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Published: Wednesday, 5/21/2014

SPORTS COMMENTARY

Tigers on cusp of something special so far

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST

It figures the Detroit Tigers would win 11-straight road games, including a sweep in Boston by holding the slumping Red Sox to three runs in as many games, then go into Cleveland, where the Tribe had been stinkin’ up the joint, and lose in extra innings on Monday. That’s the beauty and unpredictability of baseball’s long season.

But it is becoming apparent that these Tigers could and should prove to be something special. They carried the best winning percentage in the majors into Tuesday night’s game against the Indians and have joined the Oakland A’s as the American League’s dominant teams at the quarter-pole of 2014.

The questions with which Detroit entered the season are still, for the most part, questions, but the answer may be that the questions don’t matter. They may survive with only sporadic offensive contributions from shortstop and catcher. Turning third base over to a rookie remains one of those 50-50 propositions — some days, some at-bats, some throws to first you can tell, some you’d never guess.

But remember those concerns over whether Miguel Cabrera would be equally well-protected in the batting order with the departure of Prince Fielder, about left field, about who would connect the starting pitching rotation to new closer Joe Nathan, and about a rookie manager (at any level) taking over for one of the best in Jim Leyland?

It was all much ado about nothing, it would seem.

Miggy is still Miggy, hitting .325 with 39 RBI, which projects to about 160 over a full season. That would blow away the 139 and 137 runs his bat produced during the 2012 and ’13 seasons, respectively.

No Prince? No problem. Manager Brad Ausmus plugged veteran slugger Victor Martinez into the cleanup spot, and he is having a season equal to Cabrera’s with a .329 average. Who has ever heard of someone having 11 home runs and only nine strikeouts?

And so it goes. Ian Kinsler, who came over in the Fielder trade, is hitting .312 with 12 doubles and is playing a solid second base. None of that is a complete surprise. It’s staggering to this day that Detroit general manager Dave Dombrowski pulled that one off.

Torii Hunter is hitting close to .300 and has already knocked in 23 runs; the new left fielder, Rajai Davis, is above his career averages and has chipped in 14 stolen bases — the Tigers already have more as a team than they had in all of 2013 — and Austin Jackson has been solid in center and at the plate. Nick Castellanos, the rookie and ex-Mud Hen, seems a good bet to do nothing but get better at third.

Of course, there will be ups and downs. There will be slumps and fielding miscues and errors of aggression from a team that wants to manufacture runs as much as see them cross on three-run homers. That’s been the biggest influence of Ausmus, who hasn’t made many mistakes and seems comfortable with those he has made.

Will Cabrera maintain that 160-RBI pace? Will Martinez continue at his 45-homer pace? It’s unlikely. But will that matter? Because we haven’t even touched on what makes the Tigers truly special.

The starting pitching is unmatched in the majors. Running Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Anibal Sanchez, and Rick Porcello, who has been shockingly successful, out there regularly can make a manager and pitching coach very relaxed.

The fifth starting spot could be interesting. Drew Smyly hasn’t been bad, but Robbie Ray has been eye-popping in 12 innings of work since being called up from the Hens. It’s hard to imagine the Tigers want to send him back. Stay tuned.

Detroit is getting good relief innings from newcomers Ian Kroll and Joba Chamberlain; Al Alburquerque has been mostly reliable, while hard-throwing Evan Reed has come into his own. The bridge to Nathan, who has 11 saves, was easily built.

For a team that has won three straight AL Central titles, the Tigers have undergone a surprising retooling. The Doug Fister trade for Kroll and Ray, the Fielder salary-dump swap for Kinsler, free-agent deals for Davis and Chamberlain and Nathan — it all represents some of Dombrowski’s finest work.

As for the core; Miggy and Victor and all that starting pitching, they are one-fourth of the way to the finish line and seemingly better than ever.

A lot, some bad, can happen along the way, but for a franchise missing only one trophy despite incredible success over the last eight-plus years, this season could indeed be special.

Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: dhack@theblade.com or 419-724-6398.



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