A month ago, it looked like the Detroit Tigers were running away with the AL Central. By Sunday night, they may be looking at a co-leader.
Looking to hang on to first place, the Tigers meet the Minnesota Twins at the Metrodome on Thursday in the start of a four-game series that may go a long way toward deciding a division winner.
On Aug. 7, Detroit was 76-36 and held leads of 10 games over the Chicago White Sox and 10 1/2 in front of the Twins. Since then, the Tigers have gone 9-19 while Minnesota (80-58) posted a 15-12 record.
The Tigers’ struggles started with consecutive home losses to the Twins after winning 10 of the first 13 from them this year.
Detroit (85-55) now enters play leading the Twins by four games and by 4 1/2 over the defending World Series champions, who’ve gone 15-15 over the last month to stay in the playoff mix.
“Do we have pressure on us? Yeah, we do,” Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. “But in my opinion, we have less pressure than Minnesota, the White Sox and some of the teams that were supposed to win. We were supposed to get better.”
The Tigers have not won a series in their last six tries, most recently losing two of three games to Seattle, including a 5-4 decision in 10 innings Wednesday.
Brandon Inge was 3-for-3 with a double and a home run for the Tigers, who used a three-run eighth inning to tie the game before it was delayed 3 hours, 9 minutes by rain.
After the game, the Tigers released designated hitter Dmitri Young, whose season was marked by a 30-day stay in a California rehab center to undergo treatment for substance abuse. He batted .250 with seven home runs and 23 RBIs this season. He had 21 homers and 72 RBIs for Detroit last year.
“It’s a business, I guess,” said first baseman Sean Casey, whose locker was next to Young’s. “Dmitri is a great guy and a great player. Any time you lose a player like that. … I really don’t know what to say to tell you the truth.”
Rookie Justin Verlander (15-7, 3.27 ERA) tries to get Detroit back on track and remain undefeated against Minnesota this season. The right-hander is 2-0 with a 0.60 ERA in two starts versus the Twins, allowing just one run through 15 innings.
The 23-year-old went 11-1 with a 2.46 ERA in 15 starts from May 10-Aug. 1 before missing a start with a tired arm. In five starts since, he’s gone 1-3 with a 5.46 ERA.
Verlander pitched well in his last start, tossing seven scoreless innings and limiting the Los Angeles Angels to four hits in a 7-2 loss in 10 innings.
“I’m never happy when the team loses, but that’s the way baseball goes,” said Verlander, who threw a career-high 126 pitches with a season high-tying four walks and six strikeouts. “I kept us in it, and I’m pleased with that.”
Verlander is 7-5 with a 3.72 ERA in 13 road starts this season, but has struggled in his last three road outings. In losses to the White Sox, Boston and Cleveland, the right-hander has a 9.77 ERA with an opponent batting average of .414.
Minnesota’s 45-22 home record is the best in baseball, just ahead of the New York Mets, who have gone 45-24 at Shea Stadium.
Having learned of Detroit’s loss earlier in the day, the Twins had an excellent opportunity to overtake the Tigers with a sweep of this series. Instead, Minnesota’s 14-game winning streak over lowly Tampa Bay ended with a 4-2 loss in the series finale.
The Twins were cruising until starter Carlos Silva was forced to leave after six innings with an upset stomach. Rookie Pat Neshek gave up back-to-back homers with one out in the seventh inning to Greg Norton and Ty Wiggington, allowing the Devil Rays to take the lead for good.
“We just have to move on,” Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. “A little frustrating, but what can you do? If you can’t go, you can’t go.”
Scott Baker (4-7, 6.55) looks to build on one of his best outings of the season for Minnesota. On Saturday in his first start since being recalled from the minors, Baker held the New York Yankees to a run and a two hits over five innings during a 6-1 win in a game shortened to eight innings by rain.
“That’s never a bad thing to do good against those guys,” Baker said.
Baker is 2-0 with a 2.84 ERA in three career starts versus the Tigers, but didn’t receive a decision in his only meeting against them this year, allowing four runs and seven hits over six innings in a 7-6 loss on May 6.
Joe Mauer, who homered for the Twins in Thursday’s loss, is hitting just .138 (4-for-29) over the last nine games. He still leads the AL with a .345 batting average, one point ahead of the Yankees’ Derek Jeter.