While Prince Fielder wont he Home Run Derby on Monday, the $214 million first baseman ranks second in Detroit with 15 homers.
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The American League Central figured to feature less suspense than a homecoming election … in a class of five.
With their lavish new prince, the Tigers would be crowned by Easter or, more conservatively, Memorial Day. Thanks for coming to the dance, Indians and White Sox. (The Twins and Royals had other commitments.)
The Tigers won the division by 15 games last season, then added $214 million first baseman Prince Fielder. Detroit opened in Las Vegas as 1-to-4 favorites to repeat -- presumably the same odds given in Yemen's one-candidate presidential election in February.
Then the season started and, well, talk radio callers fired every Tigers player, coach, executive, and usher six times. It was that kind of first half -- a zany three months in which North was South and the Pirates and Nationals occupied first place.
The Tigers (44-42) begin the second half tonight in Baltimore a half-game behind the Indians, 3 1/2 games in back of the first-place White Sox, and a world short of expectations.
In short, Detroit has set up a division race that promises to entertain deep into the summer.
Yet for all of the Tigers' flaws, they remain as they did in the winter: The favorite. A club that has kept Toledo on speed dial -- Detroit has used 42 players this season -- finally appears to have stabilized.
After falling as many as six games under .500 in June, the Tigers entered the All-Star break on a five-game winning streak and are just one game off their pace from the same time last year.
"Overall, we've survived pretty good," manager Jim Leyland said. "I guess that would be the best way to sum it up."
There's good reason to stay bullish on the Tigers, beginning with the superstar triumvirate that includes the reigning AL Cy Young and MVP winner (Justin Verlander), batting champion (Miguel Cabrera) and Home Run Derby victor (Fielder) -- not to mention All-Star leadoff man Austin Jackson, whose .408 on-base percentage is second in the AL. Verlander earned the start in Tuesday's All-Star Game, and Cabrera and Fielder rank second and fourth in the AL with a combined 134 RBIs.
Detroit's questions center on everyone else, including the rotation, the bottom of the lineup, and the ability to catch the ball at a competent rate.
Most pressing, they need starters Max Scherzer -- the AL's strikeout leader per nine innings -- to continuing pitching like it's 2010, and Doug Fister (2-6, 4.75 ERA) to rediscover a glimmer of his 2011 form. After Fister went 8-1 with a 1.79 ERA for the Detroit last season, the right-hander has struggled with injury and inconsistency, allowing four runs or more in six of his last starts.
Shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera had an All-Star first half as the Indians trail the Chicago White Sox by three games in the AL Central.
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With a trade market short on game-changers, the Tigers are also counting on Jhonny Peralta, Alex Avila, Brennan Boesch, Ryan Raburn, and Co. to begin approaching their production from a year ago.
All hands are necessary as Detroit forays into its most testing stretch of the season. The Tigers have only two series against teams with a losing record before Sept. 18. After the three-game set in Baltimore, they face in order the Angels, White Sox, Indians, Blue Jays, Red Sox, Indians, Yankees, and Rangers.
The saving grace? The Tigers have 10 games remaining against Chicago and 12 against Cleveland, though both division rivals have proven grittier than expected.
The White Sox were already in first place before adding a revived Kevin Youkilis -- the former Red Sox first baseman was named AL Player of the Week on Monday -- while the Indians have so far dusted the Tigers.
Cleveland, which is 5-1 against Detroit this season, could make a push if oft-injured slugger Travis Hafner stays healthy, All-star shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera, rookie second baseman Jason Kipnis, and right fielder Shin-Soo Choo continue to carry the lineup, and the rotation delivers more consistently. Though top-three starters Justin Masterson, Ubaldo Jimenez, and Derek Lowe have displayed flashes of their former selves, they all wield ERAs of 4.40 or higher.
So whose division is it? Can the Indians hold off Detroit and run down Chicago? Can the Tigers restore order to the chaos, like they did a year ago in winning 31 of their last 41 regular-season games before advancing to the AL Championship Series.
"At some point, you will have to put together a pretty good streak," Leyland said. "You can't assume that's going to happen because it happened last year. A lot of people are talking about that. I don't buy into that. Different years are different years."
But he will say this.
"We'll be playing for something," he said. "This is going to be a race."
Contact David Briggs at email@example.com, 419-724-6084 or on Twitter @DBriggsBlade.
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