Willis Key to Divisional Race

John ParentCorrespondent IMay 25, 2009

DUNEDIN, FL - FEBRUARY 27 :  Pitcher Dontrelle Willis of the Detroit Tigers pitches in relief against the Toronto Blue Jays February 27, 2009 at Dunedin Stadium in Dunedin, Florida.  (Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)

Dontrelle Willis left today's contest after 6.2 innings allowing seven hits and three runs, and walked a season high four batters.  Willis (1-1, 3.57ERA) was good enough today. He was good enough to be a major league pitcher; he was good enough to keep his spot in the rotation, and although he didn't match the outing he had versus Texas, he was good enough to beat the Rockies.  Unfortunately for Willis, the offense managed just six hits and one run against Jason Hammel, and the Tigers fell 3-1. But today, Dontrelle Willis showed again that he is ready to resume a once-promising major league career.

The addition of Willis to the Tigers' already formidable rotation should help secure Detroit's place as the favorite to win the AL Central. The division is littered with tough left handed hitters, such as Mike Jacobs and Alex Gordon in Kansas City, Jim Thome in Chicago, Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau and Jason Kubel in Minnesota, and Grady Sizemore in Cleveland.  Willis provides the Tigers with a lefty starter they otherwise lack. His success could make the difference in what figures to be a season long race for the playoffs.

The rest of the rotation stacks up well versus the Central division contenders, and the impending return of Jeremy Bonderman figures to give them another boost.

Justin Verlander (4-2, 3.99 ERA) leads the AL in strikeouts and has been dominant for most of the season. Even through his first few starts, when his ERA sat at 9.00, his stuff was there and his outings were marred by one bad inning.  Verlander has since eliminated the bad inning and has shown a return to the form that saw him win 35 games in his first two seasons. Verlander will oppose Gil Meche (2-4, 4.42 ERA) in tomorrow's series opener in Kansas City.

Edwin Jackson has finally fulfilled his vast potential.  He won 14 games for the surprise AL Champion Rays last season, but was left out of the postseason rotation. Tampa traded him to the Tigers in the offseason for outfielder Matt Joyce.  Jackson (4-2, 2.55 ERA) leads the staff in innings pitched and has shown the will of an ace in his last two starts, returning after an hour long rain delay to throw three more innings against Oakland on May 15, followed by a 132 pitch effort against Texas on Thursday.  He has been the staff's most consistent starter this season.

Rick Porcello has been an absolute revelation for the 2009 edition of the Tigers in much the same way that Verlander was to the '06 version. The 20 year old rookie had never pitched above A-ball when he made the big club out of spring training. The first few starts were a bit rough, but he has settled in nicely, not having allowed a home run this month after allowing six long balls in April.  Porcello (5-3, 3.55 ERA) leads the team in wins and seemingly gets better with each start.

Armando Galarraga has struggled mightily in May, after roaring to a 3-0 start to the season. The second year righthander had a slightly improved effort Saturday against Colorado, but may only get one more start before Bonderman returns from injury and pushes someone out of the rotation.

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Right now, the smart money is on a Galarraga (3-4, 5.74ERA) trip to AAA Toledo to try to work out his problems in the minor leagues. Galarraga was easily the best of the staff in 2008, finishing 13-7 as a rookie, but something has been amiss in his past several starts, and he needs to get it right if the Tigers are to use him in a major league role.

Despite consecutive losses to the Rockies over the weekend, the Detroit Tigers head into Memorial Day in first place in the AL Central, three games better than the Kansas City Royals. Detroit travels to Kansas City for a three game series starting tomorrow afternoon. The Tigers finished 2008 in last place in the division, one game worse than the perennial cellar-dwelling Royals.

The main reason for the early season success for both teams has been the performance of their starting rotation. Kansas City, lead by Cy Young candidate Zach Grienke, leads the American League with a team ERA of 3.87, while Detroit ranks third with a 3.96. The Tigers, meanwhile rank second in the league in opponents batting average at .247, with the Royals one spot behind them at .256 (stats ESPN.com).

The Tigers offense, currently ranked in the bottom half of the American League, will need continued strong performances from Miguel Cabrera and Brandon Inge, but will also need to see a return to form from Magglio Ordonez and injured DH Carlos Guillen to keep the pressure off the starting rotation, and also to keep the pressure on the rest of the division as the Tigers attempt to pull away.

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