The Detroit Tigers are in the middle of a heated divisional race that seems to have been narrowed down to two teams. The White Sox are in first place in the Central Division, and the Tigers are closing in on them slowly but surely.
It was just two weeks ago that the Tigers swept the White Sox in Comerica Park to take a one and a half game lead in the division. Since then, the Tigers are 6-6, but the White Sox are 9-3 and have taken back the lead in the division by the same one and a half game margin that the Tigers once claimed.
This looks to be a back-and-forth race that could come down to the last week of play and will be worth watching until the end.
There is no doubt that both of these teams have playoff potential and could both very well be World Series contenders, but as for now, the division can only be won by a single team. Here is what the Tigers need to do to make sure that they are that team.
The Tigers' bullpen is much improved since the first half of the season. Led by Joaquin Benoit and Jose Valverde, the bullpen is on the right track to second-half success.
Despite Valverde's four blown savees—four more than he blew last year—he has just a 2.08 ERA since the All-Star break. He is one of the more consistent closers in the American League even though he makes the games interesting every time he steps on the mound with a win on the line.
Valverde is a solid closer, and he has to be trusted to close out games and be given the opportunity to have the game in his hands for him to be successful. For the game to be put into Valverde's hands, the rest of the bullpen has to do their job to hold a lead.
Joaquin Benoit has been the ultimate set-up man this season with a 3.10 ERA and 23 holds. Brayan Villarreal has been a pleasant surprise as well for the Tigers with a 1.30 ERA and 47 strikeouts in just 34.2 innings. For this team to make the postseason, the bullpen must continue its dominance and trust that the relievers have what it takes to shut teams down late in games.
Detroit's starters have an ERA of 4.16, good for 18th in the league. Ask pitching coach Jeff Jones and he will tell you that they have failed to meet their expectations.
The starting rotation is solid on paper and just received an upgrade when they traded for Anibal Sanchez just two short weeks ago. Sanchez's contract will be up at the end of the season, and he will be pitching to earn his keep in Detroit. He looks to be one of the top three starting pitchers available this coming offseason.
There is no doubt that this Tigers' rotation should be in the top tier of the MLB. They have the best pitcher in the league in Justin Verlander, the top strikeout guy in the American League in Max Scherzer and one of the most underrated pitchers in the league in Doug Fister. Did I mention they are all young, under the age of 30?
For the Tigers to make a run in October, they will need to accumulate more quality starts—they have just 57 to date, good for 15th in the league. They also need to have a better record from here on out. The starters' combined record to date(not counting Drew Smyly) is 36-27, which is solid but far from where they need to be for postseason play.
You better believe Verlander will do everything in his power to get his fellow starters motivated to become one of the best staffs in the league.
The Tigers have proved themselves to be a tough opponent at home in Detroit. They are 31-21 at home and give opponents nightmares with the way they can take advantage of Comerica Park's dimensions.
They are, however, a lackluster road team. They have just a 27-29 record on the road with a lower batting average and higher ERA than they have when they play on their own diamond. For any team to become a World Series contender, it needs to be comfortable with winning away from home.
The Tigers are just 5-7 on the road since the All-Star break and scored five runs or more just four times in that span. This is not something that can continue, especially in a heated divisional race with a team that is very tough to be at home: the White Sox.
Although the Tigers have had to face some tough opponents on the road so far in the second half of the season, they need to beat the best in order to be the best. They need to fare well against teams on the road and prove that they are a team to beat and a team that shouldn't be taken lightly. Once they do this, the playoffs will look much more promising for their future.
Too many times this season the Tigers have gone cold and been a streaky offensive team. There were times in the first half of the season where they would go almost a week or more without scoring more than five runs in a game.
They have been heating up lately and the guys in the middle of the lineup are a huge reason for that. Miguel Cabrera is having an MVP-type season with a .325 with 27 long balls and 91 RBI. He has simply been a run-producing machine and one of the scariest hitters in the game.
Prince Fielder has also been a scary batter for opponents. He is batting .311 with 18 homers and 79 RBI. He has almost been a sneaky threat in the lineup because of Cabrera's superb play and Austin Jackson's stellar comeback season.
With the lineup that the Tigers possess, they are one of the most feared in baseball. They lacked a second baseman all season long until they acquired Omar Infante in a trade on July 23 that seemingly completed the team. They are top 10 in the league in runs, batting average, slugging percentage and on-base percentage.
Being in the top 10 in all of these categories shows that this team is on the right track and should be a tough out for opposing pitchers. For the Tigers to make the postseason, hitters one through nine need to consistently contribute and there can't be more inconsistent offensive output like there has been thus far.
The Central Division race was looking like a solid three-team competition, but it is starting to look more and more like it will come down to the Tigers and White Sox.
The Tigers have been fighting to stay above water this entire season, struggling for most of the first half of the year to just make it to .500. They have now achieved that and more, boasting a 20-10 record since the beginning of July.
The first three months of the season, they were a mediocre 38-40, and now they are playing crisp, sharp baseball. The problem is, the White Sox are doing the same thing in Chicago.
The Chicago White Sox have held the division lead for some time now and are proving that they will not roll over in the Central. The Tigers were preseason favorites to win the division and they are now finally starting to play like favorites.
They are one and a half games behind the division-leading Sox, while the Indians continue to plummet, losing nine straight and recently being swept by these Tigers.
For the Tigers to have a chance at the playoffs, they must take care of their divisional opponents. The Royals and Twins should be no contest, but they will be playing the role of spoilers. The Indians will be in contention until they allow themselves to give up, being a thorn in the sides of the Tigers and White Sox.
The Tigers have many games left against these division teams and they will need to win a majority of them to have a chance at a division title, let alone a wild-card berth. Look for Jim Leyland to prepare his team to win a high percentage of division games because if anyone knows how important those games are, it's him.