Detroit Tigers Entering Critical Stretch That Could Define the Team's Season

Josh BerenterCorrespondent IMay 22, 2012

Detroit Tigers Entering Critical Stretch That Could Define the Team's Season

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    Through 41 games this season, the Detroit Tigers are 20-21 and sit in third place of the American League Central, a half-game back of the Chicago White Sox and three games behind the first-place Cleveland Indians.

    The Tigers haven't won back-to-back games in over a month, and are 4-6 in their last 10.

    Time to panic, right?

    Probably not.

    Through 41 games last season, the Tigers were only 22-19 and stood 4.5 games behind Cleveland. The 2011 Tigers were under .500 after 51 games before making their run, finishing 95-67 and winning the division by 15 games.

    The Tigers have suffered offensive anemia, mediocre pitching and defense, and a rash of subtle, but key injuries so far this season. But Detroit has managed to avoid a complete letdown.

    The next few weeks will be critical for the Tigers' success moving forward. The team heads into a rough stretch, playing 22 games in 24 days (16 on the road), and has several moves to make in their attempt to construct a world championship puzzle.

    Here are five things in the next few weeks, that will shape the rest of the Tigers' season.

1. Upcoming Schedule

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    After having Monday off, Detroit starts a 10-game road trip on Tuesday against Cleveland, Minnesota and Boston.

    The Indians are in first place in the division and are facing the Tigers for the first time this season.

    The Tigers were 12-6 against the Indians last year, and come into the matchup riding a 10-game winning streak against the Tribe.

    The Tigers have badly struggled on the road against Minnesota, going 11-15 at Target Field and the Metrodome, and at Boston, going 2-7 at Fenway Park, since 2009.

    16 of Detroit's next 22 games are on the road, but its next six opponents (two series against Cleveland) have a combined 114-131 record.

    If the Tigers perform well through the road stretch, they will most likely take the lead in the AL Central.

    Despite another 10-game road trip soon after, the Tigers' opponents going into the All-Star break are mostly non-playoff teams, which could provide Detroit a sizable lead in the division and a springboard into the second half of the season.

2. Offensive Moves

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    Tigers leadoff hitter Austin Jackson has missed the last four games with an abdomen injury, but didn't go on the disabled list.

    With Jackson out, and closer Jose Valverde still on the roster but sidelined with back tightness, the Tigers were forced to option utility second baseman Danny Worth to Triple-A Toledo, leaving them with 12 position players.

    The Tigers' second-base platoon has been the biggest problem this season, combining to average .150 (.217 OBP), with two home runs and 14 RBI, causing Detroit to mull options on possible replacements to beef up the production.

    27-year-old Quintin Berry signed to a minor league free-agent contract last fall and impressed Tigers manager Jim Leyland during spring training.

    "He's got great value because his legs can cause a lot of problems for people," Leyland said to MLive.com on March 14.

    Berry, who hit .333 in 17 games for the Tigers in spring training, was sent down to minor league camp when Detroit cut down to 32 players on March 26, just nine days before Opening Day.

    Berry, primarily an outfielder, is hitting .274 with 11 RBI in 38 games for Toledo this season, but would be an attractive call-up for the Tigers because of his .352 on-base percentage and 19 stolen bases this season.

    Jackson is the Tigers' only legitimate base-stealer, as he leads the team with six steals this season. Detroit is 12th in the AL with 15 stolen bases and Jackson is the only Tiger with more than two.

    Another possible minor leaguer that could get a shot with the Tigers is Eric Patterson.

    Patterson, who's played 226 career major league games over parts of five seasons, is hitting .257 with one home run and 16 RBI in 42 games for Toledo. Patterson has decent speed with nine stolen bases this year, and his on-base percentage is .388.

    Patterson has played 19 games at second base for the Mud Hens while committing three errors. His .954 fielding percentage isn't spectacular, but he's hitting over 100 points higher than Ryan Raburn, and is a base-stealing threat.

3. Bullpen Moves

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    The Tigers bullpen has been their Achilles heel all season. The bullpen's ERA is an AL-worst 4.86 so far this year.

    In 126 innings, Tigers relievers are second worst in the league with an opponent batting average of .262 and have given up 60 walks, second most in the AL.

    With the injury to starter Doug Fister and the inconsistency from Valverde, the bullpen has been pressed into extra work and unexpected situations.

    "That's the one thing we've got to get synced," Leyland said to the Detroit Free Press on May 12. "I haven't really done a good job of that just yet. I think the key to that is Fister being back in the rotation. I think we will get that ironed out now."

    Valverde has been sidelined since leaving the game against on May 16 against the Chicago White Sox in the ninth inning with back issues, but he remains on the 25-man roster.

    To help replace Valverde, the Tigers recently recalled Brayan Villarreal, giving Detroit eight relievers instead of their normal seven.

    Villarreal has taken advantage of his opportunities in his second year with the team, giving up just two hits in six innings of work this season, without being charged with an earned run.

    But Collin Balester and rookie Luke Putkonen remain in the bullpen, despite Putkonen allowing seven runs in six innings of work (10.52 ERA), and Balester's 6.50 ERA in 18 innings. The two have combined to give up 16 walks in 24 innings.

    To help the bullpen, the Tigers have been hustling along Luis Marte, who's been on the disabled list since Detroit's last spring training game, in which he strained his hamstring.

    Marte debuted with the Tigers last season, throwing 3.2 innings, giving up one run (2.45 ERA). He was 2-0 with a 2.08 ERA in nine Grapefruit League appearances this year.

    He began this season with an injury-rehabilitation assignment on May 17 for Single-A Lakeland, throwing two scoreless innings. He was later transferred to Toledo.

    Marte shined again on Monday, throwing three scoreless innings for Toledo, giving up just one hit and one walk, while striking out two batters.

    Leyland said Marte could return to the Tigers on Friday in Minnesota, which would likely mean a Triple-A demotion for either Balester or Putkonen.

    Because Detroit only has 12 position players on its 25-man roster, Marte's eventual call-up could prompt the Tigers to option another reliever to Triple-A, meaning both struggling relievers would likely be sent down.

4. Offensive Resurgence

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    After spending his entire career with the Milwaukee Brewers in the National League, Prince Fielder struggled to start his debut season in the AL.

    Fielder hit .309 in April, but only had three home runs and 11 RBI in 22 games last month.

    The Tigers' offensive effort was awful collectively to begin the 2012 campaign, stumbling to a .243 average in April.

    Fielder struggled again earlier in May, suffering through a five-game hitless streak and an 0-for-22 slump that dropped his average down to .266

    Since then, Fielder has gone on a seven-game hit streak, and his average, as well as his power numbers have drastically improved.

    He's added 30 points to his average and has five extra-base hits, including two home runs and eight RBI in the last seven games.

    As the driving force of the team's lineup, Fielder's improvement sparked a team-wide resurgence, boasting a .280 team average in the last seven games (.257 as a team this season), but the Tigers have only won three games in that span.

    Defending AL batting champion Miguel Cabrera also had a slow start, and after a five-game hitless streak of his own, Cabrera's average dropped to .263.

    But with the guy in front of him tearing the cover off the ball, Cabrera has hit .417 in his last 11 games with 12 RBI.

    In the Tigers next three series, they face Cleveland, which has the ninth-best pitching staff in the AL with a 4.17 team ERA, then Minnesota and Boston, who have the two worst ERAs in the league (5.43 and 4.60 respectively).

    It's an opportunity for the heart of the order to get into a groove that could carry them the rest of the season, and also a chance for still-struggling hitters to finally erase slumps.

5. Starting Pitching Consistency

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    Max Scherzer has been the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde of the Tigers' rotation this year, leading to a mediocre start.

    Scherzer, Detroit's No. 3 starter, is 3-3 this season with a 5.73 ERA, but has shown flashes of brilliance. 

    On Sunday, Scherzer struck out a career-high 15 batters (all swinging) and allowed two earned runs on four hits in seven innings against the Pittsburgh Pirates.

    “I want to be someone on this team that can step up and help this team win,” Scherzer said to MLive.com after Sunday's performance. “I know I’m capable of it on a consistent basis and I know what it takes to have success in this league.”

    But Scherzer hasn't been consistent this year, going 1-3 with a 7.77 ERA, 27 strikeouts and 13 walks in May. Scherzer didn't pitch more than six innings in any of his first five starts, and allowed at least three earned runs in every start.

    Since then, Scherzer's gone 2-0 with a 3.70 ERA, 36 strikeouts and six walks in his last four starts. He's pitched at least 6.1 innings in all four starts, and most importantly, the Tigers have won three of those four games.

    Three of Detroit's other four starters have ERAs under three, and Fister, the team's No. 2 starter has made three starts since returning on May 7 after a finger injury sidelined him for a month.

    Fister has a 1.89 ERA in three starts in May, but he's 0-2 in those three starts and the Tigers lost all three games after sub-par offensive performances.

    Justin Verlander has been better this season than his AL Cy Young and MVP season in 2011, and Detroit's No. 5 starter Drew Smyly has exceeded expectations.

    Verlander took a no-hitter into the ninth inning his last start against Pittsburgh, and leads the AL with a 2.14 ERA and is 5-1 in his first nine starts. He has five wins, despite receiving some of the worst run support in the league, with the Tigers scoring just 4.54 runs per game when he's on the hill.

    Verlander hasn't pitched less than six innings in any of his starts, and has gone into the eighth inning in five appearances.

    Smyly, a 22-year-old rookie, is 1-1 with a 2.89 ERA in eight career starts. He's allowed one earned run or less in six of his eight starts and hasn't shied away from the big moments.

    As the Tigers offense comes alive, and the rotation continues to pump out quality starts consistently, the Tigers will win more and more games.