September has begun for skipper Jim Leyland and the Detroit Tigers. Tigers fans have come to fear September as the month of doom for their beloved Boys. However, the Tigers look for a solid September to hold on to the American League Central Division for the first time, well ever. The Tigers are the only team besides the Kansas City Royals to never win the division title. The Cleveland Indians have won it 7 times, the Minnesota Twins 6 times, and the Chicago White Sox 3 times. Detroit's boys of summer have the best chance at a playoff birth since 2009, but we know what happened then. Here's a look at what the Tigers need for a chance to stay atop the AL Central.
The Tigers are poised to take the AL Central for the first time ever.
Tigers Tall-Boy, Doug Fister
Outside of Justin Verlander, the Detroit Tigers starting rotation has been very unstable in 2011. The good news is they have a ton of talent. The remaining starters need to settle their heads and pitch to give the offense a chance. The Tigers were arguably winners on the trade market this year. Not only did they land starter Doug Fister from the Mariners, they passed on Ubaldo Jimenez who has not pitched well for the Indians since the trade. Fister has quickly turned himself into the #2 pitcher in the Tigers rotation. The Tigers are hopeful that Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello can return to mid-season form. Scherzer is capable of striking out 8-15 batters per game, but also gives up a good amount of long balls. Porcello has pitched well at times, but has extremely lop-sided splits: 1.14 ERA with bases empty, 13.5 ERA with RISP. If the Tigers are able to make the playoffs they will need Porcello and Scherzer to step it up. Veteran starter Brad Penny may not even make a postseason roster if Jacob Turner can show his talents are MLB ready.
Alex Avila has been a brick wall behind the plate for the Tigers in 2011
Alex Avila has been the "iron man" for the Detroit Tigers in 2011. But, if Leyland mentioned Alex Avila's name in a Tigers' lineup in 2010, the local radio stations would have lit up with calls from angered fans. Their complaints were not without merit. Detroit had gotten used to a .300 hitter behind the plate from the tenure of Ivan (Pudge) Rodriguez. It was hard for the fans to accept Laird and Avila did not give the fans much reason to trust him. But, 2011 has been a breakout year for the All Star catcher thanks to his off-season training regimine.
Avila played in 104 games for the Tigers last season and had some terrible numbers:
AVG = .228, OBP = .316, SLG = .340, and OPS = .656.
In comparison, his 2011 numbers have significantly improved:
AVG = .299, OBP = .391, SLG = .522, and OPS = .913.
His defense has also been very impressive over the last month. He has started all but one of the last 20 games because of a lingering knee injury to teammate Victor Martinez. The All Star catcher hopes to continue his hot August into the September playoff chase.
Delmon Young has been just what the Tigers needed in the stretch run.
The Tigers may have made the most impactful trade of 2011 following the non-waiver trade deadline. 25-year old outfielder and former #1 overall pick Delmon Young was acquired from the Minnesota Twins for what looks like a bargain exchange. The Tigers sent relievers Cole Nelson and Luis Oliveros to the Twins. Young has fit in well in the outfield especially after an injury to RF Brennan Boesch has lingered for more than two weeks. If Young can get the rest of the outfield to follow suit, the lineup may be unstoppable. He has made the Twins pay for his departure, hitting almost .400 against his former team.
Al Alburquerque leaves practice after a line drive to the head.
The 2011 Tigers have been relatively lucky with the health of their squad. There are currently four players from the 40-man roster currently listed DTD or DL: Al Alburquerque (RP), Brennan Boesch (OF), Ryan Raburn (UTIL), and Joel Zumaya (RP).
Alburquerque took a line drive off the head in practice in August. He has been experiencing concussion-like symptoms since that time. He has been throwing bullpen sessions recently and is due back in a matter of days.
Boesch has been sidelined with a sore right thumb that disables him from batting. The injury has also caused a strain in his right bicep. He has pinch-ran on occasion late in games for Ordonez.
Raburn jammed his finger into second base while breaking up a huge double play against the Kansas City Royals this week. He will likely be starting this weekend but may get rest with the return of Carlos Guillen.
Zumaya has not been a factor for the Tigers in 2011 after his May surgery. He may be back in 2012, but with Benoit and Alburquerque filling his roles with success, he may have pitched his last time for the Tigers.
Outside of the official injuries, several players are sucking it up and playing through the pain. Staying healthy is one of the most important elements to winning a division. Just ask the Minnesota Twins.
Leyland needs to continue his 2011 dominance over the AL Central
Previous Tigers' teams have had abysmal second halves of the season. Throughout his tenure as Tigers' manager, Leyland has always led his squad to the top of the division in the first half, but they fail to hold onto the division past July and August. This year, the Tigers have gone 34-21 against the AL Central. They also have a winning record against the AL East within their division (18-14). With 22 games left in the 2011 season, 18 are against division foes. The Tigers must continue to win against the division. They have struggled in September against the Central, and especially against The Royals. If they can post a winning record against their rivals in the stretch, they will be able to take the American League Central Division for the first time.