Many expected the Detroit Tigers to run away with the AL Central this year, but it’s been nearly three months since they were in first place.
The Tigers have a chance to reclaim the division lead Saturday, but they’ll have to go through Chris Sale, who takes the mound for the Chicago White Sox at Comerica Park trying to win his ninth straight decision.
After winning the Central last season, Detroit (50-44) was the favorite to repeat behind Justin Verlander - the defending AL MVP and Cy Young Award winner - and newly acquired first baseman Prince Fielder.
Things haven’t gone as expected for the Tigers, who haven’t been in first place since they were tied with the White Sox (50-43) on April 23. They pulled within a half-game of Chicago on Friday, however, winning the series opener 4-2 thanks to eight strong innings from Verlander.
“I have no idea how this is going to play out, but we’ve come here the same every day,” manager Jim Leyland said. “When you’re a good team, at some point you’re going to play good. And we’re a good team, and right now we’re playing pretty good.”
The Tigers have won three straight and 11 of 13, led by their two offensive stars. Miguel Cabrera is hitting .400 with five homers and 12 RBIs over the last 13 games while Fielder is batting .383, driving in 15 runs in that stretch.
They’ll try to keep that going against Sale (11-2, 2.11 ERA), the AL ERA leader and a contender to unseat Verlander as the Cy Young winner.
The left-hander is 8-0 with a 1.61 ERA in his last 10 outings. Despite allowing a season-high 10 hits Sunday at Kansas City, he limited the damage to one run over eight innings of a 2-1 victory for his third straight winning start.
“It was his game,” manager Robin Ventura said. “He finds a way to get himself into trouble and out of trouble, too.”
After 10 career relief appearances versus Detroit, Sale made his first start against the Tigers on April 15, giving up three runs and five hits over five-plus innings of a 5-2 loss.
The White Sox turn to him after losing their third straight to fall to 3-5 on their 10-game road trip. Kevin Youkilis, Adam Dunn and Paul Konerko were a combined 0 for 12 Friday, with Youkilis, who sat out Thursday at Boston with a tight left hamstring, striking out three times.
Chicago hasn’t dropped four in a row since a five-game skid April 24-28.
“Eventually we’ll get on another run where we put everything together,” Ventura said.
They’ll try to get back on track against Rick Porcello (6-5, 4.66), who has won four straight starts against Chicago, including two this year.
Porcello beat Sale in April, surrendering one run and five hits over 7 2-3 innings, and was sharp again in a 3-1 win May 6. Alex Rios is 4 for 22 (.182) with two homers versus Porcello while A.J. Pierzynski is 3 for 16 (.188).
However, the right-hander struggled in his first start after the All-Star break, giving up five runs and eight hits in 5 2-3 innings of Detroit’s 8-6 win over the Angels on Monday. He yielded 12 hits in 3 2-3 innings in his previous outing.