The AL Central: Week of 8/2 to 8/8
In the red-hot cauldron of winning baseball known as the "Top of the AL Central" three teams came into the week August 2nd through August 8th feasting on a steady diet of victories. The Royals had been fulfilling GM Dayton Moore's assertion that his club was capable of ripping off a 15-5 streak of baseball and catapulting themselves back into contention. The Indians were riding a successful streak of solid starting pitching and late inning heroics on offense to stay step for step with the streaking Royals. Finally the Tigers were on a 5-game win streak of their own despite the Biogenesis Scandal looming over their shortstop Jhonny Peralta. In short, things were getting pretty spicy in the Central.
This space is typically devoted to following the entire AL Central...but let's be honest. This week boiled down to four games in Cleveland.
Yes, the Royals are now hot on the Tribe's heals. The KC crew is a legitimate threat in the Wild Card hunt as well. They surpassed Moore's idea of going "15-5" by actually running themselves to 16-4 over the last 20-games. Most importantly they have a 5-game series looming later this month in Detroit and 11-games overall left against the Tigers. They will have their chance to make inroads against Jim Leyland's crew in due course. But that time has not yet come.
Stunning 4-game swing in Cleveland
The series in Cleveland was a showdown between the Tigers and Indians that was supposed to be some kind of collision between the immovable object and the irresistible force...however it emphatically turned into a hot knife through butter by the end.
For the seventh time in eight tries this year the Tigers won a 4-game series. They did it in a fashion that has left Terry Francona longing for the days where "fried chicken and beer" was his biggest issue instead of facing Miguel Cabrera and the Detroit rotation. The Tigers marched into Cleveland and swept the Tribe. Detroit's 3-game lead suddenly has become a 7-game bulge and has brought things like the "Magic Number" countdown out of mothballs once again.
It was as an entertaining series from a pure baseball perspective...deep down even Tribe fans would probably admit the first three games had them on the edge of their seats for much of it. It will certainly be a happy memory for Tigers fans for a while...(well, at least until they drop a series at some point and then new panic can set it!)
The series swung Detroit's way late in Game 1. Tribe starter Corey Kluber had outdueled Anibal Sanchez and turned over a 2-0 lead to his bullpen. Closer Chris Perez, appearing for the third consecutive night, took over and simply didn't have it. Prince Fielder started the rally, despite being mired at the time in a slump, with an opposite field double. Three batters later Alex Avila would launch a stirring three-run bomb to cap the four-run uprising and the Tigers flat out stole a 4-2 win.
Game 2 is probably best known now as "Verlander Returns". Verlander, who has disappointed many observers this season, was more than flashing Cy Young form on the evening. He dominated Cleveland throughout his 8-inning stint with 7 strikeouts and zero walks on the evening averaging over 96-mph on his fastball. In a week where some things went right for the Tigers and a few things went wrong, this outing from Justin Verlander may have been the brightest spot.
Verlander was backed up by one big inning against his mound-opponent on the night, Justin Masterson. Masterson was looking excellent through the first four innings as he looked to end a string of rough outings against the Motown crew. But a controversial hit-batsmen call in favor of Ramon Santiago spurred a 5-run outburst that included a 3-run homer by Masterson-killer Don Kelly (11-24 against Masterson now after three hits in this game). Santiago appeared to have squared to bunt and probably offered at the pitch. It was ruled a HBP however and the rally was on. These were all the runs Verlander needed for the 5-1 victory.
Game 3 in the series was a classic. Bound to be replayed on cable during the long winter months to warm the hearts of Tigers fans during the coldest nights in January. The Tigers got their first look at rookie flamethrower Danny Salazar after he was called up to take a start for Ubaldo Jimenez. Jimenez was moved back to avoid his all too typical collapses against the Tigers. Salazar spent most of the night being a revelation. Often throwing triple-digit heat he struck out 11 batters on the evening including Miguel Cabrera the first three times he faced him. Only a Jose Iglesias bloop RBI ingle and an Austin Jackson solo shot blemished Salazar's runs allowed column.
Until the 8th. Two out. One on. Tribe up 3-2. Cabrera. Salazar. First pitch. 96-mph heater. Gone. Amazing. Story book ending? No!
Cabrera's homer should have been the death knell for the Tribe. But they persevered and rallied against Drew Smyly in the bottom of the 8th. Back to back doubles put runners on second and third with no one out. Leyland summoned Bruce Rondon from his bullpen and the young rookie almost pitched out the jam completely. However, after whiffing pinch-hitter Ryan Raburn rather easily, Rondon did allow a slow chopper by Yan Gomes that scored the run from third since the infield was playing back. Rondon retired the next batter to preserve the tie.
The game would move along to the 14th inning and include stellar work from Jeremy Bonderman...dear Lord...Jeremy Bonderman! Bonderman pitched three scoreless innings and shocked many...no one more than the Tribe probably. Prince Fielder would win it in the 14th with a two-run double...but the game wouldn't end without a final gasp by Cleveland. They rallied for a run and left Michael Bourn on third-base to end the game. 6-5 Tigers.
Game 4? The rout was on. 10-3 Tigers and it wasn't that close. Max Scherzer once against pitched great but also received an obscene number of runs to back up his pitching performance. His record now stands at an eye-popping 17-1. This appeared to be a slightly beaten down effort from the Indians. A couple of errors and some rather ordinary exertion of energy in the field appeared evident. A long week of unsuccessful battle against the Tigers seemed to take the final fight out of the Tribe on Thursday night.
What happens next?
For the Tribe...they host the Los Angeles Angels, a club with injuries and disappointment up and down their roster. If Francona can find some way to subdue the brilliance of Mike Trout, this series is an immediate chance to bounce back. Yes, the Tribe is now 7-games back but it's far too early to throw in the towel in the division hunt. Barely two weeks ago the Texas Rangers stood 6-games back of Oakland. The Rangers battled back in a short span to tie the race. Can Cleveland do the same? Hard to see right now, especially with the news of Kluber heading to the DL with the dreaded finger issue that seems to haunt Cleveland pitchers over the years. But not impossible.
The Tribe is down to only three head-to-head matchups with Detroit to gain ground. But that might be okay given that the Tigers have seriously mauled the Indians with 13 victories in 16 tries. Cleveland is probably happy to take their chances on beating other clubs and hoping for substantial help against the Tigers from the rest of the league.
Can the Tribe hold off the Royals? We'll answer that one next week.
The Tigers? They keep rolling and they do it despite an ever-mounting toll of injuries and the 50-game suspension of Peralta. Cabrera can barely run. Avila left Thursday's game with a possible concussion. Omar Infante lingers on the DL.
But incredible starting pitching cures many ills. Time and again the Tigers run Verlander, Scherzer, Sanchez, Rick Porcello, and Doug Fister to the hill and they get starts that hold the Tigers in nearly every game until the offense can do just enough.
With that rotation, an improved defensive cast, and a bullpen fortified by the work of Joaquin Benoit plus the addition of Jose Veras, it appears the Tigers used this sweep to separate themselves from the pack and show that they have the depth of talent to withstand the spate of injuries...even when they miss a presence like Cabrera for several games.
They were thought all along to be the team to beat...despite the hot strings by Kansas City and Cleveland out of the All-Star Break, the Tigers still are that team. Winners of 16 out of 17 and 12 straight. The Tigers currently sport the best record in the American League. Two series upcoming with the Yankees and White Sox that shouldn't appear, on paper, to slow them down much even on the road. What roadblocks remain for the Tigers?
Hmmm...that 5-game series with Kansas City should be interesting.