Saturday, August 25, 2007

It's nearing gut-check time for Tigers


Maybe that is what will finally awake the Detroit Tigers out of their August slumber.

A four-hour rain delay followed by a four-and-a-half-hour game. A 3:30 a.m. walkoff home run by Carlos Guillen.

No, you don't see that more than once in a lifetime.

The Tigers have been flailing for over a month now. Their starting pitching has been anything but advertised. Their bullpen has defined "shaky." And their lineup really isn't that scary anymore.

Sill — and I can't believe I'm saying this — after Friday night's eight-and-a-half-hour affair — a 9-6 win in 11 innings over the Yankees — the Tigers find themselves a mere game and a half behind the Central Division leading Indians (mostly because Cleveland has been almost as bad as Detroit of late).

Detroit hasn't won a series since it swept the Twins July 17-19. It hasn't even won back-to-back games in two weeks.

So, yes, Saturday night's game against the Yankees is huge. The marathon victory Friday night won't mean a thing if the Tigers can't wipe the sleep from their eyes and focus clearly enough to win this second game of the four-game set.

No, a loss Saturday night wouldn't mean the end of the season. Heck, losses in the final three games to the Yanks wouldn't diminish all hope, but it sure would tighten the noose. The Tigers need momentum. They need to get the car moving instead of conking out every block. Who knows if Guillen's long ball was the beginning of a change in direction.

It's gonna take a team effort
It is clear, with Joel Zumaya finally back, that the presence of one player isn't going to determine the Tigers' fate. Sure, Zumaya's return was such a big deal that it was featured on the front page of the "Detroit Free Press," but he went on to allow all three runs just two days later in a devastating 3-1 loss to the Indians (if the Tigers could have pulled that game out, they'd be in first place right now).

The same can be said for Gary Sheffield. Yes, the Tigers miss his veteran presence in the lineup right now, but he alone is not going to push the team back into the postseason. Especially if his shoulder continues to bother him.

It's going to take both a team effort from the pitching staff and the batting lineup — starters 1-5, hitters 1-9... all the relief pitchers — to be playing when the leaves change colors. That was evident on Friday when the bullpen didn't allow a run in more than six innings of work. Everyone did their job — even Tigers' fans whipping boy, Jason Grilli.

A big concern for the Tigers has to be Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez, who simply isn't close to the hitter he used to be. As a veteran at the age of 36, you'd expect Rodriguez to display patience at the plate, however that is far from the case. When he walked Friday night (actually, it was Saturday morning), the radio announcers woke up from their night dreams to talk about how surprising of an occurrence it was. After all, it was just Rodriguez's seventh walk of the year compared to 78 strikeouts. His .289 on-base percentage is even more of a concern.

With Sheffield out, Rodriguez struggling, Brandon Inge even worse, and Cameron Maybin still getting used to the majors, no one can say anymore that the Tigers' lineup is devoid of holes.

But, still, Detroit should have enough offense to get back to the postseason... providing its starting pitching gets its act together.

And that's the big question: What has happened to that rotation? Jeremy Bonderman has struggled. Kenny Rogers is injured. Justin Verlander hasn't been the same since his no-hitter back in June. Nate Robertson has been up and down.

Of late, the Tigers' best starter has been Jair Jurrjens, who gave up a single hit in Detroit's 2-1 win over Cleveland Tuesday night. That's not a good sign. Now is the time for last year's top guys to step up and lead this team. Not Jurrjens, or Andrew Miller, who didn't make it out of the fifth inning Friday night.

Good performances from those two will be bonuses. Bonderman, Verlander, Robertson and Rogers (when he returns) need to start lasting longer into games (at least six innings) and giving up less runs (as simple as that sounds).

Maybe Friday night was a start. Maybe the Tigers will build on the extra-inning, extra-time victory. But, then again, the game didn't exactly showcase the main ingredient the Tigers need to gain momentum — good starting pitching.

I'm sure team members aren't thinking about that, however. At this point in the season, a win's a win — however the Tigers might come upon it.

1 comment:

Neil Joshi said...

3.5 games back with just over a month left... i would say it already is gut-check time for the defending AL Champs.