Two words out of Torii Hunter's mouth summed up the scene in Major League Baseball's standings:
"Stay humble," said Hunter, the veteran Tigers outfielder.
Stay humble, indeed.
The Tigers revived themselves over the weekend with a three-game sweep of the division-rival Indians. They've won four straight overall to reclaim their familiar position atop the American League Central, where the second-place Royals now sit 2 1/2 games back.
But a 9-20 stretch from May 19 through June 18 taught Detroit a valuable lesson. The Tigers are, in fact, a perfect example of the way a variety of factors -- revenue sharing, Draft pick compensation and the costs of trades and free agency, to say nothing of the spread of information and rise of intellect within front offices -- have coalesced to create arguably greater competitive parity than the game has seen.
"The Big Red Machine," said team president, CEO and general manager Dave Dombrowski, "doesn't exist anymore. You can't do that nowadays."
Exactly five weeks ago, Dombrowski's club looked invincible, living up to the expectation that they'd win their fourth straight AL Central crown. Through the games of May 18, Baseball Prospectus' postseason odds report was giving them a 96 percent chance of winning the division.
What happened from that point has since been labeled the "Curse of the Zubaz," a knock on Detroit's choice of travel attire on their ill-fated journey from Boston to Cleveland. But really, it takes more than a regrettable choice in pajamas to explain what transpired. The Tigers are proof positive that a prominent payroll can't account for everything.
Even with a budget in excess of $163 million (in a division in which no other club had an Opening Day tally higher than $92 million), Detroit has holes or spots of instability that were unavoidable. After all, $124 million of that tally is tied to just eight guys -- Miguel Cabrera ($22 million), Justin Verlander ($20 million), Ian Kinsler ($16 million), Anibal Sanchez ($15.8 million), Max Scherzer ($15.5 million), Hunter ($14 million), Victor Martinez ($12 million) and closer Joe Nathan ($9 million).
This naturally created the need for more cost-effective options elsewhere on the diamond. The Tigers embraced the idea of carrying a rookie third baseman in Nick Castellanos, and the injury to Jose Iglesias created a gaping hole at shortstop currently filled by another first-timer in Eugenio Suarez.
The result is that Detroit is trying to become the first team in the Wild Card era -- per STATS, LLC. -- to reach the postseason with rookies accounting for at least 68 percent of the starts on the left side of the infield.
And in the bullpen, where Nathan is trying to piece himself back together mechanically and where Bruce Rondon's Spring Training right elbow injury provided an early hurdle, the Tigers are currently carrying three rookies -- Blaine Hardy, Pat McCoy and Chad Smith -- who have a total of six big league appearances between them.
All of this puts even more emphasis on Detroit's need for its veterans to play to their career norms.
"Every situation that you're in has plusses and minuses," Dombrowski said. "You'd much rather have the ability to have a larger payroll, no question, because you can afford to have star players. But you also have to be careful that when you have star players they don't all become old at the same time. And a lot of times to get those players, you've signed free agents and given up Draft choices. You've also traded young players to get some guys to win now."
The Tigers might have to make another trade or two to help the 'pen, whether or not their gamble on Joel Hanrahan pays off. Given Dombrowski's penchant for decisive dealing early in the swapping season, it's likely that his conversations about available relief options on the likes of the Cubs, D-backs, Rays and Padres are already gaining some steam.
But the 'pen is one small piece of the big picture. The front of the rotation has been a greater source of scrutiny than anybody would have envisioned, and the weight of innings that accompanies three straight trips to October has probably encouraged some of the inconsistency we've seen from Verlander (7.36 ERA in June) and Scherzer (six starts allowing four earned runs or more, nine allowing two or fewer).
Verlander and Scherzer both showed flashes of their Cy Young selves over the weekend. But for Verlander, in particular, the Tigers are expecting a long climb back to mechanical stability.
"When you play as long as he's played, bad habits can creep up," manager Brad Ausmus said. "Looking at the video, it's not just one fix, but a lot of them are interconnected."
The Tigers have connected enough star pieces to still be considered the overwhelming favorite in the Central. The weekend sweep of the Tribe vaulted Detroit back to a 72.7 percent chance of winning the division, and the Tigers have every reason to suspect Cabrera, who has hit .400 with a homer, three doubles and five RBIs in this current four-game winning streak, is finding his MVP-caliber form. Martinez (.981 OPS, 19 homers and only 22 strikeouts) has backed Cabrera in a big way, and another Martinez -- J.D. Martinez, plucked out of thin air near the end of Spring Training -- has been a surprising source of power.
By season's end, that 9-20 stretch might be seen as a minor inconvenience. But it reminded the Tigers how fragile the feeling of superiority can be in today's game.
"We're starting to swim toward the surface," Nathan said "but I don't think anybody is coming in here feeling like we're back to where we were. At the beginning, I don't want to say it came easy, but we had a mentality where we had a pretty good chance to win every game."
Running away with your division, as the Tigers looked apt to do a little more than a month ago, has never been more difficult.
"There's not many, if any, dominant clubs anymore," Dombrowski said. "You're in a spot where the rules make that very difficult to do."
So you've got to stay humble.