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Published: Sunday, 4/1/2001

Good start would give boost to Tigers

BY RON MUSSELMAN
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

LAKELAND, Fla. - The Detroit Tigers fashioned a 35-5 start in 1984 en route to winning their last World Series title.

It was - and still is - the best 40-game start in major league history.

Outfielder Bobby Higginson and general manager Randy Smith certainly don't expect history to repeat itself this season, especially not with starting third baseman Dean Palmer on the disabled list and newly acquired catcher Mitch Meluskey out for the season with a shoulder injury.

Nonetheless, a quick start would help take the pressure off the Tigers, who lost 17 of their first 22 games a year ago and hit rock bottom on May 10 at 9-23.

“We're always digging ourselves a hole,” Higginson said. “If we could just play even for the first month, maybe we would be in position to make a run.”

The Tigers, who have endured seven straight losing seasons and missed the playoffs 13 consecutive years, rebounded nicely from their poor start last season. They were 70-67 on Sept.5 and only five games out of the wild-card lead.

“If you get off to a good start, it makes believers out of everybody,” Smith said.

The catalyst was Higginson, who recovered from a horrible 1999 season to bat .300 with 30 home runs and a career-best 102 RBIs. He also was a defensive weapon, leading the majors in assists with 19.

A six-game losing streak eventually knocked the Tigers out of playoff contention. They finished 79-83, and they were shut out a major league high 15 times.

“Everybody just wants to look at our start,” manager Phil Garner said. “But we were only three games out of a playoff spot before September began without Juan Gonzalez and Tony Clark, and that's what really hurt us.”

This past winter, the Tigers lost Gonzalez, their disgruntled cleanup hitter. Worse, the organization didn't make a single offer to a free agent.

But Smith did pull the trigger on a six-player deal with the Houston Astros that brought three players to Detroit - Meluskey, No. 4 starter Chris Holt and right fielder and leadoff hitter Roger Cedeno.

Meluskey will be replaced behind the plate by Brandon Inge, who had been pegged to start the season at Triple-A Toledo. Inge, 23, is one of the organization's top prospects.

“I think this team should win more games than we won last year,” Garner said. “Do we have more potential? I'm not sure yet. We had home-run potential last year with Gonzalez in the middle of the lineup. We're not going to have as much home-run potential, but we're going to be able to get on base better and we'll have better speed.

“Clearly, we should finish over .500.”

For a change, the Tigers will play more games at home (15) in April than they do on the road (nine). Detroit opens its season Tuesday afternoon against the Minnesota Twins at Comerica Park.

“When we were playing well last year, the team took the field expecting to win,” Smith said. “That's the attitude we need to have from the start this season.”

Detroit plans to spend $53 million this year, a cut of $5 million, but still more than $20 million above what the team spent in 1999, its final season at Tiger Stadium. The Tigers will rank 19th in payroll among 30 teams in the majors.

“I think there's a chance we could be good,” Higginson said. “I think we could be an exciting ballclub.”

“You've got to have the mindset that you can win,” said Palmer, who has been slow to recover from off-season shoulder surgery and will miss at least the first three games of the regular season. “If we all have our good season, the season we're capable of having, we can do some great things.

“But it's going to take that. We can't afford to have our big guys have off years.”

Tigers shortstop Deivi Cruz is one of the better shortstops in the American League, but he gets overshadowed by Derek Jeter of the New York Yankees, Alex Rodriguez of the Texas Rangers and Nomar Garciaparra of the Boston Red Sox.

Last season, Cruz batted a career-best .302 with 46 doubles, the most by a Tiger since George Kell's 56 in 1950.

Cruz was second on the team to Higginson with 583 at-bats and 176 hits. He had 55 multiple-hit games, the most by a Tiger since Alan Trammell's 64 in 1987, and ranked fourth among AL shortstops defensively.

Cruz was the second-hardest batter to fan in the AL, striking out just once every 14.3 at-bats. Yet, he is a free swinger, walking just 13 times last season.

“He's quiet, he's funny, he's sneaky, so you have to watch him,” hitting coach Bill Madlock said. “But he comes to work. He works his butt off.”

The Tigers also are counting on designated hitter/reserve outfielder Billy McMillon, who batted .345 in 105 games at Toledo last season en route to being named Detroit's minor league player of the year. McMillon hit .301 with four homers and 24 RBIs in 46 games with the Tigers.

This also is a pivotal year for center fielder Juan Encarnacion and first baseman Clark, who was limited to 208 at-bats last year because of injuries. The Tigers think second baseman Damion Easley can improve his average because he won't be leading off. Utilityman Shane Halter will fill in for Palmer at third to start the year.

Former No. 1 pick Jeff Weaver, the team's Opening Day starter, appears ready to become the ace of the staff. He will be joined in the rotation by Dave Mlicki, Brian Moehler, Steve Sparks and Holt.

Todd Jones returns as the team's closer after an outstanding 2000 season.



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