DETROIT - Hours before the Tigers began their last home stand, the Red Wings paraded along Woodward with the Stanley Cup. As the city celebrated, it seemed there was little reason to pay much mind to a fourth-place baseball team.
As if to underscore how rudderless they were, the Tigers lost that night to Cleveland and fell 10 games back in the American League Central. Manager Jim Leyland said his team's offensive woes were "almost like a mystery."
He spoke of the need to "keep supporting them, keep running them out there, keep grinding it out."
"Hopefully," he said, "one of these days it turns on and never turns off."
Lo and behold, it turned on the next day.
And it has not turned off yet.
The Tigers have won 12 of 15 games since that June 6 loss, and tonight they will play their first game at Comerica Park since the official start of summer. The schools are out, the hockey season's afterglow has begun to fade, and the St. Louis Cardinals will be in town for an interleague series.
The Tigers are in third place, five games behind the division-leading Chicago White Sox. The deficit is manageable for a talented team that has nonetheless spent every day this season on the wrong side of .500.
With the All-Star game only three weeks away, fans across Michigan are wondering how deeply they should invest their emotions in a team that so resoundingly disappointed them in April and May.
The question is simple: Are the Tigers a legitimate postseason contender?
After stops at 0-7, 2-10, 16-26 and 24-36, the answer is yes.
"We're playing much more like we all thought we would play," said Dave Dombrowski, the president and general manager.
The Tigers have the most firepower of any team in the division, and that has become evident on the field in recent weeks.
•Marcus Thames has transformed himself from a part-
timer into perhaps the team's most valuable player.
The argument could be made that Thames is saving the Tigers' season with each successive home run. Think about it: Detroit is 11-1 when he homers. Thames hit seven home runs in a span of eight games. The barrage has lifted this team in a way that nothing else has.
"There's no question that he's been a spark for us," Dombrowski said.
•The rotation looks reliable again.
Kenny Rogers has regained his 2006 form, rookie Armando Galarraga has been the team's most pleasant surprise this year, and Justin Verlander is coming off a victory Sunday in which he struck out a season-high 10.
Nate Robertson struggled early this year but has found his footing in recent weeks, with a 5-1 record over his past six starts.
One key going forward will be the performance of Eddie Bonine, the rookie right-hander. He is 1-0 after starts against two light-hitting National League teams but will soon be tested by more formidable American League lineups.
•Curtis Granderson and Pudge Rodriguez are hitting again.
Consider their performance over the past 15 games: Granderson is hitting .347 and Rodriguez .467.
Granderson's timing seems to have returned following a fracture in his hand that sidetracked his season. Rodriguez looks rejuvenated by Leyland's plan to get him more rest; he reached base four times Sunday, with a home run, single and two walks.
•The defense is noticeably better.
Carlos Guillen seems to have surer hands at third base than he did at shortstop last year. Miguel Cabrera made one gaffe that led to an infield hit Saturday, but he has generally made progress at first.
Magglio Ordonez and Thames (with a relay from Edgar Renteria) made tremendous throws from the outfield to cut down runners at the plate over the weekend.
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