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Tigers Could Build First-Place Lead With Series Win In Minnesota

The Detroit Tigers could give themselves some breathing room in the AL Central over the next 12 games, beginning with this week's series versus the Minnesota Twins. The Tigers are currently a half game behind the Twins in the AL Central standings.

The Detroit Tigers began the month 4 1/2 games behind the Minnesota Twins in the AL Central standings. But with a favorable schedule that included series against the Indians, Royals, Pirates and Nationals, the Tigers had a chance to make sure they were within striking distance of the division lead by the time they faced the Twins for the last series of June.

And now, here we are.

The Tigers are 14-10 for the month, including a seven-game winning streak. They were 10-5 versus the National League in interleague play. Meanwhile, the Twins are 10-14 in June, including series sweeps at Seattle and Milwaukee.  They were 6-9 in interleague play.

As a result, the Tigers are just a half game out of first place as they visit Target Field for a three-game series, and have a chance to return to Detroit with a division lead.

The pitching match-ups for the next three games don't favor the Tigers, however.

Francisco Liriano has a 4-1 record and 3.94 ERA versus Detroit in eight starts. And he's been rather dominating in compiling that record, striking out 74 batters in 59 1/3 innings. Jeremy Bonderman hasn't had the same rate of success against Minnesota. In 14 starts, Bondo is 3-6 with a 5.32 ERA. But much of that damage was inflicted at the Metrodome, where he was 1-5 with a 6.46 ERA. Bonderman might be happy to see Target Field.

Nick Blackburn is 3-3 with a 3.78 ERA in seven starts against the Tigers. Meanwhile, the Twins have pounded Armando Galarraga. Even when he was at his best in 2008, Minnesota was the one team Galarraga couldn't beat (0-4, 5.46). For his career, he's 1-5 versus the Twins with a 5.48 ERA in seven starts. That includes 29 walks in 44 1/3 innings.

For the series finale, Kevin Slowey is undefeated in his six starts versus Detroit, going 4-0. But that record is a bit deceiving, as he's allowed 20 runs and 42 hits in 30.1 innings. And that was against a Tigers lineup that didn't include Johnny Damon, who boasts a .762 OPS against Slowey.

But the great unknown in this match-up is Andy Oliver, who will be making only his second major league start. He looked good in his debut Friday night in Atlanta. But the Twins hit left-handed pitching (.267/.336/.395) better than the Braves (.242/.332/.347). I'm sure the Tigers like that they'll be pitching a left-handed starter against batters like Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, and Denard Span. It's Jason Kubel and Jim Thome that truly struggle against the lefties, however. They might be on the bench for this one.

On the bright side, the Tigers won't be facing the inexplicable Tiger killer, Carl Pavano, who went 4-1 with a 3.00 ERA in six starts against them last year. (That's a nice mustache Pavano's growing, though.)

So are the next 12 games a tipping point for the Tigers' season? Perhaps not. There will still be plenty of baseball to play (along with the non-waiver and waiver trade deadlines). And as Detroit fans know painfully well, going into the final week with a seemingly comfortable first-place lead does not guarantee a division title and postseason bid.

But leaving Minneapolis with a first-place lead would certainly be encouraging. And if the Tigers managed to do that, they could very well widen that margin, with six home games against the last-place Mariners and Orioles before facing the Twins again to end the season's first half. Minnesota, in turn, must face a first-place Tampa Bay team and three games in Toronto before coming to Detroit.

Playing well right now could provide some much needed breathing room in the AL Central. And it's not just the Twins they have to worry about in the division race anymore, either. Fueled by a 10-game winning streak, the Chicago White Sox have made themselves a player, too. (And this is after they began June trailing first place by 8 1/2 games, and sitting four behind Detroit.) Having to fend off two teams, rather than just one, makes any kind of space even more valuable.