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Tigers now the hunted

Tigers now the hunted

Tigers now the hunted
April 20th, 2007

(Sports Network) - Carrying the label of the defending American League champs, the Detroit Tigers are finding out first hand that they must bring their A- game to the park on each day.

This time last year, the Tigers came into the season following a 71-win campaign the previous season, which pit the Tigers 28 games back in the AL Central. So in essence, Detroit was able to fly under the radar for a good portion of the 2006 season. Not so in '07.

With the majority of last year's team still around, and with the intriguing acquisition of Gary Sheffield, the Tigers are a popular pick to again represent the AL in the World Series. But they'll have to overcome opposing teams' top hurlers and most potent lineups in order to get there.

In closing out April, Detroit will face the White Sox for five games, the Twins for three, and the Angels for two before transitioning into May with a set against the Orioles. It's sure to be another dogfight this season in the AL Central, arguably baseball's toughest division. And even though it's only April, each and every division game is a critical one if the Tigers are to get back to the postseason. Just ask the White Sox, who won 90 games last year but were sent home come playoff time, while the Tigers and Twins moved on.

"I don't see any breaks in this division," explained White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen. "You gotta be ready every game or you can get buried."

"It has been (the strongest division in baseball) the last couple of years, and I'm sure it will be this year, too," concurred Indians manager Eric Wedge.

The advantage the Tigers have lies with their pitching staff, undoubtedly one of the best in the majors. The team has gotten off to a 9-6 start largely because of its starting pitching, which has kept the Tigers in games despite the absence of lefty Kenny Rogers (17-8, 3.84 ERA in '06), who started the season on the disable list.

Jeremy Bonderman (14-8, 4.08 ERA in 2006) has a 0-0 record in four starts, but he has been solid with a 2.25 ERA. Nate Robertson, coming off a 13-win season and a 3.84 ERA, has started out this season 2-1 with a minuscule 1.80 ERA. And Justin Verlander, who won 17 games in '06, has gotten off to a dazzling 1-0 start with a 1.42 ERA. Mike Maroth, admittedly the recipient of some heavy run support, is 2-0.

The Tigers are not known for winning slugfests. Rather, they've enjoyed some masterful pitching performances and have played solid defense to grind out wins. The addition of Sheffield, a lifetime .296 hitter who is closing in on 500 career home runs, was an aim to bring the offense up to speed with the pitching.

CHEMISTRY TAKES TIME TO DEVELOP

Unfortunately for the Tigers organization, Sheffield has been slow to provide a return on their investment. He has stranded more than a few base runners while hitting a pedestrian .132 on the young season. He has only one multi-hit game, and his power numbers are way down (one home run, five RBI).

The killer for manager Jim Leyland is that Curtis Granderson (.305) and Placido Polanco (.381) lead the team in on-base percentage at the top of the order. Sheffield has been in the league since 1988 and knows what he's doing at the plate, but he has yet to transition to playing in the Motor City. Leyland is not going to pull the plug on the Sheffield experiment after only 15 games, but management did not pay Sheffield to leave ducks on the pond all year.

ROGERS ON THE SHELF

During the Tigers' World Series run, Rogers was one of the horses that got them there. The veteran pitcher continued his dominance in the postseason -- pine tar or not. But on the eve of the 2007 season after posting a 2.05 ERA in Spring Training, Rogers was placed on the disabled list with what was originally described as arm fatigue.

But after being re-evaluated, it was determined Rogers had a blood clot and damaged arteries in his left shoulder. And after having surgery to remove the clot and repair the arteries, Rogers will be sidelined for three months, or roughly half the season. At 42, there's no telling how the left-hander will respond from the setback.

"I'm just glad because Kenny's OK," Leyland said after the surgery. "Forget the pitching part. This is pretty dangerous stuff. For him to come back this year, that's a bonus."

Of course, no timeline has been set in stone with his comeback. In either case, it will be up to Detroit's young arms to carry the team.

WHO'S HOT

Polanco is hitting a team-best .381 and has struck out only twice. A career .301 hitter, Polanco has been a consistent presence batting out of the two- hole since he's been with the Tigers.

Granderson is hitting .305 at the top of the order, though he is not putting up typical leadoff-type numbers. Nine of his 18 hits on the season went for extra bases, and he has struck out 17 times in 59 at-bats.

WHO'S NOT

It took Brandon Inge 20 at-bats to record a hit this season and, after a brief spurt, has gone hitless in his last nine.

Sean Casey is in a 2-for-21 rut and is hitting just .176 on the season.

A LOOK AHEAD

In the upcoming series with the White Sox, Chad Durbin (0-1, 12.46) will face John Danks (0-2, 3.97) in the opener, followed by Robertson (2-1, 1.80) versus Jose Contreras (1-2, 6.00), and Verlander (1-0, 1.42) versus Jon Garland (0-1, 4.66).

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