DETROIT — What did we learn about the Tigers on this homestand?
They won five straight before closing it out Wednesday with a whimper of a 6-2 loss to the Minnesota Twins. However, several interesting developments occurred while winning six of eight games.
The five things that popped out: 1) Sweeping the hot Atlanta Braves
The Braves still had the best record in the National League in April despite losing all three games in Detroit. Atlanta featured starters with some of the lowest earned-run averages in the game, and got bombed for 25 runs. It was a series that established the Tigers to be as good as advertised.
You might think a team that played in last year’s World Series doesn’t need the confidence boost of one series in April, but third baseman Miguel Cabrera disagreed.
“We expected to win that series,” Cabrera said. “But to sweep Atlanta makes you more comfortable, and makes you believe you can do it to anybody.”
2) Starting pitching wearing down opponents
Detroit left town with seven consecutive quality starts and a chance to win virtually every game with Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Anibal Sanchez, Doug Fister and Rick Porcello starting.
“That’s the main reason I’m here: the pitching staff,” said center fielder Torii Hunter, who quickly signed with Detroit as a free agent. “Every time we came here (with the Angels) it was a struggle to score runs. You get Scherzer, Verlander and then Anibal Sanchez (in the Minnesota series).”
Hunter raised his eyebrows and shook his head. Hey, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.
The Tigers are on pace to shatter the major league strikeout record, and the starters are the major reason why.
“When the pitchers do their job like that,” Cabrera said, “they make our job easy just by keeping us in games.”
3) The bullpen being the weak link
Jose Valverde returned as the closer and has not allowed a base-runner in three games with three spotless innings and a pair of saves. He’s off to a good start in his surprising return to the Tigers, and provides the much-needed anchor at the end of the relief chain.
However, who else can be counted upon? Joaquin Benoit will do as the eighth-inning setup man despite the fact he gives up too many homers. Drew Smyly has done an absolutely great job of holding together leads once starters depart.
Al Alburquerque can be either dominating or exasperating. Bruce Rondon was sent to Toledo on Wednesday when it became evident that he’s in no way ready for the majors. Phil Coke was inconsistent at best before going on the disabled list, and Darin Downs went from being quietly reliable to questionable after getting hit hard on the home stand.
Now hard-throwing right-handers Jose Ortega and Luke Putkonen take the places of Rondon and Coke (temporarily). Reinforcements, albeit unproven ones, will join the Tigers in Houston. Look for Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski to deal for a veteran reliever if somebody can’t step up to join Valverde, Benoit and Smyly. 4) The bottom of the order coming alive
Andy Dirks rested his sore right knee for several games, and came back hitting liners.
Omar Infante had been struggling on the road, but hit like a beast at Comerica Park.
Alex Avila and Don Kelly broke out of horrible slumps and began hitting the ball with authority again.
Victor Martinez also turned the corner and appears to be on the verge of becoming the No. 5 hitter that everyone envisioned.
Their improved hitting will be required to maintain a threat to score in all nine innings, and not just the ones when Austin Jackson, Hunter, Cabrera and Prince Fielder are batting.
5) They’re on a mission
Getting swept in the World Series can cause a team to sputter in doubt or respond with fire, and the Tigers have opted for the latter.
“What impressed me the most about these games is that we came to play every game,” said Martinez. “We know we are not going to go 162-0, but I hope the fans know that we never give in. If we are down 10-0 or up 10-0, we fight every at-bat to the end. Even being four runs down in the ninth, we thought we could win with the way we think.”
Cabrera and Fielder opened the ninth on Wednesday with singles, but Martinez’s hard-hit grounder did not get through the hole and instead became a rally-killing double play. Some games don’t get pulled out of the fire, but this team has the fire.
“What impressed me is the drive and the will,” Hunter said. “These guys want to win…They call them the Tigers because they want to eat.”