Before we start dreaming about that A’s-Tigers ALCS, before we get into a bar-room fight over which of Detroit’s three Cy Young winners should face Jon Lester in Game 1 of an October series, before we anoint the Tigers American League champs for 2014 and 2015, let’s remember this: the Tigers still have a division to win this year. The AL Central race is not over. Far from it.
On Thursday, the Tigers lost to the Yankees 1-0 in the final game of what was a dreadful series for the AL Central leaders. It wasn’t just that Detroit lost three of the four games in the Bronx, it was the way they lost, with the offense scoring a total of six runs (while tallying just 24 hits) over the four-game series. Fresh off its mega deal to acquire David Price, the Tigers lost two of the three games started by their Cy Young winners. They wasted a strong pitching performance from Max Scherzer on Monday, they scraped out an extra-inning win on Tuesday and they were shut down by the Chris Capuano and lost despite a solid effort from Justin Verlander on Wednesday. After Wednesday’s dreary 5-1 defeat, Tigers manager Brad Ausmus solemnly told reporters, “Tonight was as bad as we’ve been offensively, I think, really all year.”
And then, on Thursday, the Tigers were even worse. Rick Porcello allowed one run over seven innings to give the Tigers their seventh straight quality start, and still the Tigers lost 1-0 to Yankees rookie Shane Greene. Things got interesting in the ninth when Greene allowed a leadoff single to Ian Kinsler, but closer David Robertson eliminated the threat by getting a pinch-hitting Miguel Cabrera to ground out into a double play and Don Kelly to pop out.
So here are the Tigers, 62-50, as they begin a three-game series this weekend with the Blue Jays, and while on paper they may seem like a juggernaut, it should be noted that since a 27-12 start, they are just 35-38. They are 9-12 after the All-Star break, hitting just .254 with a .306 team OBP. The Tigers pitching staff has been as good as advertised, but the offense’s performance of late has to make you at least wonder if they’re really as great as everyone seems to think they are.
Yes, the Detroit offense still ranks fourth in the AL in runs scored and first in slugging, but this week exposed an offense that clearly isn’t the force we’re used to in Detroit. It’s an injury-prone, right-handed-heavy order, that’s not quite as strong with Austin Jackson gone. It’s a lineup with two great hitters, Cabrera and Victor Martinez, carrying the offense, and lately, Miggy and V-Mart have also looked human: Cabrera has hit just three home runs since the All-Star break and Martinez, after a monster first half, has cooled off a bit as well. With Torii Hunter out of the lineup with a hand injury, sixth through nine in the Detroit order -- with guys like Kelly, Andrew Romine, Bryan Holaday, and Ezequiel Carrera -- isn’t that much better than what the Astros are rolling out every night.
And then there’s this: the Royals are playing really good baseball right now. Kansas City beat the Diamondbacks 6-2 in Arizona on Thursday night behind a two-run home run from Alex Gordon, a big two-run single from red-hot Salvador Perez and a coolly efficient complete game from Jeremy Guthrie. The Royals have won 12 of their last 15 games, and they’ve moved 2 ½ games within the Tigers. This is Detroit’s smallest lead in the division since June 23. To make matters worse for Detroit, Kansas City has one of the softest September schedules in the league.
The Tigers are still favorites to win the division. They’re still one of the teams most likely to win this year’s World Series. They’ve still got probably the best rotation in the universe.
But let’s remember: it’s still only August. Before the Tigers start worrying about October and the Oakland A’s, they need to worry first about the Royals.