With a three-game sweep of the Chicago White Sox, Detroit took over the lead in the AL Central and gave its excited fans reason to believe the Tigers‘ first-half funk may be well behind them. It was Verlander who opened the series in grand style when he pitched Detroit to a 4-2 win Friday night.
“I think we’re just being more consistent, playing better baseball,” Verlander said. “Playing the way that we’re supposed to play.”
The Tigers won the AL Central by 15 games last year and added Prince Fielder in the offseason, so it was a bit of a surprise to see them languishing below .500 not long ago. Verlander, Fielder and Miguel Cabrera have been constants, playing at a high level pretty much throughout the season, but for too long, there wasn’t enough help for those three stars.
Now, supporting players like outfielder Brennan Boesch and shortstop Jhonny Peralta are producing, while pitchers Max Scherzer and Doug Fister have given the starting rotation some depth.
Then came Monday’s news that the Tigers acquired second baseman Omar Infante and right-hander Anibal Sanchez in a trade with Miami.
Detroit went 6-1 on its most recent homestand against two fellow playoff contenders, the White Sox and Los Angeles Angels. It conjured memories of last season, when the Tigers pulled away to win the division by a huge margin in part because they won their last 16 games against Chicago and Cleveland, two other contenders in their division.
“I think the whole atmosphere around town all weekend was tremendous,” manager Jim Leyland said. “Everybody into it, really just a nice weekend for us. But for us it’s work. We’ve got to go to work again on Tuesday.”
The stretch run might not be as easy this time. On Tuesday, Detroit begins a nine-game road trip against Cleveland, Toronto and Boston. When they return home, they’ll face the Indians and New York Yankees before a three-game series on the road against the Texas Rangers.
In the middle of September, they’ll have to head out west to face the Angels before traveling to Chicago and Cleveland for what could be huge division matchups. There’s no real letup in the schedule between now and then.
“We’re playing good right now, but we have to continue,” Leyland said. “Even when times were bad earlier in the season, it was not because of lack of effort or people not being ready to play. We just weren’t playing very good.”
Now the Tigers have won 16 of 21. Leadoff hitter Austin Jackson is hitting .315, and rookie outfielder Quintin Berry is at .279, making Cabrera and Fielder even more dangerous in the middle of the order.
Verlander is a candidate to win a second straight Cy Young Award. He’s 11-5 with a 2.42 ERA. Cabrera hit two home runs Sunday, giving him 300 for his career not long after his 29th birthday.
Closer Jose Valverde has been inconsistent when healthy, but the rest of the bullpen seems to have rounded into form nicely. Leyland can go to Joaquin Benoit, Octavio Dotel, Phil Coke and even Brayan Villarreal, who has come out of nowhere this year to post a 1.44 ERA and 42 strikeouts in 31 1-3 innings.
There’s was a glaring hole at second base, but even that may have been solved by the trade for Infante.