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Published: 7/17/2008

Tigers, Tribe adjust plans

BY JOE VARDON
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

The Tigers and Indians entered the All-Star break as you might have expected when the year began - with Detroit talking playoffs and Cleveland finishing off a sweep of Tampa Bay.

But as far as prognostications go, almost nothing else with these clubs has gone according to expectations.

The Tigers, with baseball's second-highest payroll, have won as many games as they've lost. They're 47-47 and in third place in the American League Central, seven games behind first-place Chicago.

The Indians, the division's reigning champ, are much worse. Injuries and a broken bullpen have sabotaged their title defense, leaving them 13 games behind the White Sox and in last place.

"We haven't had the year we wanted to," Cleveland's all-star center fielder Grady Sizemore said. "Things haven't gone our way, but that's baseball."

No kidding.

If there is anyone out there who predicted the AL Central would go this way - with the Indians out of it before the All-Star break and the Tigers desperately trying to hang on in a race with the White Sox and Minnesota Twins - please stand up.

Cleveland lost core players Victor Martinez and Travis Hafner, and key pitchers Fausto Carmona and Jake Westbrook, for large chunks of time due to injuries. Westbrook (elbow surgery) isn't expected back until the middle of next season, and it's a mystery as to when Hafner (shoulder) might return.

The Indians have already fired last year's AL saves leader, Joe Borowski, because of ineffectiveness. And one of the game's best set-up men a year ago, Rafael Betancourt, has a 6.00 ERA - about 4 1/2 runs higher than last season.

Thus, Cleveland has traded ace CC Sabathia to Milwaukee for prospects, and preparations for next year have begun.

The Tigers, meanwhile, lost their first seven games and 10 of 12. They didn't hit in April or May, scoring 1.9 runs per game in their first 32 losses. Detroit has also been bugged by several bumps and bruises, one major injury (Jeremy Bonderman's blood clot), and its starting pitching has been suspect for much of the year.

So why, exactly, were the Tigers talking about a playoff run on Sunday?

"We've been playing better. We're not done yet," said third baseman Carlos Guillen, Detroit's lone all-star.

Miguel Cabrera, a key offseason acquisition, added: "We're having fun. Good things are happening to us now."

The Tigers went 19-8 in June to save themselves from oblivion. Cabrera's batting average is up to .284, and he's got 16 homers and 57 RBIs. Ace pitcher Justin Verlander has a 2.54 ERA in his last seven starts and is riding a five-game winning streak.

And falling in line with all of the other Mud Hens the Tigers have called upon for service this year, Matt Joyce has played well. The reigning AL player of the week, Joyce has hit four homers in his last five games, and has nine homers overall and a .266 batting average in 31 games.

Those are just some of the Tigers' reasons for optimism. Manager Jim Leyland doesn't believe in momentum, but acknowledges his club is playing better and hopes to cut the White Sox's lead to three games by September.

The Sox end this month with three games in Detroit followed by four in Minnesota, and have three more with the Tigers and seven against the Boston Red Sox in August.

The Twins, who lead Detroit by5 1/2 games for second place, have to play three games at Yankee Stadium this month and three at home against the Yanks in August, as well as embark on a brutal, 11-game West Coast trip ending Aug. 31.

"We've got to play very, very, very, very well," Leyland said. "I think we're capable of playing very, very well. And if we play very, very well and a couple teams ahead of us play very, very well, we're not going to catch them. There's no sense trying to [kid] anybody.

"But there's some tough stretches for these teams ahead of us, too. We have a chance."

Leyland and general manager Dave Dombrowski were both mum on any possible trades to improve the club - possibly for a left-handed hitter or starting pitcher - and the Tigers could end up not making any moves by the July 31 non-waivers trade deadline.

The players they already have need to stay healthy to contend. Magglio Ordonez is expected back for tonight's game against Baltimore. Gary Sheffield has to shake out of his 8-for-49 slump.

The Indians, who resume play Friday in Seattle, are on a bit of a roll. After losing 10 in a row from June 28-July 9 - their longest skid since 1979 - the Tribe ended the first half by taking four straight from the surprisingly good Tampa Bay Rays.

Cleveland expects Carmona (hip) and Martinez (elbow, hamstring) back, and manager Eric Wedge wants to see his team finish this season strong with an eye toward next year. And in looking ahead, the Indians may deal Casey Blake or Paul Byrd for prospects.

Sizemore will try to become the second Indian ever to hit 30 homers and steal 30 bases in a season, and All-Star game starting pitcher Cliff Lee will shoot to keep the Cy Young Award in Cleveland, following Sabathia's 2007 performance.

Others, like Betancourt, will try to correct what went so horribly wrong.

"This season's been a little difficult for all of us, but all we can do now is keep playing," Betancourt said. "Right now, I don't want to talk like the season is over."

Contact Joe Vardon at:

jvardon@theblade.com

or 419-410-5055.



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