Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder in the middle of the lineup. The reigning American League Cy Young Award winner and MVP Justin Verlander as the ace starting pitcher. A closer who went 52-for-52 in save opportunities in 2011 in Jose Valverde. Lackluster competition in the American League Central Division. All of these ingredients blended together beautifully by February, creating a stew of optimism and unshakeable confidence for hungry Detroit Tiger fans craving a World Series championship that has eluded them since 1984.
But as Major League Baseball resumes its schedule following the All-Star break, the Tigers find themselves staring up at both the Cleveland Indians and the Chicago White Sox in the AL Central Division standings. So as Tiger fans try to demonstrate selective memory when thinking of this year’s All-Star break, (Fielder winning the Homerun Derby and then Verlander getting bombed in the All-Star game) let’s take a look at the keys to success for the Tigers if they hope to make the playoffs for the second consecutive year:
More consistency from the starting rotation: OK, so the National League All-Stars treated Justin Verlander like a mere batting-practice pitcher during the 83rd annual Midsummer Classic. Big whoop. Verlander was more concerned with putting on a show and lighting up the radar guns than painting the corners and pitching efficiently and he admitted as much. It came back to bite him. But you can bet that it won’t keep gnawing at him when he returns to the hill for Detroit. It’s the rest of the staff that needs to step up. Although Max Scherzer finished third in the AL in strikeouts in the first half with 121, his earned run average currently sits at 4.72, which is 69 points higher than his career clip. His walks plus hits per innings pitched, or WHIP, is also at a career-high mark of 1.39. A bizarre first half all in all for
Max, but the silver lining is that he is 6-2 in his past nine starts with a respectable 3.59 ERA over that stretch. Doug Fister on the other hand is going in the opposite direction. Fister had a recurring torso injury that sent him to the disabled list on two separate occasions this season and has been anything but the savior he was once he threw on the Old English D in the second half of 2011 when he went 8-1 for the Tigers. In three of his past six starts Fister has given up six runs or more. In his last start against Kansas City though, he seemed to find a good balance between his fastball and his curveball. His curveball broke a lot more than it has in the past couple months, which is hopefully a sign of things to come for the 28-year-old right hander.
Hitting contributions from the bottom of the lineup: It’s no coincidence that Delmon Young hitting four home runs and Jhonny Peralta batting .300 in the past five games has led to a perfect 5-0 record for the Tigers since the Fourth of July. Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder have earned their money in 2012, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. In fact, the 1-4 spots in the lineup have been producing for the Tigers for much of the season. It’s the 5-9 slots that have been the black hole in Detroit. Young has hit .295 after the All-Star break during his seven year career so it may just be that time of the year that he gets it going. Keep your fingers crossed. As for the others, catcher Alex Avila has battled knee soreness since late last season but claims to feel better than he has in quite some time. He and fellow third-year Tiger Brennan Boesch are hitting below the .250 mark and have only driven in a combined five runs in July. Both are capable of putting the team on their back for stretches and both are long overdue to start producing. Young, Peralta, Avila and Boesch have all underachieved this season. If even one of them can resemble an All-Star during the dog days of summer, the Tigers have a healthy shot at snagging the AL Central division title.
Austin Jackson using All-Star snub for motivation: There is a handful of talented young outfielders that are truly emerging in the American League this season. Adam Jones and Mike Trout certainly come to mind. But another name atop the list is Austin Jackson. Point blank, Jackson deserved to compete in Kansas City as a part of the American League All-Star team this year. A-Jax is currently second in the AL in on-base percentage behind Joe Mauer at .408, and is batting .332 with nine homeruns and 54 runs scored—all this and he missed 22 games in May and June with an abdominal strain. Include the Gold Glove-caliber defense Jackson provides in center field and you have yourselves a clear as day All-Star snub, ladies and gents. Jackson can go one of two ways from here. His numbers can level out over the course of the next three months or he can put this snub in his back pocket and use it to continue to tear the cover off the ball. Jackson has been a pleasant surprise for the Tigers to say the least this year, and he is every bit as vital to Detroit’s lineup as Cabrera and Fielder going forward. After all, if he’s not on base, who are those guys knocking in?
Through all of the Tigers struggles and underachieving, they are still only 3.5 games behind the AL Central-leading White Sox and just a half-game back of the Indians. The Tigers will tangle with the Sox in three more series’ this year and the Tribe in four, in what are obviously seven pivotal series’ for Detroit. But if the Tigers can just squeeze a little more consistency out of their starting rotation, gain more production from the bottom of their lineup and put an Austin Jackson with a chip on his shoulder to good use, they will wind up with a recipe for success in the second half of the 2012 MLB season.