Detroit Tigers Dissector: Late-Season Improvements and Fernando Rodney

Johnny LawrenceCorrespondent IAugust 29, 2009

ANAHEIM, CA - AUGUST 24:  Closer Fernanado Rodney #56 and catcher Gerald Laird #8 of the Detroit Tigers celebrate after the game against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim on August 24, 2009 at Angel Stadium in Anaheim, California.  Rodney picked up his 27th save as the Tigers won 10-7.   (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

Welcome to Rudy Dominick and Johnny Lawrence's Week 21 installment of Detroit Tigers information and analysis. Each week, we will delve into all things Tigers.

Read and digest, or skim and spit out our insightful banter.

Keep An Eye On...

Adam Wilk, Starting Pitcher—West Michigan (A)
(At West Michigan)
2-1, 28.1 IP, 20 H, 2 BB, 24 K, 1.27 ERA

Drive-By Argument: Which Struggling Tiger Needs to Step Up More, Curtis Granderson or Edwin Jackson?

DOMINICK:  Jackson.

In a season loaded with offensive disappointments, pitching has been the prime factor to Detroit's first-place stranglehold.

In fact, this year's squad resembles the 2006 Tigers who led baseball in earned run average. Justin Verlander and Kenny Rogers each won 17 games, while Jeremy Bonderman and Nate Robertson chipped in a combined 27 wins.

On offense, Craig Monroe led Detroit with 28 homers and only two players batted over .300 (Ivan Rodriguez and Carlos Guillen), demonstrating that pitching assumed responsibility for their deep playoff run.

Linking the two seasons, standout pitching in clutch situations has kept Detroit at a distance from the rest of the American League Central, not its' offense. In the rotation, Verlander leads the way with 13 wins, followed by super rookie Rick Porcello (11), and Jackson (10).

What good is an outstanding game from Granderson if the pitcher gave up six runs?

Jackson ranks third in the AL in quality starts, has given up three runs or less runs in all but three games.

Thus far, his performance has been far more pivotal than Granderson’s bat.

LAWRENCE:  Granderson.

Rudy, Granderson can affect the outcome of every game, four times more the influence Jackson has.

Take notice of how the Tigers go as Granderson goes. His lowered batting average and walk totals have resulted in shorter innings with fewer baserunners, ultimately stunting Detroit's run output.

It appears he has adopted the approach of a cleanup hitter, having already smacked a career-high 25 out of the park. While the long ball is certainly a need for the Tigers, it isn't what they need atop the order.

If Granderson evolves back into the leadoff man of old, the edition who placed second in the AL with 112 runs last year, Miguel Cabrera and company will plate more runners.

Cabrera, Placido Polanco, and Magglio Ordonez have clubbed the ball all over the park in recent weeks, increasing the need for base traffic.

You certainly can't diminish what E-Jax has meant to the rotation, but with no one setting the table on a consistent basis, the struggling offense is leaving the first-place door open to all challengers.

Fernando Rodney:  Unheralded, Essential To Playoff Run

Flashing back to 2006 once more, Rodney proved crucial to Detroit's run: 71.2 IP, 51 H, 65 K, 3.52 ERA.

Rodney, Joel Zumaya, and Todd Jones locked games down when handed the ball in the seventh, eighth, and ninth innings, similar to the work Brandon Lyon and Rodney have performed this year.

Since the Tigers improbable run to the World Series, Rodney transformed from dominant setup man, to on-and-off the disabled list, to a shutdown closer.

Tied for sixth the AL with 28 saves, Detroit's new finisher blew one save in his first 29 opportunities.

One-hundred and eighteen pitchers have blown more saves; among them are top-earning relievers Brian Fuentes, Brad Lidge, Jonathan Papelbon, and Francisco Rodriguez, as well as each closer in the AL Central.

The Yankees' Mariano Rivera, the Rockies' Huston Street, and Rodney stand in isolation among primary closers, with just one cough-up.

Is it a coincidence that each of these teams sit no lower than second place?

Detroit has held a grip on the division lead since May 12.

Much of their success can be attributed to the stability Rodney brought to the back end of the bullpen.

Going into Spring Training, general manager Dave Dombrowski believed free agent acquisition Lyon could earn the closing role.

"I don't look at him as a dominant-type closer, but our people think he can pitch at the back end of the pen." But inconsistencies plagued him and he struggled mightily. In 12 innings, he surrendered five home runs.

Consequently, Rodney won the job by default.

Ignoring the moans and groans from Detroit fans, he has since proven his worth. Rodney closed every game assigned to him from April 11 to Aug. 1.

Though not always fashionable, he has developed a propensity to work out of jams. Since the All-Star break, only Rivera (0.53) and Oakland's Andrew Bailey (1.96) have posted a lower earned-run average than the Tigers closer (2.04), who shines at Comerica Park.

A media and fan base once littered with skeptics doubts no more.

Rodney has converted Detroit's most vulnerable position into a strength.

Favorable Matchups

Aug. 28-31: DET Marcus Thames vs. TB Pitching (.307, 23-for-75, 4 HR).

Aug. 28-31: DET Aubrey Huff vs. TB Pitching (.301, 47-for-156, 11 HR).

Aug. 29: TB Jason Bartlett vs. DET Nate Robertson (.000, 0-for-22, 3 K).

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