Tigers finding a way to get it done

A surefire way to sell hope after finishing in last place the year before: Eat the $14 million contract of the most noted slugger on your roster just days before the season was to have begun with a celebration of his 500th home run. Fall short in the offseason bidding for a bona-fide closer, then wind up giving the job to the in-house candidate with a track record for not inspiring trust. Begin the season so short on arms in your starting rotation, you cross your fingers and hand the ball to a 20-year-old kid who started last season in A-ball, while hoping that your biggest offseason acquisition can at least hold his own as well as he did for Tampa Bay.

And then, after the season begins, arrange for your cleanup hitter to become so slump-ridden that he does a reverse Samson – he cuts off his hair to regain his strength – while another reliable middle-of-the-order bat can’t play because of a sore shoulder.

Ladies and gentlemen, your AL Central-leading Detroit Tigers, who won seven in a row until losing Friday night in Houston, opening a little ground in a division in which every team has deep flaws, though the Tigers have done the best job of keeping theirs under wraps.

And the way they’re playing now, the Tigers – who jettisoned Gary Sheffield(notes), lost Dontrelle Willis(notes) to anxiety issues, placed their faith in rookie Rick Porcello(notes) to join ace Justin Verlander(notes), were blown away by ex-Ray Edwin Jackson(notes), revamped their defense with Adam Everett(notes) and their bullpen with Fernando Rodney(notes), and learned to hit even when Magglio Ordonez(notes) and Carlos Guillen(notes) weren’t – may wind up looking much prettier than anyone thought possible.

Now, if they can just keep Scott Boras from filling out Jim Leyland’s lineup card – the agent made a public fuss when Leyland sat Ordonez for a few days last week – the Tigers may yet prove that even in battered-but-still-standing Detroit, machines built to last can rise out of the ashes.

“We’re playing as well as we have this season,” Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski said Friday afternoon. “We’ve scuffled, too. We played seven games in a row without scoring more than three runs, and should hit better than we have, but we’ve had consistent pitching and defense, and a pretty deep bullpen.”

They’ve pitched well primarily because of the kid, Porcello, and Jackson, who has emerged as one of the top right-handers in the league, fulfilling the promise he first flashed as a prized Dodgers prospect. Porcello has pitched at least six innings in just half of his 14 starts, but he has shown poise beyond his years in winning eight games, matching Verlander for the staff lead. Jackson, meanwhile, has an ERA of 2.40, the second lowest in the league, while averaging 2.6 walks per nine innings, well below his career average of 4.2.

Did the Tigers, who gave up promising left-handed slugger Matt Joyce(notes) in the Jackson trade, expect these kinds of results?

“I’d be lying if I said we did,” Dombrowski said. “Some of our people didn’t want to make the trade. We thought he’d be solid, but he’s become one of the best starters in the league.

“You always knew he had the capabilities. His pure stuff is tremendous, and he’s just 25. He’s done a good job working with Rick Knapp, our pitching coach. And with added maturity, he’s learned how to deal with tight spots, not just rearing back and throwing.”

Leyland did a makeover of the left side of his infield, reinstalling Brandon Inge(notes) full-time at third and bringing in Everett, a free agent from the Astros. Gerald Laird(notes) was brought in from Texas to handle duties behind the plate. The Tigers ate Sheffield’s contract, not because they decided he couldn’t hit anymore, but because his departure gave more time to younger players like Marcus Thames(notes), Clete Thomas(notes), Josh Anderson(notes) and Ryan Raburn(notes).

And after losing out in the busy off-season closer, the Tigers gave the job to Rodney, who is 16 for 16 in save situations. It helps, of course, when setup man Joel Zumaya(notes) is healthy again and back to throwing 100 mph fastballs with regularity.

Ordonez has hit just three home runs, one after he cut his hair this week, while Guillen has been out since May 5 with a bum shoulder, though Dombrowski said Friday that he could be back by the July 31 trading deadline.

“We could probably use another bat,” said Dombrowski, before noting that Inge and Granderson [17 homers apiece] have taken some of the burden off Miguel Cabrera(notes), who is quietly putting up MVP-type numbers. “And he hasn’t even gotten real hot yet,” the GM said.

The Tigers don’t have the look of a team that can run away with the division, but for now, they’re in the driver’s seat. In Detroit, that remains a very comforting feeling.

HITTING THE CORNERS

Run and gun: The Rays came into the weekend needing two home runs to become the first big league team in history with 100 or more homers and 100 or more stolen bases before the All-Star break. The Rays have 111 steals – most through 74 games since the 1991 Expos – and 98 home runs. And we’ll summon Tim Roth and the rest of the cast of “Lie to Me” if there’s anyone out there who says they expected Ben Zobrist(notes) to be the Ray most likely to challenge Jose Canseco’s club record for home runs in June. Zobrist has eight, one short of Canseco’s record. Before this season, the most home runs Zobrist, a part-timer, had hit in a month was five, last September.

Terrors in the Trop: The Rays don’t have a legitimate closer, rookie phenom David Price(notes) has been erratic, leadoff man Akinori Iwamura(notes) missed a month with torn knee ligaments and B.J. Upton(notes) has been slow to recover from shoulder surgery. Tough times for Tampa Bay, no? Hardly. After taking two of three from the Phillies this week in the World Series rematch, the Rays began the weekend trailing only the Dodgers (33-19) for the majors’ best record since April 30. They’re 31-21, just ahead of the Red Sox and Tigers (both 30-21) and Angels (29-21). The Rays, just as in their drive to the AL pennant last season, have been tough in the Trop, going 17-5 at home over the last five weeks, a winning percentage of .773. And 12 of their last 18 games before the All-Star break are at home.

Papi was a rolling stone: Three weeks admittedly is a small sample size, but since June 6, only two players have had a slugging percentage over .800. One is Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki(notes), who has overcome a brutal start to conjure visions of the player who helped Colorado to the World Series in 2007. The other is David Ortiz(notes), who has hit seven home runs in his last 17 games after a horrific homerless slump at the start of the season led to endless speculation that he was hurt, too old, washed up.

“It’s unbelievable how many guys go through that,” Red Sox hitting coach Dave Magadan said. “Just the grind of the season, him going to the WBC and not going through his normal routine in spring training, finally getting to spring training, bad habits he established in the WBC carried on into spring training, and little by little it starts to snowball.

“You’re not getting to balls, and you start thinking you’ve got to do something mechanically, and really it’s just being in the hitting position when the ball needs to be struck. A lot of people equate it to your foot – ‘I’ve got to get my foot down.’ I equate it to, ‘My hands have to be in the launch position.’ Your foot can do whatever it wants. You don’t swing the bat with your foot.”

Ortiz weathered the slump with his sense of humor intact.

“Funny all the [expletive] people talk when you struggle,” he said. “There was even a guy who said I’m older than I look like. Not the first time I heard that.

“People like to speculate. You just got to keep your cool. You’ve got situations that you have to deal with that people don’t know.”

Ortiz was referring to his father, who is battling cancer. “People think everything is roses and flowers,” he said. “That’s their mentality. But I just take everything slowly.”

Ortiz said manager Terry Francona never wavered in his support. The same was true of owner John Henry, and the fans, whose support he noted was different than the booing Alex Rodriguez(notes) hears in New York.

“The fans here hung tight with me,” he said. “I have seven years here, banging. You going to boo me because I struggled for the first time? I’m a big-time reason they saw the Red Sox win a World Series in their lives. And you’re going to boo me? That’s going to make me play better?

I think one thing the fans understand about me is I never look over my shoulder when I’m doing good. When I’m doing good, I keep it simple. There have been times when I’m going good, people try to get me to talk [expletive], but I’m not that kind of guy. I keep it real. I just try to do better, help this ballclub be better. You’ve never heard anything bad about me. I don’t get in trouble. What else do you want from a player? Seriously.

“The majority of fans, they were on my side – ‘Papi, you’re going to be fine.’ ”

Sorry Sori: Back on April 22, Cubs outfielder Alfonso Soriano(notes) bruised his knee running into the outfield wall. He did not go on the DL, though he said the left knee hasn’t felt the same since.

After going 0 for 4 Friday against the White Sox, striking out three times, Soriano is batting just .231. He has 14 home runs, but just a .294 on-base percentage, appalling for a leadoff hitter.

Ari Kaplan, the Cal Tech-trained statistical analyst who has consulted for a number of teams and has his own website, ariball.com, suspects that the knee injury may have caused Soriano to change his approach at the plate, namely that he is swinging much more at low-and-away pitches outside of the strike zone. Of the 45 times he has swung at such pitches since being hurt, he has missed 33. Before his injury, he swung and missed just once at a pitch low and away.

    “An injury on the lower left side [knee, leg, foot] does not necessarily limit a player’s power or bat speed at the plate,” Kaplan observes. “However, players may make different mental adjustments by shifting weight off the back foot differently, which can affect one’s power, bat speed, and selection of pitch types and locations to swing at.

    “In Soriano’s case, he stands close to the plate with a wide stance that centers the plate. There is no negative connection between this injury and his ability to drive the ball. Before the injury, he pulled the ball down the left-field line, with a few fly balls to short right. After the injury, he is spraying the ball more to all fields – but they are fly balls and popups more often than before. The ball is carrying more, but resulting in fly-ball outs instead of hits.

    “Since the injury, he has been hitting line drives nearly half as often [13 percent vs. 22 percent before] and ground balls more [43 percent vs. 35 percent before].”

    How are pitchers adjusting? Since mid-May, Kaplan notes, they are throwing him fastballs more often [45 percent vs. 40 percent] possibly thinking that he can’t catch up to those pitches. He is seeing fewer sliders and changeups, which is counter-intuitive to Soriano’s history of trouble with such pitches.

Scaling the heights: So, the wise guys say all it took for Raul Ibanez(notes) to start hitting home runs was to shift venues, from spacious Safeco Field in Seattle to cozy Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia. But if that’s the case, how do you explain that Ibanez has hit the longest home run this season – 477 feet off Chien-Ming Wang(notes) in the new Yankee Stadium? Ibanez is just one of two hitters, Chris Iannetta(notes) of the Rockies being the other, to have hit three home runs that have traveled 450 feet or more this season. That’s according to Greg Rybarczyk, the former Naval nuclear engineer who runs hittrackeronline.com, which tracks every home run.

Leading the majors for what Rybarczyk calls the Golden Sledgehammer Award is Detroit’s Cabrera, who is averaging a distance of 421.9 feet for his 15 home runs. Second longest average belongs to Cardinals strongman Albert Pujols(notes), whose 26 home runs have traveled 417.3 feet.

Wheat vs. chaff: Here’s the biggest reason why you may not see much trade activity until the deadline approaches. Entering the weekend, the Yankees led the AL wild-card race, but there were six teams within 6½ games of the lead. The National League field is even more crowded; the Giants led, but 10 teams were within six games of the lead. “I think you may not see much movement until the last few days,” one general manager said. “It may take that long for teams to decide whether they’re in it or not.”

FC trivia: After walking three White Sox batters in one-third of an inning Friday, Cubs reliever Carlos Marmol(notes) has walked an astonishing 38 batters in 34 1/3 innings. He is the only big-league pitcher with at least 30 innings to walk more than a batter an inning. Meanwhile, there is only one pitcher averaging less than a walk per nine innings (same minimum). Can you name him? Hint: He has given up more home runs (5) than walks (3).

Fungo hitting: Almost two weeks after some had exiled Manny Acta to the unemployment line, the Nationals manager was still in charge, and team president Stan Kasten, in a speech to the National Press Club on Wednesday, said that he believes Acta “has the potential to be a long-term manager here. That’s my hope.” Asked afterward if that meant it was safe to surmise that Acta was safe for the foreseeable future, Kasten advised his inquisitor never to surmise. … Xavier Nady’s(notes) Yankee career probably came to an end after reports Friday that he likely has a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow. He is expected to miss the rest of the season and surgery could jeopardize 2010 as well. Nady, who came to the Yankees in a trade last July 25, is a free agent after this season, one in which he is being paid $6.55 million. … Cubs officials said that teams showed zero interest in Jake Fox(notes) when he was tearing up Triple-A early this season, batting over .400 with 16 home runs. Fox’s defensive deficiencies are widely known, but the Cubs thought an AL team in need of a right-handed DH might have inquired about him. It’s safe to say Fox has placed himself on radar screens this week with back-to-back three-hit games that included his first two big league home runs. Lou Piniella has used Fox all over the diamond, with one start in right field, one in left, three at third base, and, Friday afternoon against the White Sox, at DH. … Jason Bay(notes), who was Joey Votto’s(notes) teammate on Team Canada in the World Baseball Classic this spring, said he was not aware at the time that the Reds first baseman had lost his father the previous summer, and certainly no sense of the grief Votto was experiencing. In an extraordinary session with reporters in Toronto this week, Votto revealed that his recent stint on the DL was tied to anxiety issues – including a panic attack in which he went to the hospital fearing he would die – related to his trying to come to terms with the loss of his father, with whom he’d been extraordinarily close. … “I didn’t [know] more than anybody else,” Bay said this week. “I didn’t even know his father had passed away in August, so I was kind of in the dark. I talked to him numerous times [in the WBC], real nice guy, he was playing lights out, and I had no idea, never would have thought something was bothering him. From what I hear, he was figuring out how he was going to deal with it. He may have thought it would go away, it would be less, but then you’re back on the stage and all of a sudden it hits you. How do you prepare for that? I give him all the credit in the world for saying exactly what it was. Baseball is a tough enough game when you’re doing it with a clear head and feeling good, never mind dealing with something like that. I don’t wish that on anybody. I wouldn’t know the first step on how to deal with something like that.”

FC trivia answer: Mariano Rivera(notes). The Yankees closer has walked just three batters in 29 1/3 innings, a .92 walk per 9 innings ratio. Toronto starter Roy Halladay(notes) ranks close behind, with just 12 walks in 103 innings, a 1.05 ratio.

Gordon Edes is a national baseball writer for Yahoo! Sports. Send Gordon a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Saturday, Jun 27, 2009