It’s now or never for the Tigers

Over my years of being a sports fan and the last few years as a sports writer, I’ve realized one consistent truth in baseball.

That truth is that it’s hard to see how a team will finish the year before the All-Star break, but the picture clears up greatly at the trade deadline.

As I wrote this Wednesday night, the Detroit Tigers were in the midst of a seven-game winning streak and were currently leading by a run over the struggling Chicago White Sox. Up to the All-Star break and even after, the Tigers were an unpredictable team. They’d have some nice performances at the plate and then some poor ones. The pitching staff would look great for a stretch and then terrible for another. Over the course of a season, teams experience highs and lows, but the Tigers decided to take it a step further and do that almost every series.

Going into the All-Star break, I wasn’t sure what to think of the Tigers, but I was sure that they weren’t going to the postseason this year. Most people I know felt the same way. Detroit had a 46-43 record, which is decent, but not exactly playoff-caliber. Even though I didn’t think they’d end up in the postseason, I thought they might have a slim shot if they could start winning consistently.

As the trade deadline approached, the Tigers started to come together. Right before the deadline, Detroit rattled off six wins in a row. Heading into last weekend, it was hard to determine whether the Tigers would be buyers or sellers on Monday. However, Detroit’s recent surge made the decision easy as general manager Al Avila decided to play it safe and not do anything.

Even though there have only been a handful of games since the deadline, Avila’s decision seems to have been a smart one. Over his past few outings, star flamethrower Justin Verlander has gotten back to his old self and is handcuffing batters. Michael Fulmer has been a surprise this year and has a 9-2 record with a 2.50 ERA. He looked great during this game until he hung a breaking ball that White Sox slugger Justin Morneau planted in the seats.

Mike Pelfrey got off to an atrocious start, but seemed to be turning it around before he recently landed on the disabled list. If he comes back strong, the Tigers starting staff would look really good as they enter the last stretch of the year. Even Anibal Sanchez, who can make even the most loyal Tigers fan tremble when he’s on the mound, put together a great outing on Tuesday, and with Pelfrey on the DL, might hang onto his spot in the rotation.

It’s not just the pitching staff that has been good, the Tigers’ bats have been stellar. Detroit has been hitting home runs and plating several runs. Sluggers Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, Ian Kinsler and Nick Castellanos are expected to do that, but even the non-big name players are coming through at the plate such as James McCann, Andrew Romine and Cameron Maybin. If the Tigers are going to continue to keep up with Cleveland in the Central Division, and contend for a wild card spot, everybody will need to continue to step up when needed.

As I started to wrap this up, J.D. Martinez strode to the plate for the first time in almost seven weeks. He was supposed to return Thursday, but he was inserted in the lineup as a pinch hitter.

As he dug in, Tigers fans gave him a standing ovation and it was almost like they were willing him to start off his return with a bang. On the first pitch he saw, Martinez did exactly that as he crushed a Chris Sale pitch to the left-center fence for a no-doubt homer.

It looked like the Tigers would pull of a dramatic win with Martinez leaving as the hero, but for that to happen, closer Francisco Rodriguez needed to do his job on the mound. He was far from good, but with the bases loaded and two outs in the top of the ninth, he managed to get a groundout to end the game.

Even though the win streak came to an end Thursday, the last few days have still been impressive. Now the question is can they reclaim that momentum. I think they will.

Ryan Stieg can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252. His email address is