Storm clouds surround Comerica Park. The Tigers and Yankees waited four hours before starting at 11 last night.
DETROIT - The New York Yankees and Detroit Tigers expect an exciting finish over the final five weeks of the regular season as they chase division leaders and battle to stay in the wild-card race.
New York manager Joe Torre is well aware of the slump the Tigers are enduring, but he cautioned counting them out.
"They weren't playing very well when we played them in the postseason last year," Torre said last night before rain delayed the series opener. "They wound up in the World Series. We didn't. Enough said, right?
"They're very talented. They have a great manager. This game is a funny game, and you wonder how certain things happen, then they straighten themselves out. We just hope when they get hot, it's after we leave town."
The Yankees and Tigers are scheduled to wrap up a four-game series Monday night.
Detroit staggered to the finish last year after clinching at least a wild-card bid, but beat the Yankees and the Oakland Athletics in the playoffs en route to its first World Series appearance since 1984.
Manager Jim Leyland tried to downplay the final scheduled matchup with the Yankees, then in the next breath he acknowledged each series the rest of the season will be critical.
"They're all dangerous now. It's crunch time," Leyland said. "You've got to start winning ballgames. It's that simple.
"There's a lot of teams in the same boat, the Yankees included. We're one of them. They're one of them. Cleveland. Boston. Seattle. Minnesota. A lot of teams."
Detroit was beaten by AL Central-leader Cleveland on Sunday - losing for the 22nd time in 32 games since having the best record in the majors on July 21 - to fall 2 1/2 games behind in the division.
"They're a much better club than they've been playing, obviously," Torre said.
While the Tigers are in their worst stretch of the season, the Yankees have been playing well since they had a losing record and trailed Boston by 12 games.
New York had won 30 of 44 games dating back to July 5, entering last night, to trail the Red Sox by 5 1/2 games and to pull within two games of Seattle in the wild-card race.
The Yankees will open a three-game series Tuesday at home against Boston.
The previous day, right-hander Mike Mussina is scheduled to start in an outing that will be watched closely after he allowed 13 earned runs the last two times he was on the mound.
Torre is searching for solutions to help Mussina turn things around, though he insisted it will not be a make-or-break start for him to stay in the rotation.
"We might give him a couple extra days here and there," Torre said. "On Monday, he will have had extra days rest. We'll see if that's a benefit.
"The only thing that is curious to me is his last two starts - he warmed up really well in the bullpen and his stuff seemed to be a lot better than it was when he got to the mound. The only difference he has to employ is be more aggressive in the strike zone."
The Tigers, meanwhile, are hoping designated hitter Gary Sheffield (shoulder) is healthy enough to play during the upcoming road trip that starts Tuesday night in Kansas City and continues with a two-game weekend set at Oakland.
"Hopefully, Sheffield will be back shortly," Leyland said.
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