Tigers' improved play is speaking volumes

Detroit riding high so far in '06 after near-record low in '03

Baseball

May 11, 2006|By DAN CONNOLLY | DAN CONNOLLY,SUN REPORTER

Three years ago, the Detroit Tigers were the talk of baseball.

Not in a good way, though.

In 2003, the Tigers flirted with infamy, posting a 43-119 record while finishing 47 games out of first place. They challenged, and came up just short, in matching the 1962 New York Mets for baseball's worst record of the past 50 years.

Those Tigers were filled with fresh faces, and in many cases, they didn't belong in the big leagues. The next two seasons they improved but couldn't surpass the 72-win mark. Mixed in with all of those lumps, however, was promise.

"They suffered through some years with some good young kids," Orioles manager Sam Perlozzo said. "We talked about it last year. I felt like they were on the verge of turning things around if they could add a couple of quality players."

In the past three offseasons, the Tigers have added veteran free agents with risks attached to their resumes. There's catcher Ivan Rodriguez (durability), outfielder Magglio Ordonez (injuries), pitchers Kenny Rogers (irascibility) and Todd Jones (age).

The veterans have mixed with a group of young talent, including 25-year-old hitters Curtis Granderson and Chris Shelton and 23-year-old starters Jeremy Bonderman and Justin Verlander.

Now, just three years removed from embarrassment, the Tigers are being talked about again. After last night's 6-3 win over the Orioles at Camden Yards, the Tigers have the second-highest winning percentage (.618) in the American League, trailing only the defending World Series champion Chicago White Sox.

"We are playing great ball, and everything is great," Bonderman said. "But it's still too early in the season to get too excited about it."

With three consecutive losses before last night, the Tigers had encountered just their second streak of three or more straight losses this season. Manager Jim Leyland is not worried that his team will revert to its struggling ways of the past.

"There's no losing culture here anymore. I can guarantee you that ... " Leyland said before last night's game. "There's no losing attitude and no one here ... pouting around."

If there is a discernible change in the Tigers' mind-set, it's come from Leyland, the Marlboro-smoking, gravelly voiced career manager who hasn't been on a big league bench since a one-year, fifth-place stint with the Colorado Rockies in 1999.

"I know he is going to deny it, but I think 95 percent of [the credit] goes to Jim Leyland," said Hall of Fame player and Baltimore native Al Kaline, a special assistant to Tigers president Dave Dombrowski. "From Day One in spring training, [Leyland] stressed that this has been a bad ballclub, there's been a reason for it and we have to change that. ... To a man in here, they know what he has brought to the table."

True to form, Leyland downplays his involvement in the quick start. He singles out Dombrowski, who was Florida's general manager when Leyland led the Marlins to the 1997 World Series title. And he also credits the Tigers players, including a surprising pitching staff that leads the majors in ERA.

"We have pitched pretty good. That's always the answer," Leyland said. "That will be the same in October as it is in April and May."

Three Tigers entered yesterday in the top 11 in league ERA, including 41-year-old left-hander Rogers, a 195-game winner who is best known for shoving two television cameramen last June.

Rogers was signed to a two-year, $16 million contract this offseason to anchor the Tigers' young staff. He has pitched well - and provided leadership.

"I think Kenny has rubbed off on a lot of us already," Bonderman said. "Little things like how to change games, how to play defense on the mound, where to pitch guys and not worrying about the other stuff going around you."

It all adds up to a club with increasing confidence in the tough American League Central. It's a long season, however. And, as the Orioles showed last year, a fast start doesn't always translate into a successful season. So these Tigers are keeping perspective after 12 consecutive losing seasons.

"The talent is definitely there, the chemistry's there," Granderson said. "If we are still sitting in this situation come September, then I will probably look back at it a little more. But I think as soon as you start to step too far ahead of where we are right now, we will automatically stunt ourselves."

dan.connolly@baltsun.com

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