There were quite a few people who questioned whether the Tigers were going to be able to repeat as Central Division champions.
Very few of those people saw the Chicago White Sox as the team that could supplant them.
But Monday night in Chicago in the opening game of a four-game series between the two teams vying for the division, the evidence of why that could happen was on vivid display.
Alex Rios snapped the Tigers’ 1-0 lead in the sixth inning with a three-run home run off Rick Porcello. Right after that, A.J. Pierzynski hit a home run of his own, making it 4-1.
“Rick has killed me throughout my career, throwing sinkers,” Pierzynski told FOX Sports Detroit’s Trevor Thompson on the field after the game. “I saw the replay. It actually wasn’t a horrible pitch. I just got lucky and got one up to where I was laughing at Austin Jackson, that he couldn’t catch it because usually when you hit it to center he catches everything.
“I don’t know exactly what Alex did but it was huge because we’ve been putting so much pressure on ourselves with a guy on third and less than two outs, we haven’t been able to get that hit. It seemed like the weight of the world was off our shoulders.”
Although second baseman Omar Infante committed an error that extended the inning, one of three for the Tigers, Porcello took the blame.
“It’s my job to get outs and keep making pitches, regardless of what happens,” Porcello told Thompson on the postgame show. “Our guys played tough. It’s on me. You get in a tough situation like that, you’ve really got to bear down and find something within to get out of those jams. I wasn’t able to do that.”
Gordon Beckham added a two-run homer in the eighth off Octavio Dotel to complete the scoring in the 6-1 victory.
“We just didn’t play a real good game defensively and of course we only got the one run again,” manager Jim Leyland told Thompson. “That pretty much sums it up. He was pitching really, really good. He got a high sinker up to Rios. It just kind of stayed and he hit it out of the ballpark, but he was pitching really, really well.”
The White Sox (76-64) now lead the Tigers (73-67) in the division by three games.
Last season when the Tigers won 95 games and ran away with the Central, there were a few players that had career years.
One was Justin Verlander, who went 24-5 with a 2.40 ERA and tiny 0.92 WHIP.
Verlander, who is 13-8 with a 2.91 ERA and 1.055 WHIP has hardly been horrible and couldn’t be expected to reproduce such a ridiculously dominant season, but he hasn’t been the same stopper that he was a year ago.
However, Verlander wasn’t pitching Monday so the loss could not be pinned on him.
It’s actually a couple of Tigers hitters versus White Sox hitters that need to be examined.
Shortstop Jhonny Peralta had one of the best seasons of his career last year, earning an All-Star berth. He hit. 299 with 21 home runs and 86 RBIs.
Perhaps it would be unfair to expect him to come up with similar numbers, but Peralta is hitting .252 with 11 home runs and 58 RBIs, one of which came Monday night.
With runners in scoring position last year, Peralta hit .307 with two home runs and 62 RBIs. This season he’s batting .269 with four home runs and 47 RBIs.
Another player who was instrumental in the Tigers’ success last year was Alex Avila, who was the starting catcher in the All-Star Game. He hit .295 with 19 home runs and 82 RBIs.
Although he did not play Monday, Avila is batting .243 with eight home runs and 39 RBIs.
With runners in scoring position last year, Avila hit .290 with three home runs and 58 RBIs. This season he”s batting .263 with three home runs and 28 RBIs.
Contrast that with Rios and Pierzynski.
Last year Rios hit just .227 with 13 home runs and 44 RBIs. This year he’s hitting .294 with 23 home runs and 85 RBIs.
With runners in scoring position last year, Rios hit .171 with four home runs and 33 RBIs. This year he’s hitting .352 with eight home runs and 62 RBIs.
Last year Pierzynski batted .287 with eight home runs and 48 RBIs. This year he’s hitting .285 with 26 home runs and 73 RBIs.
With runners in scoring position last year, Pierzynski hit .266 with one home run and 37 RBIs. This year he’s hitting .327 with five home runs and 44 RBIs.
“The biggest thing is we’re winning games,” Pierzynski said. “We’re in a place where no one thought we would be except for ourselves. It’s fun. It’s fun to come to the park every day and for me personally, you just want to ride the wave as long as you can and enjoy it because it doesn’t happen like this a lot.
“The biggest thing is the guys, everyone’s pulling together and everyone’s trying to win games and everyone’s doing whatever it takes.”
It sounds a lot like the way the Tigers were feeling at this time last season. If they don’t find that mojo soon and their hitters remain cold, it’ll be the White Sox winning the division.
“It’s frustrating,” catcher Gerald Laird told Thompson. “We’re battling. I know people get tired or are frustrated with us but guys are up there trying and battling. Like (Monday), you’re up there facing a guy you’re not familiar with, we hadn’t seen him yet. You want to see some pitches but sometimes you can’t, you can’t afford to because you’re in a hole. No excuse. We’ve just got to go up there and execute. The other teams have been doing it against us. We’ve got to go up there and execute, make plays.