Before the season began, Jim Leyland declared that the Detroit Tigers' lineup, the supposed "murderer's row," would dominate average pitching. The Tigers fell flat right away though, losing nine out of their first 10 games.
There have been flashes of the high-octane offense that was supposed to make a run at 1,000 runs this year. But the bright stretches have been made all the more tantalizing by the long droughts in-between.
The starting pitching, considered before the season to be another strong point of the team, has also been abysmal, contributing mightily to the fact that the Tigers have only one victory this year in which they put up five runs or less.
Surprisingly, the strength of the team, and the only consistent bright spot throughout the year, has been the oft-maligned bullpen. The prolonged absence of relievers Fernando Rodney and Joel Zumaya caused a great deal of concern before the season about the state of the bullpen until their returns, which are still pending.
The bullpen has a 4.14 ERA on the year, however regulars Aquilino Lopez and Bobby Seay both have ERAs well under three. Seay only allows lefties a 1.13 ERA, and closer Todd Jones has not blown any of his seven save opportunities. Newcomers Francisco Cruceta and Fredi Dolsi both have ERAs under two.
Everyone in Detroit knows about the Tigers' struggles, though what none of them, including the team and manager, can seem to figure out is the why. The answer might lie in the Skipper's own words.
The Tigers' best games have all come against sub-par pitching. Their recent dominance in a three-game set with the Seattle Mariners may be due to the fact that they faced the three worst pitchers Seattle has to offer, avoiding Eric Bedard and Felix Hernandez, who both sport ERAs under four.
Two of the three starters the Tigers faced allow over six runs per nine innings. This trend can also be found in the Tigers' explosion at Yankee Stadium, where they roughed up young Yanks Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy, who are now on the disabled list and demoted to Triple A, respectively.
One of Leyland's favorite mantras is that "big league pitching beats big league hitting." This has proved true in the case of the Tigers. More often than not, they have simply been beaten by good pitching.
One of these flashes came recently in the three-game set against Seattle. Three strong outings in a row, in which the Tigers scored 30 runs, have Detroit buzzing again, thinking that their beloved team may finally have woken up.
There is a possibility that the Tigers' big bats have woken up, however the Mariners' series offers another reason to hope that the club might be on the rise.
In the three games, ace Justin Verlander improved his paltry record to 2-7 with seven strikeouts and only allowed one run in six innings in what was clearly his best start of the year.
Veteran Kenny Rogers didn't have a great game but still got the win in game two; and Jeremy Bonderman picked up his third win, allowing two earned runs in six solid innings.
The Tigers we saw in the Seattle series were exactly what we thought they would be from the beginning. Their starting pitching was good, their hitting was great, and their bullpen was, at times, problematic.
Hopefully, the hitters keep hitting, the starters continue to pitch well, and the bullpen returns to form. If that happens, the Tigers, with the season over a quarter gone, still have time to climb out of the American League Central cellar, and back into championship contention.