Detroit Tigers Offense Starting to Growl
The Detroit Tigers were scuffling a bit offensively through the early weeks of this season. A combination of solid pitching by their opposition, cold weather, and visiting some pitcher’s parks on their only West Coast swing of the season all spelled out a spate of games where Detroit’s lineup seemed very docile and apathetic.
The easy way to express the offensive malaise was pointing out that the Tigers had collectively hit only 12 home-runs through the first 20 games of the season ranking near the bottom in the American League. The lack of run scoring had put the club at .500 in the early going and was exposing the weaknesses of the Tigers bullpen by failing to pad any leads. Detroit’s bullpen was often left to battle with slim margins for error in the early going. Rock solid bullpens would have issues being perfect under the circumstances Detroit’s was operating. Given the state of arms in the Tigers ‘pen, it led to a lot of consternation among observers of the club.
After dropping an extra-inning affair to the Kansas City Royals on Thursday (another game where a slim late inning lead vanished partially due to Tigers’ run scoring grinding to a halt) the Tigers were preparing for an Inter-league showdown with the NL East leading Atlanta Braves. Many felt this was a possible World Series Preview going into the weekend. The Braves were coming town having vaulted to an early division lead based mostly on fantastic starting pitching and big power displays by new lineup additions Justin Upton and Evan Gattis. From all outward appearances this series looked like a challenge for Detroit’s pitching staff to contain the Braves’ power hitters and a series where perhaps the Braves pitchers were catching a cold Tigers’ lineup. (Detroit had scored a mere 16 runs in the prior 7 games.)
However, as we often see in baseball, the script flipped almost instantaneously. This flip was in the Tigers direction. Anibal Sanchez grabbed headlines on Friday night by crafting a strikeout masterpiece when he broke a Tigers’ club record by racking up 17 K’s. Sanchez simply dominated through 8 shutout innings as the Tigers won, 10-0. Sanchez’ performance made many forget that the Tigers completely mauled Braves’ starter Paul Maholm led by Matt Tuiasosopo’s towering homerun plus 4 more Tigers’ doubles which enabled the Tigers to outpace the Braves in extra-base hits (XBH) 5 to 3.
Saturday saw a closer game between the two clubs as Justin Upton smacked homer #12 to draw the Braves within one run in the 8th. However that was not enough to for the Braves. The Tigers added insurance runs in the bottom of the 8th to win the game 7-4. Once again the Tigers won the XBH battle on the day, 4-1, as they received homeruns from Jhonny Peralta and Omar Infante.
The two clubs then waited throughout the day in order to play on ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball. Playing throughout intermittent rain the Tigers used two 7th-inning homers (a solo shot by Infante and 3-run opposite field blast by Miguel Cabrera) to separate themselves from Atlanta in a game that was tied in the sixth-inning. The 7-3 Tigers victory featured them continuing to win the XBH contest, 4-2. This included three homers and a double as compared to Atlanta only posting two doubles on the evening.
The Tigers posted the sweep against the Braves and then welcomed the Minnesota Twins to start a three-game set at Comerica Park. The Tigers’ offense looked a little lethargic at times in Monday’s series opener against Mike Pelfrey but, again, a big fly came to the rescue. Prince Fielder took the first offering he saw from Pelfrey into the left-centerfield bullpen area to turn a 3-1 deficit into a 4-3 lead as Andy Dirks (who had homered earlier himself) and Cabrera scored in front of Fielder on the 3-run bomb. Max Scherzer took game into the 8th inning and with the help of Drew Smyly and Joaquin Benoit, the Tigers made Fielder’s homer hold up for their 4th consecutive victory. The close contest predictably saw a close battle in total XBH’s….with the Tigers eeking out a 4-3 lead to mirror the game’s final score.
The Tigers’ rotation is off to the kind of start most expected. Save for one disaster outing by Rick Porcello when he gave up 9 first-inning runs the Tigers have been getting consistent performances from their starting pitchers. If their offense starts to support their pitcher’s work by consistently pounding out the extra base hits it seems likely that Detroit can stay atop the AL Central into the summer months. But make no mistake….the Tigers need extra-base hit production. They don’t have the team speed to consistently score runs by stringing together singles and hoping to take extra-bases due to their legs. The Tigers simply don’t have that makeup especially in the middle of their order where Cabrera, Fielder, Victor Martinez, Peralta, and Alex Avila combine to be among the slower groups of players you can find. The Tigers need balls to clear fences or at least bounce off of them in order to score on a consistent basis. The last 4 games where they have a 17-9 XBH (8 of the 17 being homers) advantage over their opposition is “possibly” a sign that things are turning in their direction.