Detroit Tigers: 5 Critical Goals for Upcoming 10-Game Road Trip

J CookCorrespondent IMay 22, 2012

Detroit Tigers: 5 Critical Goals for Upcoming 10-Game Road Trip

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    At 20-21 the Tigers are nowhere near the place they wanted to be heading into a 10-game road trip to close out an up and down second month of the MLB season. Detroit's 9-10 mark for the month of May mimics the roller-coaster season they've endured at the quarter-season mark.

    They enter one of the longest road stretches of the season to finish the month, opening on the road in Cleveland for a three-game set at Progressive Field where Detroit has a tendency to struggle. The Tigers however still sit only three games back from the Indians and with a sweep could find themselves back atop the AL Central before the weekend. 

    Detroit could further their cause with a series win in the second three-game series of the road trip as they head further west to the Twin Cities to face the Minnesota Twins.

    The Twins have already taken two from Detroit this month in a short mid-week two-game series last week at Comerica Park. The Tigers got bounced by baseball's worst team giving up 15 runs in the two game set. Returning the favor on the road would provide Detroit greater distance from the division's basement dwellers.

    Finally, Detroit will head to Boston where they will suit up for four-game tilt against the Red Sox, a team they swept in the season-opener and offensive explosion that ignited the Tigers strong 9-3 start—a far too quickly diminished memory for the Bengals' faithful. 

    The next 10 days are critical to Detroit's first half success—or potential failure—as the the pressure valve tightens on an already tenuous situation in the Motor City. 

    Here are five critical outcomes the Tigers must have to consider the upcoming 10-game road stretch a success.

Starting Pitching Must Carry the Load

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    With the reemergence of Max Scherzer's correct arm slot and the near no-no that Tigers' ace Justin Verlander tossed last Friday night, Detroit's starting five are beginning to hit on all cylinders—any longer and the bullpen may have needed life support.

    This isn't to say that Verlander needed to do more than he's already done. At 5-1 with a 2.14 ERA, the defending American League Cy Young and MVP has rendered just three hits in his last two outings and only one run in 16 innings of work.

    Scherzer has salvaged a .500 start at 3-3 but has had more than his fair share of rocky patches to start the season. Three of his last four starts have been quality however, and his career-high 15 strikeouts against the Pittsburgh Pirates on Sunday showed what his power-arm has the potential to produce. 

    The key on this road stretch will be Detroit's No. 4 toe-slabber, Rick Porcello. The 23-year-old fourth-year starter has also managed a 3-3 start, but has failed to give six innings of work in his last two starts. Porcello needs to produce more ground-ball outs and in fewer pitches so he can reach that critical six-inning plateau Detroit needs from every time he takes the mound.  

    Although their record hasn't shown it, Drew Smyly (1-1) and Doug Fister (0-2) have provided the Tigers with the type of pitching expected from the latter and a pleasant surprise from the former.

    Smyly's outstanding rookie campaign hasn't result in as many wins as he probably deserves, but it has spotlighted his remarkable poise and sharp command of three tough pitches on the rubber.

    With a 2.89 ERA in 43.2 innings, Smyly has struck out an impressive 44 hitters while walking only 14. Despite being roughed up a bit in his last two outings, Smyly has proven he's a tough kid and a serious contender for Rookie of the Year honors. 

    Fister hasn't garnered a win yet this season after sitting out nearly a month as the result of a tender stomach muscle, but he does sport a nifty 1.59 ERA and has given Detroit at least six innings of work in each of his three outings since returning from the disabled list earlier this month. Fister has struck out 16 and walked four over 19 innings in May. 

    After an exhausting first quarter of the season the Tigers must bounce out of May on a roll and the starting five will be the linchpin to a successful road trip.

Bashers Must Mash

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    All excuses aside, it's probably safe to say that no one was betting Austin Jackson would have power numbers in the same zip code as the newly-acquired and highly-coveted Prince Fielder. Fact is, it's Jackson's .561 slugging percentage that is in another zip code than Fielder's .487. 

    Detroit, however, is beginning to spark up offensively, even if ever so slowly.

    The Tigers need more than a slow-thaw warm-up—they need a high-boil fervor of offensive consistency in order to kick-start the mediocre plate performances witnessed thus far through the season's first 40 games. 

    As fans start to become anxious for the uncorking of the power-stroke launcher that is Fielder's left-sided thunder, Detroit needs to see power production from more than the big fellas that anchor first and third. Cabrera, too, has provided Detroit with the lion's share of offensive fireworks to date, hitting .307 with 34 RBI and 15 extra-base hits, including eight home runs. 

    All these fair numbers not withstanding, Detroit will need more than this from Fielder and Cabrera and a considerable kick in the pants from the rest of the lineup if they want to see a successful road trip through.

    Second-year player Andy Dirks has slid into the No. 2 spot in the lineup after it was vacated when Tigers manager Jim Leyland decided to move left-handed slugger Brennan Boesch down into the No. 7 slot where he could see better pitches with less pressure.

    The gamble has paid off as both Dirks and Boesch have been on a tear over their last several weeks of play. Dirks is currently hitting a team-high .337 with 33 hits in less than 100 at-bats. He's been a spark-plug that has better protected Cabrera in the lineup, helping the Tigers best offensive threat increase his average by 50 points-plus over the past three weeks.

    Boesch was riding an extended hitting-streak over the past 12 games before going hitless on Sunday against the Pirates, a hitting tear that has seen him swinging at better pitches and showing greater patience at the dish. Boesch is currently third on the list of home run leaders on the Tigers roster with five. He's also knocked in 16 RBI and has 38 hits on the season.  

    Detroit needs the big boys and the other power sluggers to get hot and ride the long-range bomb brigade over the next 10 games if they want any serious chance of extending their last series win into a long stretch on the road. 

    Offensive stats comparison provided by mlb.com

A.J. Must Continue to Produce

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    Plain and simple and about as old as anything Jim Leyland says, the Tigers go the way that Austin Jackson goes. They aren't going to get better if he doesn't continue to produce, it's that simple. 

    Jackson has been everything the Tigers have needed him to be this season—and offensive standout and a defensive gem. 

    Jackson's offensive numbers have continued to prosper as a result of the change he made to his swing in the offseason. His .331 average is second-best on the team as well as his .544 SLG. Perhaps the most impressive of Jackson's stats is the vastly reduced number of strikeouts he's had this season, nearly half as many as he had at this point a year ago.

    The 25-year old third-year player had a rough 2011 after putting up excellent number in his 2010 rookie campaign. His resurgence this season has been a boost to a meager Detroit offense that has seen run production fall far short of the expected nightly explosions that were expected coming out of Spring Training.

    With Dirks providing a much-needed lift from the No. 2 spot it shouldn't surprise anyone if the Tigers begin to look like the lethal machine they were predicted to be from the dish. Dirks will continue to see good pitches if Jackson hits well to lead off and Cabrera and Fielder mash as they should once the season really heats up.

    Jackson is on pace and has found the plate patience and poise needed to have the breakout season his Tigers so wantonly need to respectively tuck away the memories of Curtis Granderson—forever. 

    All that, and his defensive glove work, which has already provided multiple highlight-reel shots, wasn't even mentioned. Jackson is a Gold Glove winner in the the making; it's only a matter of time.  

    So, as Jackson goes so do the Tigers—here's to another 120 games of the same.

Bullpen Must Shape Up

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    The surest way to get the ball rolling in the right direction for the Tigers would be to stop the ball from flying off the bats of opposing hitters when the Leyland calls on the pen to limit the damage or save the day.

    Better yet, eliminate the damage all together and save the game every day—like they did a year ago.

    Joaquin Benoit, Octavio Dotel, Phil Coke, Jose Valverde sheepishly boast ERAs of under six but above three. All four veteran bullpen pitchers have blown saves to their credit as well this season, and all but Coke's result in a Tigers loss.

    What's worse? Collin Ballester's 6.50 and Luke Putkonen's 10.50 marks that have somehow managed to keep them in Detroit and not at Triple-A Toledo. 

    The Tigers have recalled Brayan Villarreal from Toledo and will expect him to provide support and rest the tired arms of a nearly overworked relief staff. Villarreal is 0-1 on the season for Detroit and has pitched in six games, striking out eight and walking three without allowing an earned run. 

    The Tigers have had consistency as of late from both Coke and Benoit, but this season's most pleasant surprise has come by way of Duane Below. Below was fighting for a roster spot throughout Spring Training and didn't make the Opening Day roster, but when Fister went down he stepped up, and although it hasn't been as a starter, his presence has been more than noticeable. 

    Below is 2-1 with a 2.79 in 19.1 innings of work and outside of one poor performance against the Oakland A's last week he's been nearly perfect. He's struck out 17 and walked three while displaying a strong mix of well-placed pitches down and away from hitters. Below has been rock steady and one of the few reliable calls to the pen Leyland has been able to make.

    Detroit needs the pen to warm up as the team hits the road for a stretch that could put them back in command of the division and in position to head toward the All-Star break in better shape than they've been the past month. 

    Pitching stats comparison provided by mlb.com

Tigers Must Flex Their Stripes

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    As a whole it's time—mostly because time will start to run out.

    This isn't to say by any means that it's time to hit the panic button, rather, it is overstating an emphasis that a clip of .500 baseball for the season isn't going to win a pennant much less a wild-card spot for a run at postseason glory.  

    The grind of the MLB season is about to hit full-force and the Tigers need to be running on top of the ball not getting buried beneath it when the dog day's of summer hit full-force. 

    Every season has it's streaks, and rarely if ever do all players and teams escape droughts. Some in spots, some in waves but they come just the same. Prince Fielder endured one of the worst streaks of his career as did Miguel Cabrera.

    Both are now hitting .300-plus—hope the rest of the league enjoyed it while it was at it's worst because it's highly unlikely they'll see those types of negative streaks repeated.

    That said, the Tigers are just three games back with 120 to go and a chance to turn things around in a hurry over the next 10 days. Next time home they could put themselves into a position to lead the chase instead of being the chaser as they've been in the standings and in most games throughout the season.

    A road trip hot streak could push Detroit out of its early season funk and back to the reality that was all the hype just six weeks ago when the season started. A little more fun in the dugout goes a long way to soothing the memories of a slow start and could easily ignite a fury that could burn late into October.

    The next 10 games are more critical to Detroit's season than anyone in the Tigers dugout would ever let on—but they all know what those 10 days mean at this stretch of the season.

     

    Bleacher Report Featured Columnist J. Cook is a member of B/R's MLB Coverage Team and contributes to B/R's MLB content and Detroit Tigers page. He also covers key sport interest stories for all of Detroit's major sports teams.