Victor Martinez has been the instigator of this approach. He’s such a bulldog and has struck out only three times in 87 plate appearances (hardest to fan in the league). Martinez is batting .298 with four homers and 13 RBIs. Pitchers must hate facing him — even more than Miguel Cabrera right now. And while hitting is contagious, it appears Martinez’s relentless focus is, as well.
Several players also have passed along unsolicited compliments about new hitting coach Wally Joyner, whose "keep it simple" mantra has had an impact. He emphasizes timing and balance, and keeps fixes to a minimum rather than tying hitters in knots with several corrections at once.
Adding left fielder Rajai Davis and second baseman Ian Kinsler as the 1-2 hitters has set the tone, too. Kinsler hits in the clutch, and Davis is among the league leaders with a .333 batting average and eight steals. It’s looking like Davis won’t have to be platooned after all. He’s hitting .345 against right-handed pitchers.
And consider that two-time defending league MVP Cabrera wasn’t even much of a factor until putting together his current seven-game hitting streak. He’s batted .419 in those games, raising his average to .277. Although some of the Tigers who are off to a hot start will cool down, Cabrera appears ready to offset that.
The starting rotation has been even better than advertised. They’re averaging just over six innings per start and have a combined 2.98 ERA after Max Scherzer’s six shutout innings on Wednesday. How good is that? Well, Scherzer won the Cy Young Award last year with a 2.90. Justin Verlander has a 2.48 ERA, and the group has prospered even though Anibal Sanchez has been hurt and trying to find his groove.
What has to be scary for the rest of the league is, the impact of this group has the potential to become even greater as their pitching load increases and Sanchez — who led the league with a 2.57 ERA last year — returns to normal form.
Lefty prospect Robbie Ray — the key player acquired in the much-debated Doug Fister trade with the Washington Nationals — will take Sanchez’s place with two starts on the next home stand. With a 1.59 ERA in Toledo, it looks like he should fit right in.
Rick Porcello just keeps getting better and better, and could be on the verge of turning into something special. Drew Smyly is taking the composure he showed in the bullpen into starts and has a way of carving up hitters without overpowering them.
SEALING THE DEAL
The Tigers are putting away games when they have a late-inning lead. It might shock you — since the much-maligned bullpen has a 5.37 ERA — that Detroit is 12-0 when it leads a game after seven innings.
That’s because closer Joe Nathan and setup man Joba Chamberlain know how to keep games in the win column. Had they not been added, this season could be going down in flames.
Nathan got off to a shaky start, but has a 1.80 ERA in his last five outings and five of his 346 career saves. He brings even more than his arm and will to the team, though. Watch him during the post-game victory line. He’s a natural encourager who conveys a winning vibe. And several relievers have told me that they’re learning something new about their craft from him every day.
Chamberlain also had a rough first outing and stumbled a bit. But he recently had six consecutive appearances when he was lights-out, and is the guy Tigers manager Brad Ausmus wants facing the meat of a batting order. Chamberlain also brings emotion and support to teammates.
What Chamberlain and Nathan did in preserving the 4-3 comeback win Tuesday night in Chicago was especially significant. It that game, they both seemed to cement their roles on their new team, which quite simply refused to lose.
It was the 10th comeback win of the season for a team that has the league’s second-best record after one month of play.
And that’s the best way to establish a champion’s swagger. Teams that can’t be kept down have a way of ending up on top.