For all the offseason hype they received after adding one of the game's premier power hitters to a team that was already one of baseball's best, the Detroit Tigers enter interleague play with the same record as the Pittsburgh Pirates.
They didn't fare well against the NL last season with one exception - Justin Verlander, who looks to continue his interleague dominance Friday night when the Pirates visit Comerica Park for the first of three.
Many were ready to hand the AL Central to the Tigers (18-20) after they signed Prince Fielder, and considering they won the division by 15 games last year with a similar roster, those predictions seemed appropriate.
Instead, Detroit finds itself four games back of first-place Cleveland - though that's not an unfamiliar spot. The Tigers trailed the Indians by five on May 20, 2011, the day they began interleague play against Pittsburgh (18-20).
Good things happen when Verlander (4-1, 2.47 ERA) takes the hill, particularly in interleague play. Verlander is 15-2 with a 2.94 ERA in 20 starts versus the NL, going 3-0 with a 0.75 ERA in four outings last year.
Detroit went 4-11 in interleague last season when giving the ball to anyone other than Verlander, including two losses in Pittsburgh.
The reigning AL MVP won his fourth straight decision Sunday in Oakland, limiting the A's to a solo homer and one other hit over seven innings of a 3-1 victory. He did discover a tiny blister on his right thumb, but didn't seem too concerned.
There hasn't been much that's been able to slow him down as he seeks a 51st consecutive start of at least six innings. Only Bob Gibson, Steve Carlton and Catfish Hunter have gone 50, with Carlton's 69 from 1979-82 the last streak longer than Verlander's.
Verlander went seven innings in his only career start versus Pittsburgh, a 6-2 home win June 11, 2010.
That Pirates team finished averaged an NL-low 3.62 runs, and this one is averaging a major league-worst 2.92. But Pittsburgh had a solid night at the plate Thursday in Washington, getting two homers from Andrew McCutchen and recording double-digit hits for the first time in 13 games in a 5-3 win.
Charlie Morton (2-3, 4.05) will oppose Verlander hoping to solve his road woes. He's 1-4 with a 6.55 ERA in his last seven starts away from PNC Park, where he held Houston to one earned run over six innings Saturday in a 5-2 victory.
Jim Leyland's bench might be thin but his patience doesn't seem to be.
Leyland expressed surprise Thursday that his club is two games below .500 and continues to flounder 38 games into the season.
Detroit reached its low point by being swept by Minnesota, 4-3, and has lost five of its last seven outings.
"The only thing that's been consistent is the inconsistency," Leyland said. "It's kind of mind-boggling to me."
The Tigers have made eight errors in their last three games but that, says the manager, is the least of his worries.
"I've said all along we're an average defensive team," he said. "That all gets magnified when you lose the game.
"It's been different things pop up. Everything just hits you when you're not going well. We're just not doing enough things you need to do to win games."
Leyland was speaking calmly, without agitation or irritation. Like a manager who understands that blowing up at this point isn't a remedy for what he hopes is a short-term problem.
"I'm a little surprised to say the least," Leyland said, "But I don't look up all of a sudden and say, 'We're not a good team.' I love this team. It's going to come out of it.
"I just don't think you think it will just automatically turn around, though. You've got to go out and make it happen. You can get caught anticipating and assuming it's just going to happen. You have to make it happen."
So far, though, what keeps happening are the different breakdowns on an almost daily basis.
LF/CF Andy Dirks keeps doing good things to keep himself on the field. Dirks, hitting second in the absence of CF Austin Jackson, led off the fifth inning Thursday with a home run, his fourth, and walked in an attempt to start a rally in the eighth. Manager Jim Leyland switched him to center when he pinch-hit for CF Don Kelly after Minnesota brought in LHP Francisco Liriano in the seventh.
CF Austin Jackson took treatment Thursday on a sore side that kept him out of the game. He came out of Wednesday night's game after suffering the strain while hitting. Detroit lists him day-to-day, but he's not likely to play Friday and may be out of action until Tuesday. The Tigers are off Monday.
1B Prince Fielder gave a run away and then took it back. Fielder made an error on a throw from RHP Doug Fister, the ball sailing by him and allowing LF Josh Willingham to go all the way to third in the fifth inning. Willingham scored on a groundout to second. Fielder retaliated in the sixth Thursday with the second of two solo home runs by Detroit that drew the Tigers to within 4-3, the final score.
RF Brennan Boesch has a 10-game hitting streak after lining a home run to right field leading off the fifth inning on Thursday. Boesch has done his work since being dropped to the bottom third of the batting order, collecting 12 hits in his streak.
RHP Doug Fister was all around the strike zone Thursday. but struggled through it except for giving up two home runs good for three third-inning runs. Fister could manage only six innings because he threw 109 pitches, allowed nine hits and two walks. But the big damage was allowing a two-run home run to DH Justin Morneau after a two-out walk in the third, followed by a fat fastball Trevor Plouffe hit for his second home run in two games. Fister allowed an unearned run in the fifth. "He was out of whack early on," manager Jim Leyland said. "He got better as he went along. It looked like he was pulling his cutter early."
RHP Brayan Villarreal is making a bid to make his third stay with Detroit his last. Villarreal was called up from Class AAA Toledo on Thursday and pitched two scoreless innings, allowing a hit in the eighth and a walk in the ninth. He has not allowed an earned run in five games with the Tigers this season and getting reliable bullpen outings has been a problem for Detroit. He was getting his fastball up to 98 mph and using a nice slider as an offsetting pitch.
2B Ramon Santiago was Detroit's only non-catching reserve Thursday and manager Jim Leyland left his bench bare when he used him as a pinch-hitter in the seventh inning. With INF Danny Worth optioned out to make room for an extra pitcher and CF Austin Jackson out because of a side injury, the Tigers' bench consisted of backup C Gerald Laird and Santiago. Leyland hit Santiago for CF Don Kelly when Minnesota brought in LHP Francisco Liriano. Santiago grounded into an inning-ending double play. He stayed in to play second.
RHP Jose Valverde remained out of action Thursday for the second straight game because of to a lower back strain. Valverde is listed day-to-day but might not pitch until Saturday or Sunday.
RHP Luis Marte made his first rehab appearance Thursday for Class A Lakeland, pitching two shutout innings. He allowed one hit and no walks while striking out three. Marte has been on the disabled all season due to a left hamstring strain.
By The Numbers:
9—Teams for which RHP Octavio Dotel has recorded a save during his career. His May 15 save for Detroit tied him with Goose Gossage as having saves for the most different Major League teams.
Quote To Note:
"I'm a little surprised to say the least. But I don't look up all of a sudden and say, 'We're not a good team.' I love this team. It's going to come out of it."
—Manager Jim Leyland, admitting it's puzzling why a team he sees as talented is only 18-20.