Back in May, I never thought I'd get a chance to say these words...
The Detroit Tigers are the hottest team in baseball.
Read it again and take a minute to digest that.
The Detroit Tigers, the same Tigers who started the season 2-8 and have yet to beat the Kansas City Royals. Yeah, Those Detroit Tigers. They've finally stopped playing like the Detroit Lions and decided to emulate the Red Wings, or maybe the regular season edition of the Pistons.
They've teased us before, you might say. But this time, the transformation seems to be sticking. When did this change happen?
Since Detroit split a four-game series at home with the Cleveland Indians between June 6th and 9th, the Tigers are an astonishing 13-3 (15-5 if you include the Cleveland series.) They were a miserable 24-35 when the Tribe came to town, and are now they are a game above .500, slowly creeping up on Minnesota and Chicago.
Any team can reel off a hot streak, but the way the Tigers have racked up these multiple victories is impressive and definitely means a lot heading into the second half of the season. Let's look at some numbers then, shall we?
In their last 20 games, Detroit is scoring 5.3 runs a game while only allowing 3.7 runs. In their 15 victories, the team ERA shrinks to 2.93, a great number when you've got an offense like the Tigers do.
Even more importantly than the raw numbers, the offense is picking up the defense, and vice versa. Earlier in the season, the offense couldn't bail out the pitching staff if they had a rough night (look at Justin Verlander's early-season run support numbers for proof.) Now, pitching and hitting are functioning as cohesive units.
June 14th against LA, Detroit was down 4-1 against against Brad Penny and the Dodgers going into the bottom half of the 4th inning. All the Detroit offense could do was put up a six-spot in that half-inning and chase Penny out of the game. A classic case of the offense picking up the defense.
June 12th against the Chicago White Sox, the Tigers' bats went cold, only managing a single run through the first 8 innings. So what did starting pitcher Kenny Rogers do? Held the White Sox to a single run, setting up a dramatic Miguel Cabrera walk-off home run in the ninth.
In addition to all-around solid performance by the whole team, the Tigers have had their fair share of luck. Carlos Guillen was bailed out by a bad call on a baserunning mistake against the Dodgers, and would later score. Marcus Thames has hit home runs at a ridiculous pace. And unknown rookie Eddie Bonine has made three appearances, winning two of them and getting a no-decision in the other.
The game that best exemplifies Detroit's incredible luck during this stretch is definitely the rubber match against St. Louis on June 26. Clete Thomas was 1-3, with two RBI. But his one hit didn't come with anybody in scoring position. In the sixth inning, Ron Villone walked him with two outs and the bases loaded. Thomas came up to bat again in the 10th inning with two outs and the bases loaded when Mike Parisi walked him, and Clete drove in the game-winning run.
To make this even more absurd, the game wouldn't have even made it to extra innings had Gary Sheffield, batting .235 and fresh off the DL, blasted a solo home run in the bottom of the 9th with two outs. This tied the game and sent it to extras. What makes this home run more impressive was that pitcher Ryan Franklin had made a mistake to Sheffield the pitch before the home run, a pitch which Sheffield hit about 375 feet, and 10 feet left of the foul pole. The next pitch was the same one, and Sheff did not miss it.
They say that teams on a hot streak get all the luck, and the Tigers are living proof of this. In this year's AL Central, mid-June was not too late to start making a move. If the Tigers continue playing with this same sense of urgency, look for the wins (and the luck) to keep coming.