In the big picture of the season, Sunday's game against the Chicago White Sox probably wasn't a must-win for the Detroit Tigers. To label it as such would've been an overreaction.
Yet for the sake of perception, to kill that "here we go again" feeling about the Tigers and their traditional second-half struggles under Jim Leyland, Sunday's 4-3 win was an important one. Letting the White Sox get to within three games of the AL Central lead would've been a failure. This was a series in which the Tigers needed to establish some authority over one of their closest rivals in the division. By losing two of three, they kept the White Sox's hopes alive.
At four games out, it's not like Ozzie and Co. are out of the mix. This is officially a three-team race. Actually, it's a four-team face, with the Minnesota Twins trailing the White Sox by just one game.
But the Tigers couldn't do what they did last year after the All-Star break. At this time a year ago, Detroit was one game behind the White Sox for first place in the division. They were in the race at 10 games over .500 and looked ready to make a run.
The Tigers ended up suffering a four-game sweep at Cleveland to the last-place Indians, however. Though Detroit was only 1 1/2 games out of first place after that, their season had effectively been derailed. The Tigers followed that up with two more losses to the Rangers. Combined with a loss before the All-Star break, Detroit lost seven straight games (and 12 of 15) when they needed to be making a push up the standings. The team never really recovered from that nosedive, knocking them out of contention.
Going into this year's All-Star break, the focus was on the Tigers' tendency to fold in the second half of the season. During Leyland's tenure, the team had a 170-200 record after their midseason hiatus. Were the Tigers going to ride a downward spiral yet again, squandering what looks like perhaps their best chance to win a division title with Leyland as manager?
So much more is at stake this time around.
Leyland is in the last year of his contract. President and general manager Dave Dombrowski is also in the final year of his deal. Players such as Magglio Ordonez and Brad Penny signed one-year contracts. Others, like Jhonny Peralta and Alex Avila, were putting up career-best numbers. Miguel Cabrera had rebounded from his preseason troubles to have a typically great year. And then there's what Justin Verlander is doing, finally asserting himself as the dominant, All-Universe pitcher we've always known he could be. Could the Tigers really end up wasting that performance?
The familiar doubts and angst were creeping in as the Tigers took their annual break from the grind. Losing two out of three in five of their last seven series before the All-Star break has a way of creating uncertainty. (Not to mention getting bombed at home by the New York Mets and San Francisco Giants, two National League lineups not known for their run-scoring prowess. Well... the Giants more so than the Mets. But still.)
And if the Tigers don't feel that same pressure, it sure didn't look that way after Friday's loss to the White Sox. Verlander pitched one of his worst games of the season. The bullpen made matters even worse. And no one besides Cabrera could generate any offense. Following the game, Carlos Guillen and Al Alburquerque were activated from the disabled list, while Danny Worth and Ryan Perry were demoted back to Toledo.
Panic move? It certainly looked that way, but... maybe. The Tigers were looking to activate Guillen the moment he showed he could play regularly. Second base has been a hole all season, and the team needs to figure out if their veteran infielder can make a meaningful contribution or help needs to be acquired at the trade deadline. Alburquerque has been the one dependable middle reliever able to provide a bridge between the starters and the late-inning duo of Joaquin Benoit and Jose Valverde. The hope is that the Tigers didn't rush both players back out of desperation.
Another indication of the high stakes for the Tigers was Dombrowski discussing the team's intentions before the trade deadline with the media after Sunday's game. In the past, the Tigers' GM was masterful (and frustrating) with his evasive answers and runaround talk concerning what moves he might make. But maybe that changed a bit at the end of last season, when Dombrowski made it quite clear that he'd pursue a left-handed, run-producing bat. Perhaps the change in tactics was to let agents and GMs know what they wanted and put the onus back on them. Or facing the last year of his contract, maybe he wanted to show people the effort he was making.
So Dombrowski threw it out there: The Tigers want a starting pitcher. You've seen the names attached in rumors already. (We've been keeping track of them.) Hiroki Kuroda. Wandy Rodriguez. Derek Lowe. Ubaldo Jimenez, which has the "Go big or go home!" mindset that many fans want to see, yet might not be the best direction for the long-term prosperity of the franchise. Monday morning, Jeremy Guthrie's name was added to the mix.
Help is out there. Unfortunately, most of the other playoff contenders need starting pitching too, which could force the Tigers into giving up something they'd prefer not to, if they really want to make a deal. This might be the year Detroit ends up taking that plunge. And if not, maybe they'll break the emergency glass star prospect Jacob Turner is under right now. Which is why he almost certainly won't be given up in a trade.
The Tigers have seven more games against AL Central opponents in the month of July (in other words, before the July 31 trade deadline). That includes three more versus the White Sox. They'll have 18 inter-division games in August, including six against the Cleveland Indians, who currently share first place with Detroit. The Tigers are 19-10 against AL Central teams so far this season, which is an encouraging sign.
The naysayers seem to be waiting for the Tigers to falter so they can say "I told you so." (I always have to wonder when these people became those sorts of fans.) It's like they want change simply for the sake of change, regardless of whether or not the team gets better. Once again, they'll point to Leyland's second-half failings. And if he does it again, this time around, it will probably be the last time he does so in Detroit.
But for now, the Tigers look capable of staving off that second-half nosedive. Sunday was just one game, just one win. A week from now, maybe it won't matter much. But for a Tigers team that needed to instill some confidence, rallying for that 4-3 win may have provided some hope.