Breathe a sigh of relief, Detroit?
Obviously, there's still plenty of baseball season left to be played (including six more games against the Cleveland Indians). But the Detroit Tigers finally put a little bit of space between themselves and their nearest competitor in the AL Central. A three-game sweep gave them a 4 1/2-game lead in the division. It's still a close race, but now a little more comfortable than it was last Thursday.
The Tigers gave their fans just about everything they wanted to see in their three wins over the Tribe. Their newest acquisition, Delmon Young, hit a big home run. Manager Jim Leyland provided some extra entertainment by arguing a call with an umpire and getting himself ejected. But these were the five best moments from the Tigers' sweeping the Indians. They may end up being five of the most important for the season, too.
5. Winning without Verlander: Were the Tigers making a mistake in not starting Justin Verlander for Sunday's series finale? It was the question that hovered over this series. Wouldn't Verlander pitching against the Indians be more important than facing the Rays on Monday? Winning the first two games probably negated most of that talk. But what if Verlander had been the difference between winning two of three and a series sweep?
It was an understandable concern. The Tigers were taking on the look of a team that couldn't win unless Verlander was pitching. It's why this "Verlander for MVP" talk has started.
Had the Tigers not been able to pull off a sweep — or worse, lose two out of three without Verlander pitching, the concerns would've only grown louder. The fretting hasn't been quieted, and probably won't be for the rest of the season, but some important questions were answered.
4. Smacking around Ubaldo Jimenez: Jimenez isn't Roy Halladay or Cliff Lee, but he was generally perceived as the crown jewel of the trade deadline. And because the Indians got him, many thought they were the winners of the trade deadline sweepstakes. (Although the haul of prospects the Tribe had to surrender to the Rockies caused several observers to wince.)
Jimenez could indeed end up deciding the AL Central race, but not in the way that the Indians expected. The Tigers jumped on him early in Sunday's matchup, tagging him for seven runs in the third inning. Jimenez didn't even last four innings, giving up eight runs and nine hits.
In three of his four starts since joining the Indians, he's allowed five runs or more. That, along with poor location and diminshed velocity, led reporters to ask Indians manager Manny Acta after the game whether or not Jimenez was healthy, something Acta didn't want to hear. Maybe Acta is frustrated that his new ace hasn't been pitching like one, too.
3. Good starting pitching: Meanwhile, Detroit's big trade deadline acquistion, Doug Fister, pitched his best game since joining the Tigers. Facing the Indians for the second time with his new team (and fourth overall this year), Fister allowed one run and six hits over seven innings. More importantly, he racked up seven strikeouts, tying his second-highest total of the season.
On Friday, Max Scherzer pitched his best game in a month, also holding the Tribe to one run in seven innings.
The outlier, unfortunately, was Rick Porcello, who pitched almost as badly as Jimenez on Sunday. Kid Rick couldn't make it through the fourth, giving up five runs and turning a 7-0 rout in the making into a nailbiter. Maybe cooling off in the dugout while the Tigers put up a seven-run inning dulled his edge. Porcello cruised through his first three innings, allowing only two hits. But letting the Indians right back into the game was frustrating to watch.
2. Brandon Inge's return: Were you ambivalent about Inge rejoining the Tigers? I certainly was. Jim Leyland's reluctance to play Wilson Betemit more at third base was baffling, at least until you consider that his defense has been so bad that Leyland just couldn't stand to watch it anymore. But a platoon with Don Kelly seemed to be working. Kelly was certainly no worse than Inge had been with the bat, and had basically been his equal with the glove.
A September return to the big leagues had been promised to Inge. And he had been hitting well enough (.289/.389/.519, seven homers, 19 RBIs) in Class AAA Toledo to make you think that maybe he'd figured out what was wrong with his swing. (Or maybe he just performed better against Triple-A pitching and away from the harsh major league spotlight.)
But after being recalled on Friday night, Inge had a triumphant return on Saturday. 2-for-4 with a home run, double and two RBIs was about as much offensive production as the Tigers had seen from Inge all season. Rather than put Inge back at third base full-time, however, Leyland is going to try to keep him in a role with which he can succeed: He'll start against left-handed pitching. Inge hit .395/.439/.684 against lefties in Toledo, so maybe that's what he's become. And he can still be a defensive substitute for Betemit in late innings, something I think we'd all prefer.
1. Austin Jackson's game-ending double play: Was it the play of the year for the 2011 Detroit Tigers? If not, it's only because Jackson has made several other highlight reel catches at the center field wall this year.
But considering that a one-run lead — and possibly a one-game swing in the AL Central standings — was at stake, Jackson's catch in shallow center, followed by gunning down Kosuke Fukudome at home plate (for a rare 8-2 double play on your scorecard) may have been the difference maker in this season. How many times have the Tigers make you jump out of your chair in sheer jubiliation (and joyful disbelief) this year? As Rod Allen would say, "OH, JACKSON!"
Jackson's amazing catch capped off a game that was really a microcosm of the Tigers' season. Fans have been wanting the team to assert itself in the division all year and are often frustrated that the Tigers seem to be keeping the Indians and White Sox in the race, instead of pulling away.
On Sunday, it looked like Detroit was finally flexing its muscles, taking a 7-0 lead on its way to completing a sweep with authority. But rather than cruise to a blowout win. the Tigers let the Tribe right back into the game, making it closer than it should've been. Sound familiar?
But just as Justin Verlander can end a losing streak by flirting with yet another no-hitter, so did this thriller end with something spectacular. Maybe Tigers outfielders don't throw out as many runners on the bases as you'd like to see, but when it really mattered, Jackson unleashed a rocket to home plate to nail Fukudome.
We can only hope that the Tigers stand their ground in the AL Central like Alex Avila did in blocking home plate. It was like Fukudome ran into a wall.