Tigers finding their way after slow start
When we last left Jim Leyland and the Tigers, they were scuffling. Their ace, Justin Verlander, was outpitched by Tampa Bay's David Price and the team lost to the Rays, 4-2.
That was June 29.
This juggernaut that was supposed to run away with the American League Central Division was three games under .500 and trailed the White Sox and Indians by five games.
After paying $214 million for slugging first baseman Prince Fielder and with the likes of Verlander and Miguel Cabrera aboard, they were merely treading water.
"You shouldn't get too high when you win or too low when you lose," Leyland said. "Like I've always said on nights you get beat, 'Do what you do every other day, you go home, because tomorrow you're going to win.'"
The Tigers did win "tomorrow," and since that loss to Price have rocketed to first place with 15 victories in 19 games. They just swept the White Sox in three games after taking three of four from the Angels.
The way the Tigers, who are on a five-game winning streak, have been playing is impressive. The Angels and White Sox are two of the strongest teams in the AL, yet Detroit won six of the seven games.
If there was concern when the Tigers were playing poorly, it didn't show in the clubhouse or in Leyland's cubicle. There was just too much talent, and as CEO/general manager Dave Dombrowski said, "It's all about consistency. That's what we need."
Dombrowski said what we're seeing now "is the jelling aspect. We've been playing much better. The question marks, the guys that just weren't playing quite as well, have come together for us."
Speaking from his office on Monday, Dombrowski added, "It's really been a combination of things. Our starting pitching has thrown the ball well, and our bullpen has been consistent. The bottom part of our order -- Delmon Young, Brennan Boesch and Jhonny Peralta -- those three guys have really stepped it up for us.
"We've got a long haul ahead of us, a lot of games. But if we can continue to play this way, we'll be in good shape."
Dombrowski has done a masterful job assembling the Tigers. Now, as the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline approaches, Dombrowski has strengthened the team again just like last year, when he acquired Delmon Young and Doug Fister. He's always had a knack for doing that.
Making a big deal with the Marlins on Monday, the Tigers bolstered their rotation by acquiring right-hander Anibal Sanchez and also added second baseman Omar Infante in the five-player deal. To acquire the two, Dombrowski sent right-handed pitching prospect Jacob Turner, catcher Rob Brantly and left-handed pitcher Brian Flynn to Miami.
Leyland's calm approach while the Indians and White Sox were taking turns in first place cannot be overstated.
"We knew we'd play good at some point," he said. "We're playing good right now, but we have to continue. I just want to stay consistent. But even when times were bad early in the season, it was not because of lack of effort or not being ready to play. We just weren't playing very good."
Leyland also cautions how much of the season remains, and once again, remaining consistent is the key.
The Tigers begin a nine-game road trip Tuesday night in Cleveland. The surprising A's and the Tigers are the hottest teams in the Major Leagues.
Since losing to Price in June, Verlander has reeled off three consecutive victories, improving his record to 11-5 and lowering his ERA to 2.42. In his past three starts, Verlander's ERA is 1.08.
Before the Tigers began their tear, the offense was not performing to its potential.
That has changed and one of the major reasons they've been winning.
Third baseman Miguel Cabrera, who hit two homers on Sunday to reach 300 for his career, has been on fire this month. He's hitting .397 (27-for-68), with seven homers and 17 RBIs.
Fielder isn't far behind, hitting .359 (23-for-64) with three home runs and 16 RBIs.
Leyland keeps saying forget about preseason predictions.
"You can't pay any attention to that," he said. "Last year, we were supposed to finish fourth, won 95 games and took the division by 15 games."
On Sunday, as the Tigers reached the high point of their season, Leyland was relaxed and agreed his team was playing well. "But," he told reporters, "it's only July 22."
Or as he said earlier: "In baseball, there's really no such thing as momentum. You're only as good as your next day's pitcher."
Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.