Tigers have company in divisional race

By Larry Lage The Associated Press

DETROIT- The Motor City skyline was draped in clouds, and a steady rain pattered on the tarp-covered field at Comerica Park. If things weren’t gloomy enough in Detroit yesterday, the Tigers only needed to look at the AL Central standings.

One of the biggest stories of this baseball season has been the Tigers’ surprising turnaround. With the playoffs just three weeks away, Detroit finds itself as the focus of another story line – its collapse.

At the end of the day on Aug. 7, Detroit was 76-36, eight games better than any other team. Their closest AL Central rival was Chicago at 10 games behind, with Minnesota facing a 10 1/2 game deficit.

Since then, the Tigers were 10-22 – only the Chicago Cubs were worse during that stretch in the majors – entering yesterday’s games. Their division lead had shrunk to 1 1/2 games over Minnesota and three games ahead of the White Sox.

Fans in Detroit, who finally have something to cheer about after years of lousy baseball and a team that’s been largely ignored, are understandably worried.

Tigers manager Jim Leyland insisted he and his players are not panicking. He also acknowledged that they are, to a degree, watching the scoreboard.

“We’re in a position to take care of our own fate,” said Leyland, who helped Florida win the World Series in 1997 and was a two-time NL Manager of the Year in Pittsburgh. “We have to take care of our own business, but are you hoping (Chicago and Minnesota) get beat? Sure. To say it’s not in the back of your mind, you’re lying.”

The truth is, Detroit is in danger of the worst free fall in a decade.

The Tigers were 84-51 after play Sept. 1, 5 1/2 games ahead of Chicago and six games ahead of Minnesota. If Detroit does not finish first in the division, it would be the largest flop entering the final month of the season since 1995, when the California Angels lost a 7 1/2-game lead, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

“If you’re scared about what might happen, you shouldn’t be here,” pitcher Jeremy Bonderman said. “We’ve been scuffling for the first time this year, but we still have the same guys that were here when things were going better.”

They just aren’t hitting as well.

In the 32-game slide, the Tigers averaged just 3.6 runs and had a mere .247 batting average. They averaged 5.3 runs with a .281 batting average over the first 112 games, according to Elias.

Pitching sparked Detroit’s success this season and for the most part, it has not contributed to the its funk. The Tigers’ team ERA was 3.81 in the 32-game slump and 3.68 before it, easily combining for baseball’s best ERA.

“I don’t think we’ve played that bad, but you always look bad when you don’t hit,” Leyland said.

The Tigers – chiefly Leyland – refuse to make injuries an excuse, but they have hurt their chances of making the playoffs for the first time since 1987.

Second baseman Placido Polanco, who was hitting .294, has been on the disabled list for nearly a month with a separated shoulder. The Tigers hope he can return for a key series next week on the road against the White Sox. Shortstop Carlos Guillen, one of the team’s top players, has been slowed recently by a hamstring strain.