- Associated Press - Thursday, July 14, 2011

DETROIT (AP) - All year long, Jim Leyland has kept an even keel.

The Detroit manager admitted in January he was under pressure _ with his contract expiring at the end of this season _ but with his team now in a fight for the AL Central title, there’s been little talk of anything beyond the next few games.

“We’re in the race. We’ve got to fix a few things, but everybody has to fix a few things,” Leyland said recently. “There’s no perfect team in our division. We’ve got a shot, you know, and that’s what you want. It’s going to be a good race.”

It’s already been an interesting season in Detroit’s division. The Tigers struggled a bit at the start, but they return from the All-Star break with a half-game lead over second-place Cleveland. The Tigers host the Chicago White Sox _ themselves only five games back _ in a three-game series starting Friday night.

The Minnesota Twins are lurking 6 1/2 games behind Detroit.

Leyland has been hesitant to talk about the standings, especially since _ after an early surge by Cleveland _ no team has really taken control of the race.

“This is going to be up for grabs,” Leyland said. “The Twins and White Sox are right there. Cleveland’s right there.”

The Tigers haven’t had a winning record after the All-Star break since 2000. Even in 2006, when they went to the World Series, they went 36-38 in the final half of the season and made it as a wild card.

Last year, Detroit went 33-43 after the break and finished 81-81.

The Tigers made some significant moves in the offseason, adding Victor Martinez, Brad Penny and Joaquin Benoit. Martinez leads the team with a .316 batting average, joining Miguel Cabrera and Brennan Boesch to help give Detroit a productive middle of the order.

Shortstop Jhonny Peralta and catcher Alex Avila joined Cabrera, ace Justin Verlander and closer Jose Valverde on the All-Star roster.

Cabrera left the All-Star game after hurting an oblique muscle in his side while swinging, but he said he didn’t think it would keep him out when regular season play resumes.

Verlander’s performance has been particularly sparkling. He’s 12-4 with a 2.15 ERA, including an ERA of 0.64 since June 9. Verlander is the biggest reason the Tigers hold a division lead, however slim.

“Hopefully, we’ll come out of the break rejuvenated and ready to go and put some separation between them and ourselves,” he said.

Although a handful of players are having big seasons, the Tigers aren’t without problems. Brandon Inge is hitting .184 and Ryan Raburn is at .213. Aside from Verlander, none of the starters has an ERA under 4.00.

Reliever Phil Coke was put in the rotation and then moved back to the bullpen. Rookie Charlie Furbush replaced Coke in the rotation but didn’t make it out of the fifth inning in either of his two starts this month.

With a veteran team built to win now, Detroit could be a prime candidate to try to improve before the trade deadline. This is also a big year for general manager Dave Dombrowski, who was rewarded in 2006 with a four-year extension that runs through 2011.

“I have a GM that is going to do everything he can to improve the club,” Leyland said. “But it’s not that easy to make a trade and snap your fingers and here’s a special tonic to help your team.”

The Tigers won four of five heading into the All-Star break, and a few of their bigger names have done a nice job recovering from poor starts _ perhaps a sign that they’ll be sharper in the second half. Magglio Ordonez is hitting .217 _ but he’s raised that average 45 points since coming off the disabled list in mid-June.

Austin Jackson hit .291 in June, and Benoit has a 1.40 ERA in his last 23 appearances.

“We just need to play baseball,” Verlander said. “If you’d told me we’d be sitting in first place at the All-Star break, I’d say, `Great.’ That’s where we want to be. We’d like to be more than a half-game up, but first place is first place.”

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