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08/08/11 1:29 PM ET

Tigers ready to pounce in AL Central

Shored-up Detroit heads to Cleveland for key three-game series

The hardy-har-har line about the American League Central for much of this season has been that "nobody wants to win it."

In reality, of course, the Central has five teams that would very much love to run away with it. It's just that none of them were good enough to do so.

But in a claustrophobic pennant chase, the Detroit Tigers' four-game lead one week into August qualifies as the closest thing anybody in this division has had to actual breathing room. In fact, it's currently the second-largest division lead in all of baseball, behind the Phillies' 8 1/2-game edge on the Braves. And with a three-game series in Cleveland looming, the Tigers have a real opportunity this week to potentially put the Central in their back pocket.

While the White Sox still undoubtedly have some say in the matter, the Central is currently a two-team race between the Tigers and Tribe. The Tigers took care of business in winning consecutive series from the Rangers and Royals last week, while the Indians, to their credit, avoided the collapse that could have come from a seven-game road trip through Boston and Texas.

Now, the Central stage is set for a three-game series between these two clubs Tuesday through Thursday at Progressive Field -- their first meeting in nearly three months.

"[The Indians] are not going away," Tigers manager Jim Leyland told reporters. "We're going to have to beat them. When the times come, we're going to have to beat them some games."

The Tigers have already won enough games this season to get their manager and general manager off the supposed hot seat. On Monday, owner Mike Ilitch extended Leyland's contract through 2012 and president/GM Dave Dombrowski's contract through 2015. So any thought that the issue might be a distraction down the stretch has been erased. The focus is squarely on the playoff push now.

When Leyland was asked last week about the growing "buzz" over the prospect of postseason baseball in Detroit for the first time in five years, the manager was predictably dismissive.

"Win two or three in a row, and there's a buzz," Leyland said. "Lose two or three in a row, and there's a buzz, but a different kind."

True enough. And this Tigers team has certainly given its fans reason to follow every shot of enthusiasm with a chaser of calm. It's been a maddeningly inconsistent club, but not one that's ever buried itself too far below the surface. The season's low point was a 12-17 record on May 2 that had the Tigers eight games back, looking up at the Tribe. It took a 22-12 stretch to erase that deficit over the course of the next 5 1/2 weeks. From that point on, it's been all about maintenance in a not-too-daunting division.

Even as the Tigers made their charge to the top, there was some necessary doubt about their ability to be a viable threat in a postseason setting. Beyond Cy Young favorite Justin Verlander, who can't reasonably pitch every day even in the shortest of series, there was little here to inspire fear.

A few notable developments, however, have altered that outlook.

Throughout the season's first half, Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello reflected the inconsistency of the team at large, but they've improved significantly in the second half. Scherzer took the loss in Kansas City on Sunday, but he has a 2.79 ERA over his last six starts. The Tigers have shown patience with the 22-year-old Porcello, and he's rewarded them with a 5-0 record, 3.26 ERA and .626 OPS against in his last six starts.

It might be too easy to say these improvements are 100 percent attributable to the pitching coach change the Tigers made in early July, when Jeff Jones replaced Rick Knapp, but it's certainly not a complete coincidence, either. In any event, the strides made by Scherzer and Porcello have added depth to a rotation that needed it. Veteran Brad Penny was signed off the scrap heap and has been effective only in spurts. He has a 6.60 ERA in his last five starts.

Nothing, though, held the Tigers back quite as much as that fifth spot in their rotation. Games started by anybody not named Verlander, Scherzer, Porcello or Penny had resulted in a 4-17 record before the non-waiver Trade Deadline, when Dombrowski pulled the trigger on a trade with the Mariners that brought Doug Fister to the rotation and David Pauley to the bullpen.

"That one slot, we've kind of been mixing and matching and trying to find the right piece to the puzzle," Verlander said. "Hopefully, Fister does what he's been doing all year."

The cost? Considerable. The Mariners have already seen solid early returns out of left-hander Charlie Furbush and outfielder Casper Wells this week, and they landed one of the Tigers' top prospects in Double-A third baseman Francisco Martinez. If speculation (and at this point, it is only speculation) about Chance Ruffin, the Tigers' top pick in 2010, being the player to be named in the deal prove true, that's an awfully hefty haul.

In the here and now, however, Fister brings an added level of credibility to the rotation. Any concerns about his solid statistics being a Safeco Field concoction have to be tempered somewhat by the fact that Comerica Park is no hitter's paradise, either. And Fister's Detroit debut came as advertised -- two earned runs over seven innings against the Rangers, with the kind of run support he rarely received in Seattle.

"This," Fister said of his new surroundings, "is contagious."

His second start comes Tuesday night against the Tribe.

The Tigers have ample offense to back Fister and friends. It's been the usual MVP-caliber output from Miguel Cabrera (.318 average, .981 OPS), but this year he's had Victor Martinez (.323, .816) on hand to relieve some of the strain. Shortstop Jhonny Peralta (.314, .873) is having a career year that nobody saw coming out of the No. 6 spot, and catcher Alex Avila (.288, .868) broke out, as advertised.

There are concerns, certainly. It's too soon to tell if Carlos Guillen, less than a year removed from microfracture surgery on his right knee, will completely cure the black hole that was second base. Meanwhile, Magglio Ordonez (.230, .597) is a shell of his former self following last year's ankle trauma, Austin Jackson (.247, .678) has endured sophomore struggles and the Tigers had to bring in Wilson Betemit to replace an invisible Brandon Inge at third -- a tough move for the clubhouse, where Inge has been a respected fixture, but the right one for the lineup.

By and large, though, run production is not a problem for these Tigers, and the season stats bear that out. They have the fifth-most productive offense in the AL.

Baseball Prospectus' Playoff Odds Report is giving the Tigers a 79.6 percent chance of winning the Central (with the White Sox actually edging the Indians by a game for second place). It's been a tight race all year, no doubt, and it could well come down to the wire. But if this week goes as the Tigers hope, the division will be doing the ol' Detroit lean, perhaps permanently.

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.