The Detroit Tigers have surpassed early expectations as they carry a lead in the AL Central into the approaching All-Star Break. Their weaknesses in the past that once exposed them to the league after that magical 2006 season are not only steadily becoming signs of improvement, but also their core strengths as they ride a current seven-game-winning streak. Despite shaky play during the early part of the season, the Tigers have been able to string together solid play as they make their run to win out the AL Central. Led by their pitching staff, the Tigers are poised to have an even better second half. If the play during their series sweep of the Chicago Cubs is a preview of the second half, the American League Central will have problems; especially with Knapp’s rejuvenated pitching staff.
The past few seasons have presented problems for the Tigers’ Pitching Staff especially. For the past few years their bullpen, lead by Tigers’ All-Time Saves Leader and Nightly-Roller-Coaster-Ride, Todd Jones, developed a reputation based more on putting runners in scoring position in the late innings than shutting down games. However, this season has been anything but a repeat of the last few seasons. With the departure of Chuck Hernandez and the infusion of Rick Knapp as pitching coach, Justin Verlander has returned to form as Ace of the squad. Leading the staff in strikeouts with 118 K's, Verlander is in the process of once again establishing himself as one of the more dominant pitchers in the league. Coming into the season, Verlander was one of the main players feeling the heat from below average play the past few seasons. With the exception of a dominating 2006 playoff performance and a 2007 no-hitter, his reputation for walking players and unraveling on the mound had become one of the major headlines concerning the Tigers at the time. His success this season has shown those same flashes of dominance exhibited during the 2006 postseason run. His ability to not only take the ball into the late innings but also bring his high 90’s fastball with him there as well has been just one of the many positive signs coming out of Knapp’s staff.
Knapp’s influence has had a huge impact on the success on the younger players as well. Hyped prospect Rick Porcello is having a solid start to his career with an 8-4 record to start the season. Righty Edwin Jackson is also having a strong season so far with 100+ innings tossed already and 79 K’s. However, the biggest bright spot of the pitching staff this season is Fernando Rodney. Known for blowing leads and causing headaches over the past few seasons, Rodney is perfect this season. For those that have just arrived late to the party, Fernando Rodney is perfect this season with 16 saves in 16 opportunities. His arrival in filling that closer role as a dominant, shutdown pitcher is something that both the Tigers and fans alike have been begging of Rodney. With Joel Zumaya showing his ability to hit that 100 MPH mark right out of the pen, the 8th and 9th innings should become something that Tigers fans should become accustomed to looking forward to instead of dreading.
The strong performance of the Tigers staff has unfortunately been the only positive of their season so far. With a lineup that should feature power and run-generating hits on a nightly basis, the Tigers have not only underachieved offensively but also have suffered injuries of Carlos Guillen and a missing case involving the hitting ability of Magglio Ordonez. Mags slump recently landed him a seat on the bench that drove up much controversy with his at-bats bonus in his contract. Nevertheless, the pitching staff has been able to keep the Tigers in games long enough to secure the one- and two-run-wins that eluded them for the past few seasons. Detroit has also been winning lately with late inning rallies including a recent walk-off comeback win off the bat of Ryan Raburn against the Cubs. This season is steadily showing those same flashes of brilliance that led the Tigers back to the World Series in 2006 after a series drought of twenty-two years. If the offense can live up to the performance thrown by their arms in the pen, we can expect to see Jim Leyland's team playing those night games in 40-degree-weather in late October this year.