DETROIT – Is anyone else feeling oddly satisfied with the Detroit Tigers?
Maybe at this point we’re simply conditioned to appreciate anything better than pure sports misery. The Tigers, Pistons, Lions and Red Wings have done a thorough job pounding failure into our everyday routine the past several years.
Or maybe it’s a sense of relief that the organization isn’t completely spiraling out of control -- because it sure looked that way when the Tigers lost 18 of 21 earlier this year and owned the worst record in MLB.
But there’s a third possibility: Maybe, just maybe, the Tigers are taking a meaningful step toward the end of a long, painful rebuild.
Sweeping the Royals
Three wins against a Kansas City team that’s been floundering for weeks is hardly a reason to parade through the streets, but it was encouraging to see the WAY the Tigers took care of business against the Royals.
For starters, it would have been SO painfully Tigers-like to let the weekend sweep at the hands of the White Sox turn into a longer losing streak. The team had just knocked off the Mariners to pull within 10 games of .500, and then Chicago came into Comerica Park and beat the Tigers three days in a row.
Recent Tigers teams would have let that turn into three or four straight series losses. These Tigers immediately stopped the bleeding.
In the first game, Detroit lost its ace, Matt Boyd, to injury just seven outs into his start. Manager A.J. Hinch had to use nine pitchers -- a club record for pitchers used in a nine-inning game -- just to piece it together. The offense picked up the slack by scoring 10 runs.
Then, with the bullpen badly needing some length from a starter, Casey Mize flashed his own ace potential, going 6.2 strong innings in what ended up being a 4-3 victory.
On Sunday, the Tigers didn’t really need a win. They had locked up the series and fell behind 3-1 early -- it felt like the classic, “Oh well, at least we took two of three” scenario.
Not this time. Tarik Skubal gutted his way through six innings, including scoreless fourth, fifth and sixth innings, to keep the Tigers within striking distance. Willi Castro came through with a clutch two-run homer to tie the game. The Tigers rallied for another run that inning, and then added insurance runs in the eighth and ninth -- runs that ended up saving the game after Michael Fulmer struggled to close it out.
Previous Tigers teams always seemed to find different ways to lose. This series, the Tigers found ways to win three very different games.
Last 35 games
Now the dust has settled and the Tigers are still 10 games below .500. Yet, they’re 20-15 since that awful start. They’re closer to third place in the AL Central than last place.
It’s probably the most extended stretch of winning the organization has enjoyed since 2016, and most importantly, it’s coming on the backs of players who will be foundational pieces of the future.
Mize and Skubal are vastly improved from last season -- even from earlier this year. Castro is starting to come around after a dreadful offensive start. Akil Baddoo has shown tremendous growth in his first taste of MLB action.
The Tigers can’t figure out the White Sox or Cleveland Indians, but they’ve swept four series in the last five weeks and are 18-6 in their last 24 non-White Sox or Indians games. Remember, playing well against the middle and bottom of the league is a roadblock they have to hurdle before they can compete with the best in the league.
The next two weeks represent a new test. Starting Thursday, the Tigers have a 16-game stretch against the Angels, Cardinals, Astros, Indians and White Sox -- five teams with playoff aspirations.
In the past, we would have expected the Tigers to go something like 4-12, but maybe it’s time to aim a bit higher.
If the Tigers can sweep the Yankees and take five of six from the Mariners, what’s stopping them from splitting with the Angels, Cardinals or Astros?
I don’t think the Tigers will ever get back to .500 this season. That early hole they dug is too deep. But what once looked like a 45-win team is (incredibly) on a 70-win pace.
If the Tigers win that many games and finish third in the AL Central, they won’t hang any banners. Still, we would all take that as a step in the right direction -- and that’s a reason to get excited.