AL Wrapup: Central Division Wide Open For Streaking Royals and Tigers

Source: Keith Allison / Flickr Creative Commons

Entering this 2014 MLB season, the Detroit Tigers — coming off of back-to-back AL Central titles — were the favorites yet again in their division. They had hitting sensation Miguel Cabrera, reigning AL Cy Young winner Max Sherzer, and an offense that could put up runs. The pitching staff was deep (allegedly), and combined with Detroit’s offensive prowess, they were a force to be reckoned with in what was supposed to be an overall weak AL Central.

So following a six-game winning streak on May 18, nobody was surprised that the Tigers were up seven games on the second-place Kansas City Royals in the division. Reporters everywhere were practically giving Detroit the division, albeit the season wasn’t even a quarter of the way over.

But then the wheels fell off. Immediately following that six-game stretch in May, the Tigers proceeded to lose seven of their next eight games. As June kicked off, the division wasn’t a one-trick pony anymore — the Chicago White Sox were 2.5 games back of the Tigers on June 5, and the Cleveland Indians were just two games out of first place on June 9.

Fast forward to June 18, a week ago.

Detroit had just finished a four-game series with Kansas City, losing three of four, and found itself 1.5 games out of first place. The Royals were red hot at the time. Consider this: In the first two games of last week’s series, Kansas City scored a combined 17 runs off of Detroit’s supposed aces (Max Sherzer and Justin Verlander). Not only were the Tigers not getting great pitching — remember, they were supposed to have one of the best rotations in the majors — but their bats went quiet when they needed them most.

What everyone had said about Detroit, whether it was the deep starting rotation or ability to score runs, was true only about the Royals as they rolled out of Comerica Park (home of the Tigers) leading the AL Central. Whether it was veteran pitcher Jeremy Guthrie or young stud Yordano Ventura, Kansas City completely out-pitched Detroit (which, by the way, has two former CY Young winners). And their bats were equally impressive — most notably, former Tigers second baseman Omar Infante, who finished the four-game spread with 8 RBIs.

Leaving Detroit on top, the Royals had won 10 of 11 games and didn’t look to be slowing down anytime soon. On the opposite end, the Tigers couldn’t pitch, only would hit when it didn’t matter, and were sputtering.

Then baseball was baseball (there is a reason it’s a 162-game season). Four days later, following what writers and fans in Detroit made seem like the end of the world because the Tigers had fallen out of first place (a sure thing, right?), Detroit completed a sweep of the Cleveland Indians while Kansas City struggled on the road. And just as suddenly as it happened, the Tigers were back atop of the AL Central with a 2.5-game lead.

That’s how baseball works. No team, no matter how good it might be at a certain point or how bad the rest of the division might appear, is ever a sure thing. The season is long and difficult; it’s equally difficult to start out winning (e.g., the Tigers) and never hit a rough patch. Winning streaks and losing streaks come and go as easily and often as hitting streaks and slumps. It’s the good teams that persevere through those times, but also the teams with a veteran presence.

While the Kansas City Royals have been hot, in general, they’re a young team. And with youth comes inexperience. There’s no doubt they’re a talented team with a bright future, but as this long-winded season continues, they’ll struggle at times, too. Then there’s the Indians and the White Sox: both still within striking distance, but both with similar lineups that couldn’t best Detroit in previous years. Needless to say, this isn’t necessarily the Tigers’ division to lose anymore – it is still the Tigers’ division, though.

However, as the saying goes in baseball, “It’s a long season.” We’re not even halfway through. As it continues, expectations will continue to be difficult. The only sure thing is that the AL Central isn’t a one-horse race: It has multiple teams that could make a play for the division crown come September. When the Tigers lost a big lead in June only to regain it a few days later, the rest of the division saw that the AL Central is up for the taking. It could be the Royals; maybe even Cleveland or Chicago. But here’s another sure thing: Detroit won’t easily give up their three-year reign.