Tigers on the prowl

By Chris Ruddick
MLB Editor

Chris Ruddick Logo Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - If there has been one feel good story of the 2006 Major League Baseball season so far, it has been the outstanding start by the Detroit Tigers.

Sure, I know the perennial loser Cincinnati Reds sit atop the National League Central standings and that is shocking in itself, but they are going to fall off. I mean, they lead the league in home runs allowed. How long before that starts to catch up to them? At some point Bronson Arroyo is also going to start pitching like Bronson Arroyo again and the Reds' eventual decline will begin.

If the Reds finish the season above .500, I will be shocked.

With that said, it is the Tigers that have been the story of the season so far. You knew having Jim Leyland on their bench was going to pay off down the road, but I didn't think it would happen this quickly.

Leyland isn't making losing acceptable in Detroit, he's making accepting losing unacceptable. When his young Tigers lost a game to Cleveland back on April 17, Leyland publicly ripped into them after the game. He didn't name one player specifically, but he let it be known that no matter how good one thinks he may be, he is by no means able to coast or take a day off.

Did his postgame tirade work? Well since the outburst the Tigers are 10-3.

I know, I know it is only May 2 and I should probably not be getting all excited over the Tigers just yet. But you have to be impressed by their start.

The unfortunate part for Leyland's crew is, of course, they are in a division with the defending world champion Chicago White Sox as well as the Cleveland Indians - two of the best teams in the American League heading into the season.

Chicago, as expected, is first in the division, but it is the Tigers, not the Indians, who are knocking on its doorstep. And for those of you already checking, the Tigers are three games up on the New York Yankees and the Toronto Blue Jays in the AL wild card race.

What has the fans in the Motor City starting to believe? Look no further than the starting rotation, which heading into Tuesday's action had allowed just one earned run in its past four games - all wins - for an 0.30 earned run average.

On Monday, 23-year-old righthander Jeremy Bonderman gave the Tigers their 12th quality start in their past 13 games, as he scattered four hits over eight scoreless innings while striking out nine to improve to 3-2 on the year.

"Mind-boggling," Leyland said of his team's pitching success. "Just enjoy it. It's not going to continue forever."

It wasn't so long ago that Bonderman and Mike Maroth combined to lose 40 games in a season. Some people wondered at the time whether or not it was right for the Tigers to put those two through that at such an early age. In Bonderman's case, Detroit actually shut him down early so he would not lose 20 in 2003, the year the Tigers almost set a major league record with 119 defeats.

Maroth, though, went out there start after start at the tender age of 25 and lost 21 games, becoming the first AL pitcher to do so since Oakland's Brian Kingman in 1980.

Chalk it up to maturity, having veteran Kenny Rogers around and the presence of new pitching coach Chuck Hernandez, because Maroth is nowhere near the pitcher he was three years ago. In fact, he has been downright sensational this season. The lefty had allowed just one earned run through his first three starts before giving up four in his first loss of the season last Friday.

Don't forget about 23-year-old Justin Verlander and 28-year-old lefty Nate Robertson either. They have provided the Tigers as good of a back end of a rotation as there is in the league thus far.

The Tigers boast the best team ERA in the game right now at 3.17, and all five of their starters are under 4.00 for the season. Think anyone is missing Jason Johnson in Detroit these days?

Leyland, who had Ray Miller in Pittsburgh and Larry Rothschild in Colorado, knows how important a good pitching coach is. So when Hernandez became available once Lou Piniella left Tampa Bay, Leyland acted quickly.

"I think there's no question we got the right guy for the situation," Leyland said of Hernandez. "I've been impressed. I've had good (coaches). I've been lucky throughout my managerial career with that kind of stuff. He's very good at what he does. He came highly recommended by some very bright baseball people. He's quickly become a friend, a nice buffer between me and the pitchers, a good guy to hang out with."

Hernandez is also a master of preparation, as his scouting reports on hitters go in-depth in both short- and long-term, something that wasn't done not as efficiently under the old regime.

"Chuck's been awesome," said backup catcher Vance Wilson. "I don't think we've had this kind of preparation in a long time here in Detroit."

With all the attention the starting rotation has gotten of late, let's not forget the lineup. Most notably, let's not forget Chris Shelton, who is coming off one of the best opening months in team history.

Shelton, a former Minor League Player of the Year for the Pittsburgh Pirates whom Detroit plucked three years ago in the Rule 5 Draft, belted nine home runs in the first 13 games of the year. He obviously has cooled off, but his 10 home runs and 20 RBI still lead the team and his .319 average is good enough for second amongst Tigers' starters.

While Shelton has slowed down, the rest of the lineup has stepped up its game of late.

How about the offensive resurgence of catcher Ivan Rodriguez, who is hitting .326 after a down 2005 season that saw him hit just .276, his lowest total since he batted .273 in 1993?

Those two, combined with Curtis Granderson (CuGra, as I like to call him), Placido Polanco, Magglio Ordonez and Carlos Guillen give the Tigers a very formidable balanced lineup.

And what makes the Tigers lineup even more impressive is that they are doing all this without maybe their most feared hitter in Dmitri Young. "The Meat Hook" has missed all but eight games this season, but is close to returning from a right quad strain.

I don't know how long the Tigers can keep this going, but with that pitching staff, anything is possible. Do they have enough to overtake the White Sox? Probably not. But their time is definitely coming, and Detroit could prove to be a thorn in the side all season not only to the champs, but to the rest of the AL as well.

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Chris Ruddick at cruddick@sportsnetwork.com.
Chris Ruddick
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