DETROIT -- Delmon Young feigned disbelief as a larger-than-usual crowd of reporters filtered into the home clubhouse Friday afternoon at Comerica Park.
"We must be playing somebody good," the Tigers outfielder said.
They were -- and Detroit isn't afraid to admit it.
If the first-place White Sox were a surprise team weeks earlier, no more. Tigers manager Jim Leyland is convinced the American League Central will be a scrap to the eleventh hour.
That's why a series against a Chicago team that won 78 games a year ago was greeted Friday with a calendar-belying degree of anticipation. The Tigers began the night trailing the White Sox by 1 1/2 games -- their narrowest deficit since May 13.
"It's good for your fans," Leyland said. "You want to have them excited. The town's fired up. ... That's what it's all about. Hopefully we don't disappoint them."
Leyland does not buy the narrative that the Tigers are set to run away with the American League Central in the same fashion as last season, when they won 31 of their last 41 games and won a once-tight division by 15 games. He believes the White Sox -- and perhaps third-place Cleveland -- have staying power.
Starters Jake Peavy and Chris Sale -- the rookie left-hander is 11-2 with a 2.11 ERA entering tonight's start -- form one of the game's best top-of-the-rotation tandems while the steady bat of all-star Paul Konerko and two revived sluggers give the Sox a feared middle of the order.
Adam Dunn and Alex Rios have both shoved aside dreadful 2011 seasons. Dunn, though he's batting only .208, is tied for the MLB lead with 28 home runs after hitting .159 with 11 homers last season. Rios is batting .313 with 52 RBIs and 13 homers through 90 games after hitting .227 with 44 RBIs and 13 home runs in 145 games.
"[The White Sox] are really good," Leyland said. "And they've been good for a long time. Dunn's always been the same hitter he is right now. He just didn't have a very good year going over their that first year. Who knows? We've had him as one of the best -- if not the best -- power hitters in all of baseball for a several-year period there. Rios has bounced back. There's two big bouncebacks for them."
White Sox manager Robin Ventura, meanwhile, said he pays neither the Tigers nor the out-of-town scoreboard much attention. Not yet.
"You don't follow day-to-day stuff," he said. "When you get ready for a series, that's when you start paying attention to what the advance guys give you. But everybody's petty familiar with each other."
That familiarity will only grow. The Tigers and White Sox, who split their first eight meetings this season, play nine more times -- including a four-game September series in Chicago.
SETBACK FOR DIRKS: Don't make any plans to see Andy Dirks in Toledo. The outfielder returned to Detroit this week to gauge if he was ready to begin a rehab assignment. A series of workouts left his injured Achilles tendon sore -- and a projected date for his return still in the air.
"I thought that was going to be real soon, but then it got set back," Leyland said.
Dirks, who batted .328 with four homers and 16 RBIs in 37 games, went on the disabled list May 31.
Contact David Briggs at firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6084 or on Twitter @DBriggsBlade.