Sweet Sounds Out Of Motown

Steve Murray
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Wednesday - May 24, 2006
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Yes, we know hope springs eternal. But to pick up the May 19 newspaper to see that the Detroit Tigers have the best record in baseball makes one’s head spin. Let’s say that again: the best record in baseball. Granted the season is only a quarter finished, but for a team that is used to starting its mathematical elimination in July, this is huge.

Tiger manager Jim Leyland, the one of adult-rated locker room tirades and a history of success, has not yet begun ordering World Series rings. “If you’re in first place after the last game of the season, that means a lot,” he told the Detroit Free Press. He’s been around long enough to know how quickly gold can turn into rust. But even the cantankerous old skipper must be loving what he’s seeing. A team that just a year ago was wallowing in a culture of losing, is now returning favors on the American League.

The biggest difference between this year’s team and last year’s is health, maturity and leadership. Last season, out-fielder Magglio Ordonez played in only 85 games, shortstop Carlos Guillen in 87 and while Ivan Rodriguez did play in 129 contests, he was healthy for only about half of those. Considering the money the team was paying these guys, that was a major problem. Now healthy, the three are a hitting for a combined .312 average with 17 home runs and 66 RBI.

Three years ago pitcher Mike Maroth was the poster boy for a team that lost more games (119) than any in American league history. At the time the talented, but inexperienced pitcher finished with 21 losses to become the first man to lose 20 games since Brian Kingman had the dubious honor in 1980. Now more mature, Maroth (5-2, 2.18 era) leads a roster of former struggling pitchers who’ve finally found success. Jeremy Bonderman (4-2, 3.74 this season was 6-19, 5.56 in 2003), Nate Robinson (4-2, 3.50) and youngsters Justin Verlander (5-3, 3.18) and future closer Joel Zumaya and his 100 mph fastball, are living up to the potential the team had been counting on. Add to this maturing group of pitchers are young hitters like center fielder Curtis Granderson (6 home runs and a team leading 23 walks) and Chris Shelton (.298, 11 home runs, 25 RBI) and the future looks bright.

When Detroit signed the camera shy Kenny Rogers and veteran closer Todd Jones, it was looked at as just another questionable move by a team that has made more than its fair share. What the team got however was unexpected performance and sage advice that has been invaluable. Rogers leads the majors in wins (7) and Jones, who is tied for second in saves (12), have been lauded by their younger teammates with Maroth crediting Rogers for helping him improve his pitching strategy.

How long this will last is anyone’s guess. The Tigers have yet to go against the Yankees or Boston, who it plays in consecutive series beginning May 29. Toronto looms a few days after. But at least Detroit has history on its side.

In the 105-year history of the team, Detroit has never started with a record this good and finished below .500. In fact the last time the Tigers were above the mediocre mark after 40 games and finished below .500 was 1954. The year of Brown vs. the Board of Education, Al Kaline’s rookie season, the first color TV set (It only cost $1,000) and the introduction of gerbils to the U.S. by Dr. Victor Schwentker.

Detroit’s pitching staff leads baseball in team era (3.13), saves (18), WHIP (1.20) and is No. 4 in walks allowed. Its hitters have hit .276 average (sixth in the major leagues), with 59 home runs (No. 2) and a .475 slugger percentage (No. 2).

The Tigers may not be World Series ready, but they’re worth watching. They play hard and play smart. They don’t chase after bad pitches or play defense like Cleveland Indians third baseman Roger Dorn (in the film Major League).

Celebrate, Tiger fans. You’ve earned it. And in case you are checking the math, all stats are as of May 19.

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