MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

Even in difficult season, Tigers still have shot

Justice: Tigers still have shot in tough season

Even in difficult season, Tigers still have shot
To spend time with the Orioles or Nationals is to understand how much fun they're having. You can see it in their faces and hear it in their voices. It feels like they can't wait to get to the ballpark and play each day.

There's something thrilling about watching a bunch of players headed to the playoffs for the first time. For guys like Ryan Zimmerman and Adam Jones, who've endured a whole lot of losing, this might be the most fun they'll ever have in baseball.

I'm guessing there are similar emotions around the A's and White Sox. Even the Padres and Mariners, who aren't going to the playoffs, are finishing the season awash in optimism about the future.

And then there are the Detroit Tigers.

They might still win the World Series so many people predicted for them this season. Or they might miss the playoffs.

The thing that has made life difficult for these Tigers is that they were expected to win. Actually, they were expected to coast into the playoffs.

Expectations can wear on a team. Expectations can take the joy out of the journey. They discount how hard a baseball season is and how every weakness eventually is exposed.

Few people discounted the Angels, Yankees and Rangers, but plenty of us thought the Tigers would dominate the American League Central.

Tigers manager Jim Leyland tried to warn us off the silly talk in Spring Training, but he acknowledged he had a pretty good little club. He told his players to embrace the high expectations, but to be realistic about the grind of a long season.

Leyland may someday look back and see this as the toughest season he has ever had. Nothing, absolutely nothing, has come easy to these Tigers. They're a club with holes in the lineup and the rotation. Some players haven't played as well as they were expected to play. Others have gotten injured.

Still, the Tigers are alive. That's where the story stands today. They're one game behind the White Sox in the American League Central.

If preseason predictions missed on the Tigers, they missed badly on the White Sox. There's just no way the Sox could have known the kind of contributions they were going to get from Chris Sale, Jake Peavy, Jose Quintana and Adam Dunn.

There's no way we could have predicted that rookies would carry the bullpen, or that Robin Ventura would bring a sense of calm and confidence to the clubhouse.

There's something else to know about these White Sox. They're a tough-minded group. For the last two months, the Tigers have shadowed them in the standings. The White Sox have held up just fine to this pressure. Their lead has never been larger than three games. They've never been out of first place, either.

At various times, the Tigers have looked like they were about to overtake the White Sox. When the White Sox absolutely needed a victory, they got it

Meanwhile, Leyland has spent the entire season putting out brushfires. One day, it was Doug Fister going on the disabled list. And then it was Austin Jackson. And then Alex Avila and Jhonny Peralta.

Six different players have started at second base. Even with the acquisition of Omar Infante, the Tigers are dead last in OPS at that position. Their right fielders and designated hitters haven't been productive enough either.

The Tigers have stayed close because Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera have been tremendous in the middle of the lineup and because Justin Verlander has been as dominant as ever. In addition, Fister and Max Scherzer have evolved into top-of-the-rotation starters.

But the Tigers have been unable to overtake the White Sox. They began the day one game in the loss column behind the White Sox.

If you'd asked Leyland back in Spring Training if he could live with that, he probably would have signed up. The Tigers haven't had one of those magical seasons, but there's still time to make magic happen.

Verlander and Fister. Fielder and Cabrera. Jackson in center, Peralta at short. Leyland putting the pieces together. Don't mistake a disappointing season for a weak club. Even in a bumpy season, no team looks forward to playing Detroit.

There's probably a feeling among some Tiger fans that this club has underachieved. But the real story has yet to be written. The Tigers play their final 13 games against the Royals and Twins. Meanwhile, the White Sox have six against the Angels and Rays and six against the Indians.

Back in Lakeland, Fla., last spring, all Leyland would say is that his team was good enough to have a chance. That they still have.

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.