The Tigers' problem is that in the actual AL Central standings, they are three games behind the Chicago White Sox with 15 left to play. The AL Wild Card berths hold even less mathematical promise for Detroit.
And yet, you watch a game like the one the Tigers played Tuesday night -- a 12-2 spanking of the Athletics -- and you are presented again with the picture of how good this club could be.
The A's have the best record in the Majors since the All-Star break. They lead the AL Wild Card race. Their starter, A.J. Griffin, was unbeaten in 11 Major League outings. And yet, the Tigers dominated the evening.
Miguel Cabrera drove in six runs, hit two homers to reach the 40-home run mark for the first time in his career, and generally burnished his candidacy for AL MVP, not to mention a possible Triple Crown. It was a display of power and a night of glory for the Tigers.
But even here, there had been a note of much more than passing concern. Starting pitcher Max Scherzer left the game Tuesday night after two innings, with what was described as right shoulder fatigue. Scherzer underwent an MRI, which produced the better news that the shoulder had no structural damage.
The problem was, Scherzer later reported, inflammation in his deltoid muscle. It is unclear whether Scherzer will make his next scheduled start. And with all due respect to the Justin Verlander, the reigning AL Cy Young Award Winner, Scherzer has been Detroit's best starter in the second half of this season.
Scherzer, in his last seven starts coming into Tuesday night, had posted a 6-0 record with a 1.29 earned run average. He had lost only two decisions since mid-June. In 11 consecutive starts coming into this one, Scherzer had registered more strikeouts than innings pitched. In the process, Scherzer had taken over the AL strikeout lead, while Verlander, a legendary figure in his own time, was second.
"It's just questionable, I've got to take it day by day," Scherzer said of the chances that he would not miss a start. "We'll take a couple days off throwing and then re-evaluate. It's just a muscular inflammation type of thing and those are easy to treat in the grand scheme of things. As soon as I can get the inflammation out, then I know I'm going to be able to pitch again very soon, because structurally, I have all my strength and I'm fine."
Scherzer operating at peak efficiency would seem to be a must down the stretch for a team in the Tigers' situation. The surprising thing is finding the Tigers in this situation.
This was a club that won the AL Central in 2011 by 15 games. And then, though it lost Victor Martinez, it compensated with the acquisition of Prince Fielder, one of the game's premier sluggers. The Tigers, by any reasonable standard, would be better than ever.
Those were the Tigers on view Tuesday night. They were unstoppable. There is no question that the Tigers have sacrificed defense to get their present lineup on the field, but the overall quality of pitching and hitting here still suggests a better outcome than the current status, which amounts to being on the outside looking in at a postseason berth.
In theory, there is still time, 15 games worth, for the Tigers to make a truly major push. They believe it can still be done.
"Effort has not been an issue here; I'm proud of that," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. "We've played hard all year, we haven't always played good. What's in our hands now is winning games. There's time, but we've got to win games. And tonight was a good start."
"You've got to believe in what you've got here," Cabrera said. "We've got to believe we can do it."
The Tigers have been told since last winter that they are supposed to be the best club in this division, possibly one of the very best in the entire game. The time to prove these notions has not completely passed, but it has grown short.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.