Tigers appear poised to run away from pack
Winners of 12 of 16, division favorites finally playing up to expections
DETROIT -- That the Detroit Tigers were a Justin Verlander start away from feel-good vibes is nothing new.That they were a Justin Verlander start away from a virtual tie atop the American League Central standings was new, indeed. We'll go with "virtual tie" here, because, in the wake of the Tigers' 4-2 victory over Jake Peavy and the White Sox at Comerica Park on Friday night, the standings show the Sox, at 50-43, holding on to that top spot for dear life with the Tigers, at 50-44, closing in quickly. And hey, what's a half-game difference among enemies? The point is, Detroit has been a July juggernaut, winning 12 of 16, and one gets the sense that the Tigers might very well be embarking upon the kind of run that won them the Central title so convincingly in 2011. "I think winning is contagious," Verlander said. "When you start to win ballgames, you start to expect to win ballgames. It's funny how when you start to expect to win them, you win them. Maybe that doesn't make sense, but it makes sense to me." Makes perfect sense. Sure, just about every predictor and prognosticator in the world had the Tigers running away with the Central again in 2012, and any panic produced by their pedestrian first half was at least a little understandable. But the 162-game schedule tends to reward the most talented. And on a night like this -- a night when the home club capitalized on every mistake, minor or otherwise, made by the All-Star Peavy -- the Tigers' talent truly shined. Verlander vs. Peavy managed to meet expectations, though perhaps not in the classic demands of a duel. For this matchup saw that rare sight that is a Verlander homer allowed at home (just his fourth all season), and it also saw Peavy fight through fits of subpar command. The difference, ultimately, was what each offense did with the opportunity. For the White Sox, it was one third-inning swing from Alejandro De Aza that sent the ball hurtling over the right-field wall and put a deuce on the scoreboard. They managed little else. Perhaps this wasn't Verlander at his absolute sharpest (his manager, Jim Leyland, admitted he seemed a bit amped up by the environment, affecting his delivery a tad), but the White Sox couldn't quite crack him. De Aza's leadoff walk prompted only Adam Dunn's weak ground-ball double play in the first. In the fourth, Alex Rios walked, and A.J. Pierzynski did the double-up honors. A De Aza single in the sixth would give the visitors their only other baserunner. Peavy, meanwhile, was his own worst enemy in a 31-pitch third. The double-play ball he got out of Austin Jackson put him in a position to escape the jam created by Jhonny Peralta's leadoff double, but he hit Quintin Berry with a pitch, and the inning unraveled. A couple ground-ball singles from Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder and a double from Delmon Young, and suddenly the Tigers had a 3-2 lead they would not relinquish. They added insurance in the seventh, after Peavy balked Peralta into scoring position then served up an RBI single to Jackson. "Berry gets on with a nick, a hit batsman," Peavy said. "Guy balks in the seventh and it leads to a run. You get beat 4-2, it's just a tough night." Those are the broad details, but there were some fitting finer points, as well. Verlander's 115th pitch traveled 100 mph. Again, nothing new. But it shattered the bat of Gordon Beckham on a checked swing. Dominance demonstrated. "That," Verlander admitted, "was fun." And the game was capped by Berry, making a beautiful sliding grab of a sinking liner off the bat of Paul Konerko. Berry has been a jubilant jolt to this Tigers team basically from the day he arrived to the big leagues, a pleasant surprise in an otherwise frustrating first half. That half is turning into little more than a fuzzy memory for the Tigers. All their runs on this evening came on two-out hits, and, really, the mere existence of those hits in recent weeks is the biggest difference between the Tigers today and the Tigers of April and May. "It's just a sign of good hitters bearing down and getting big hits," Leyland said. All the signs -- and they're admittedly subject to change in this business -- point to the Tigers finding their stride at a pivotal point in the calendar. And given the itch owner Mike Ilitch has to bring a winner home, they are expected to be aggressive in discovering what the trade market will bear. Granted, this was only one game, and, for all we know, the White Sox will come back and take the next two. But the danger in the Central these days -- a danger posed to the White Sox and also the Indians -- is Detroit figuring itself out, making the most of the fifth-highest payroll in the game. Lately, that's been happening. Why? "The better question," Verlander said, "is why weren't we earlier? I think we're just being more consistent, playing better baseball, playing the way we were supposed to play. Nobody was freaking out before. We were just waiting for things to start clicking. We're starting to play like the team everybody expected us to be." And on Friday night, they found themselves a half-game away from that spot.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.