worried about a Royals resurgence, nor should they have, and guess who's back on top in the AL Central?

Let's be honest, does anyone actually think the Royals can overthrow the heavily-favored Tigers in the division? You're lying if you believe Kansas City has a chance of winning a division title for the first time since its last playoff appearance in 1985, when they won the West and the World Series.

Detroit should actually extend a hand to the Royals for lighting a fire under its backside because now the Tigers are ahead in the AL Central by three games.

After a 2-1 loss to the Royals in the third test of a four-game series on June 18, the Tigers fell to 5-12 in a 17-game stretch. Manager Brad Ausmus wasn't about to stray from his original plan when he took the job this past offseason.

"If you're managing a struggling team and you do something radical, I can tell you from being a player in a clubhouse, you kind of lose some of the players," Ausmus said. "They're like, 'Oh, he's lost his mind.' You've got to be careful about doing something radical. We've talked about moving guys into different spots, hoping they click.

"Right now, there's nothing that's worked."

Ausmus made a few switches, but not anything drastic, to the lineup and it has resulted in five straight wins. Perhaps the biggest change was J.D. Martinez's approach at the plate, as he is currently riding a 13-game hitting streak with a .404 average, five home runs and 15 RBI in that time.

He wouldn't be the Martinez you would think to have such a hot streak with first baseman/designated hitter Victor Martinez on the roster. Let's not be foolish here; Victor is still a force to be reckoned with in the batter's box as evidenced by his 19 homers and 50 RBI.

Plus, Martinez and Miguel Cabrera provide the nastiest 1-2 punch in baseball.

J.D. Martinez, though, has nine extra-base hits in his last eight games and the recently crowned American League Player of the Week has come a long way from his previous struggles. The Houston Astros probably regret letting him go during spring training and now Detroit is watching him blossom.

"I hope it's more than just a hot streak," Ausmus said of Martinez's resurgence. "I hope he's confident. He's clearly a guy people thought had the potential to be a power hitter at the Major League level at a young age. Maybe he's gotten more experience under his belt and he's kind of revamped his swing. Maybe he is that player they thought he was, and maybe he is coming into that. I hope he is."

Martinez has something to prove and makes Detroit's lineup that much more dangerous with the other Martinez and a stud named Cabrera. Torii Hunter should be back soon after missing time with a hamstring injury, and the Tigers hope their recent success will ignite his bat as well. Hunter's return could limit Martinez's playing time because they both play left field. Ausmus, though, is smart enough to get both in the lineup at the same time.

"Even before J.D. heated up, there were times ... basically once a week ... that I would give Torii a day (off) anyway," Ausmus said. "So I don't think that's going to be an issue. And when Torii's swinging the bat the way he normally does, this guy can still hit. So he's still going to get the bulk of the playing time in the outfield."

From top to bottom the Tigers have the best lineup in the AL Central and perhaps the entire Junior Circuit. It took patience for the Tigers not to panic when the Royals climbed their way to the division lead, and the usual suspect in Cabrera stayed the course. He may only have two home runs in his last 18 games, but is batting .313 with 11 RBI and 21 hits in that time.

I firmly believe the Tigers can still succeed when Cabrera isn't putting up Triple Crown numbers because of the aforementioned lineup. Don't confuse that with Cabrera being completely off the course because Detroit needs him. He is too good to falter and is always a threat during any circumstance.

That used to be said about Justin Verlander, but it appears his best days are over. Scheduled to make his next start Friday versus Houston, Verlander lost three times during Detroit's 17-game run from May 31 - June 18 and is just 1-5 in his previous six decisions (7 starts).

Max Scherzer went 2-2 in the less-than-stellar stretch for the Tigers and the reigning AL Cy Young Award winner got back on track Sunday at Cleveland. He is 9-2 in his last 11 decisions and 9-3 overall with a 3,71 ERA. It's hard to keep Scherzer down and he proved that against the Indians, tossing six innings of one-run ball after allowing 10 runs and 10 hits June 17 versus Kansas City.

Anibal Sanchez and Rick Porcello are also coming along and so is Detroit's bullpen. The relievers were overworked before the recent winning streak and the longer the starters go, the less taxing it will be on the 'pen.

The majority of Detroit's recent wins (4) have come on this current road trip, which includes two more games in Houston and three at Texas.

Still heavy favorites to win the World Series in late June, the Tigers have the entire AL Central trying to post up on the three-time defending division champions. They managed to swat KC's hopes for the time being and need to box out the other three (Cleveland, Minnesota, Chicago).

While there's still plenty of baseball remaining for the Tigers to either feast or famine, there will be no darkened skies come October.

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