Tigers ditch mound of skepticism Pitching holds up and so does lead

June 22, 1993|By Dave Dye | Dave Dye,Contributing Writer

DETROIT -- Ever since the Detroit Tigers took over first place in the American League East April 23, people have been waiting for their collapse.

After all, this is a club many picked to finish in last place. Those predictions were based on the team's poor pitching the past few seasons (4.60 ERA last year, worst in the majors) and again in spring training.

"One magazine said we were going to be as bad as Colorado and Florida," said manager Sparky Anderson.

But during the first three months this season, the Tigers have made a dramatic turnaround, mostly because their pitching has exceeded anyone's wildest imaginations with a 3.99 ERA.

"Pitching is the key," Anderson said. "If we pitch at all, no one can stop us from being in the hunt."

And no one has yet. The Tigers have a two-game lead on Toronto (eight over the fourth-place Orioles) as they start a three-game series tonight at Camden Yards.

When the Tigers broke camp in Florida on April 2, three of their top starters weren't even in the rotation.

David Wells (9-1, 2.68) was signed April 3 after having been released by the Blue Jays. Mark Leiter (6-3, 3.84) was in the bullpen at that point. And Bill Gullickson (4-3, 4.44) was still on the disabled list after off-season arthroscopic shoulder and knee surgeries.

Wells made his first start in the fifth game. Leiter didn't get a start until April 27. Gullickson returned May 11. After season-opening losses in Oakland of 9-4 and 12-7, many Detroit fans figured this would be the same old, pitching-poor Tigers.

But John Doherty (7-2, 2.74), 26, came to the rescue. His solid performance gave the Tigers a 3-2 victory over the Athletics in the third game, and made sure they avoided a start like last year's 0-6 fiasco.

That was the beginning of this team's surprising resurgence. A week later, the Tigers won, 20-4, over Oakland in their home opener. It was the first of 11 games in which the Tigers scored in double figures.

Two days later, the Tigers continued to gain confidence by scoring two runs off Oakland closer Dennis Eckersley in the ninth inning for a 3-2 victory. The winning run scored on Chad Kreuter's pinch double.

"That hit gave me a lot of confidence," said Kreuter, who is at .330 with five homers and 20 RBI. "In the past, I had always felt overmatched against guys like that."

Kreuter, an outstanding defensive catcher, has won the starting job and moved regular catcher Mickey Tettleton, a former Oriole, to either the outfield or first base. Besides the improvement of their revamped rotation, the Tigers have gotten respectable performances out of the bullpen from Bob MacDonald (another Toronto reject), Bill Krueger (signed as a free agent) and Kurt Knudsen (from farm system) to go with No. 1 short man Mike Henneman.

"When I was with Kansas City," said reserve outfielder Gary Thurman, "the line was, 'Oh, you know the Tigers. They score 100,000 runs, but give up 101,000.'

"Now that I'm here, I see that's not the case. This staff looks great to me."

Kirk Gibson, who came out of retirement to return to the Tigers, has played a big part in the club's 43-25 start. He's hitting .271 with seven homers and 34 RBI. Gibson and Tony Phillips (.317 while getting starts at five positions in the field) are among the clubhouse leaders.

Cecil Fielder is coming off his best week of the season. Fielder usually gets hot when the weather does.

Fielder had six homers and 10 RBI in 20 at-bats last week to move his totals to 18 homers and 60 RBI.

"We just keep coming at you," Phillips said of the Tigers' offense that is averaging 6.13 runs. "We don't play scared. We play hard. Our style is wide-open because we have nothing to lose."

HIGHER PITCH

A comparison of the Tigers' pitching at this point in 1992 and

heading into today's game against the Orioles:

Yr.. .. W-L.. ..ERA .. ..IP.. ..H .. ..BB.. .. SO

92 .. ..30-38 ..4.85.. ..599.. 655.. ..264 .. .313

93 .. ..43-25...3.99 .. .613 ..621 .. .230 ....330

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