Tigers Pull Rabbit Out of Hat, Extend Lead in Central

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Entering play yesterday, the Detroit Tigers held a five-and-a-half game lead on both Chicago and Cleveland in the AL Central. The Indians were hosting the Seattle Mariners in a day/night double-header while the White Sox were opening a series with the Angels. On paper, this looked like a day that both of these teams could make up ground on Detroit. The Tigers were in Tampa to face David Price and the Rays, and they were doing so without their set-up man or their closer, and with Brad Penny on the mound.

Very early in the game, Penny looked like he would be in trouble as he fell behind each of the first 11 batters of the game. Somehow, however, he was able to escape inning after inning and by the time he was lifted in the seventh, he had held Tampa to only one run.

The Tigers gave him a 2-1 lead with a pair of runs in the top of the seventh, though they had managed just two hits against Price to that point. But with no Joaquin Benoit and no Jose Valverde, Tigers manager Jim Leyland had eight outs to get once he took the ball from Penny.

Daniel Schlereth recorded one of those outs, then Ryan Perry came on with the bases full and Evan Longoria at the plate. Perry got ahead with the first pitch, but fell behind with consecutive balls. The 2-1 fastball induced a lazy fly ball to center and the Rays were turned away.

It was left hander Phil Coke who came on to work the eighth and he looked good. He struck out the side in the inning, working around a double and an intentional walk. He stayed on and retired the first two batters of the ninth before Johnny Damon roped a double to left. Another intentional walk followed, then a wild pitch advanced both runners into scoring position. Coke was laboring a bit and having trouble putting Ben Zobrist away.

Finally, on his 51st pitch of the night, Coke got a ground ball to end the game and to steal a victory for Detroit. It was perhaps the most unlikely victory of the season for the Tigers and a crushing blow to the hopes of the Indians and White Sox.

Cleveland started the day looking good with a walk-off win in their opener with the Mariners, but the floodgates opened for Seattle in the nightcap. Seattle posted double-digit runs for the first time since April in earning the split. Cleveland was able to maintain control of second place when Chicago dropped a late game in Anaheim.

Now, instead of waking up with a four-game lead over Cleveland, the Tigers start the day up a full six games on the Tribe. They have won their last five games and in that time they have added four-and-a-half games to their lead. The six game cushion is the largest in the American League and Only Milwaukee (10 games) and Philadelphia (6.5) have larger leads throughout baseball.

There are 34 games left in Detroit’s season. If the Tigers can win only 17 of those, Cleveland would have to go 24-12 to catch them. Chicago would need to finish 24-11 to catch the Tigers at 87 wins.

August has never been kind to the Tigers under Jim Leyland, but so far this month Detroit is 13-7 (.650 winning percentage), by far the best month they’ve had this season. That stands to reason, though. By my estimation, and as currently constructed, this is the best Tigers team that Leyland has had, top to bottom.

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