DETROIT — Barely more than one month ago, the Detroit Tigers were five games under .500 and six games back in the American League Central. With the division’s largest payroll and World Series expectations, they were called the most disappointing team in baseball.
Then, it was fair.
Now, it is untrue.
If the Tigers beat the Chicago White Sox Saturday (MLB on FOX, 3:30 p.m. ET), they will find themselves in a position once thought to be their birthright.
“People start talking about a team because we’re winning some games,” Detroit manager Jim Leyland said Friday, after a 4-2 win behind ace Justin Verlander. “Before, they were all over us, (calling us) underachievers — and we were.
“Whatever you’ve got coming, you’ve got coming. Now, people are going to say we’re playing pretty good. It’s pretty exciting. You accept that. When you’re not doing what you’re supposed to be doing, you accept that.”
Publicly, at least, Leyland was careful not to assign added importance to this series. His strategy suggested otherwise. Given the opportunity to reset his starting rotation coming out of the All-Star break, Leyland slotted Verlander third. That put the reigning MVP on track to start Friday’s series opener, opposite Jake Peavy, before a packed house of 44,572 on a cloudless, 80-degree night.
No accident, on a weekend when talk of the Tigers’ disappointing first half could vanish for good.
“You could say the slow start’s over,” Verlander observed. “Whether we have a strong finish or not, that’s yet to be seen. But I like the way we’re playing.”
Leyland, to his credit, maintained a steady hand when the Tigers were in danger of falling behind the Kansas City Royals not that many weeks ago. He seems equally calm about his team’s AL-best 14-5 record since June 28. This is the team he knew he had all along.
“We’re just scoring more runs,” Prince Fielder said Friday.
As a matter of fact, he’s absolutely right: The Tigers entered the weekend with 83 runs in July, tied with the Yankees for most in the AL. Miguel Cabrera and Fielder have been consistent run producers all year — they rank second and third among AL hitters, respectively, in RBI — but the bottom half of the order is finally showing up.
Delmon Young, who delivered Friday’s game-winning double, is having his best month. So is shortstop Johnny Peralta.
Verlander has been Verlander. He splintered Gordon Beckham’s bat Friday with a 100 mph fastball on his 115th pitch. On a checked swing. Ho-hum.
In some respects, the catalyst of the Tigers’ resurgence is a 27-year-old journeyman who didn’t make the team out of spring training: outfielder Quintin Berry.
Berry toiled in the minors for seven seasons, playing nearly 700 games for four organizations before debuting May 23 when center fielder Austin Jackson landed on the disabled list. Leyland installed him as the fulltime No. 2 hitter roughly one month ago. During Berry’s 24 games there, the Tigers are 17-7. He has become, in short order, an indispensable contributor to one of the most formidable lineups in baseball.
Last month, Leyland lamented publicly that his star-studded team lacked panache. He used a few different terms to describe it: cockiness, swagger, a “mean streak.”
Whatever he was talking about, Berry has it. Berry sparked Friday’s decisive rally when he was hit by a pitch with two out in the third inning, then provided a crowd-pleasing coda with a sprinting, sprawling catch in left field for the final out.
Berry hollered at the crowd, punched the air and basked in the moment. Superstars don’t necessarily react that way. And that’s kind of the point. Maybe the Tigers’ veterans — accomplished and wealthy — needed to see a player of Berry’s ilk. As with the best things in Detroit, his combustion is evident.
“Definitely,” Fielder praised. “When Jack got hurt, it was unfortunate, but I think it was actually a blessing. (Berry) wouldn’t have gotten a shot to do this for us if Jack wouldn’t have gone down. When Jack came back, it helped that we had an extra spark. He just works hard.
“He’s playing superb defense. He needs to be out there for his defense. He works hard at it. Hard work is always rewarded. If someone’s working hard, you can never say anything about him — ever.”
The Tigers aren’t perfect — even though they looked that way while Doug Fister, Max Scherzer and Verlander reeled off efficient starts in succession this week. Rick Porcello’s inconsistency, paired with the rookie combination of Drew Smyly and Jacob Turner in the No. 5 spot, suggest that the Tigers could use a veteran starting pitcher. (That is why they had a scout watching James Shields’ start for Tampa Bay Friday night.)
Right now, though, this is a very good team. Soon, it might be a first-place team. That would send a strong statement to the rest of the league — if only the Tigers were interested in that sort of thing.
“I don’t believe in statements,” Fielder said. “Too many more games left. A statement is when you win the World Series. That’s a statement.”