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Springtime Storylines: Can the Tigers win their first division title since 1987?

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Between now and Opening Day, HBT will take a look at each of the 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2011 season. Next up: Everyone’s favorite chain-smoking skipper.

The Big Question: Can the Tigers win their first division title since 1987?

They’ve had some close calls–including a final-week fade in 2006 (that ended in a trip to the World Series) and a Game 163 loss in 2009–but the Tigers haven’t won a division title since 1987, when they took the AL East with a league-high 98 wins. In the 23 years since the Tigers have just seven winning seasons and one playoff appearance.

However, the Tigers have been .500 or better in four of five years under manager Jim Leyland, twice finishing just a game out of first place, and this year Detroit is very much a contender in the stronger-than-usual AL Central thanks to adding free agents Victor Martinez and Joaquin Benoit to a team that went 81-81 in 2010. Johnny Damon was their only significant offseason departure and the Tigers have an impressive collection of frontline talent, but depth and defense loom as potential issues

Magglio Ordonez, Miguel Cabrera, and Martinez are an elite 3-4-5 trio, but the Opening Day lineup also figures to include sub par bats Alex Avila, Jhonny Peralta, Brandon Inge, and Will Rhymes, who’s filling in at second base for the injured Carlos Guillen. And while Guillen’s return would boost the lineup, a double-play duo of Peralta and Guillen should give nightmares to every pitcher on the staff. Ordonez in right field every day won’t do the pitchers any favors either and as always teams will run at will whenever Martinez is behind the plate.

Similarly, Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer are an elite top of the rotation, but the Tigers are counting on Brad Penny to stay healthy, Rick Porcello to bounce back from a disappointing sophomore year, and Phil Coke to successfully transition from the bullpen. If everything breaks right the rotation could be one of the league’s best, but there are questions that need to be answered first. Martinez and Benoit were bold signings for general manager Dave Dombrowski, but also contribute to a top-heavy roster relying on old and/or injury prone guys like Ordonez, Benoit, Guillen, Penny, and Inge to stay off the disabled list.

So what else is going on?

  • Detroit loves pitchers with big-time fastballs, as the staff led baseball with an average fastball velocity of 92.4 miles per hour last season and then added Benoit (94.0 mph) and Penny (94.1 mph) while moving Coke (93.6 mph) into a bigger role. Joel Zumaya is the king of the big-time fastballs and his health status is once again uncertain, but with Verlander, Scherzer, Valverde, Benoit, Penny, Coke, and Ryan Perry the Tigers have a staff filled with flame-throwers.
  • Verlander led AL starters in average fastball velocity at 95.4 mph and Scherzer ranked 10th at 93.2 mph, and together they racked up more strikeouts (403) than any duo in the league while combining for a 3.43 ERA in 420 innings. If a third starter steps up they could be scary in the playoffs.
  • Brennan Boesch got everyone’s hopes up by hitting .345 in the first half, but the rookie turned back into a pumpkin by hitting .163 after the All-Star break. He’s obviously not as bad those post-break struggles, but Boesch’s minor-league track record isn’t particularly impressive and despite a reverse platoon split as a rookie he’s probably best suited for no more than a platoon role with Ryan Raburn.
  • Miguel Cabrera got arrested for a DUI while driving to spring training and his off-field behavior has been making headlines for several years, but throughout the personal problems he’s never ceased being one of the best hitters in baseball. He shook off the pre-camp incident to hit .300 with power once the exhibition games started, homered in Game 163 two years ago shortly after being arrested, and is coming off the best season of his career. Whatever you think of him as a human being the guy is on a Hall of Fame path and so far at least the off-field problems haven’t hurt him on the field.
  • Austin Jackson finished runner-up in the Rookie of the Year balloting and would have gotten my vote over Neftali Feliz, but it’ll be interesting to see how he fares as a sophomore. Projecting improvement is natural for a 24-year-old, but Jackson’s rookie production was based largely on an unsustainably amazing .396 batting average on balls in play that led the league. That almost can’t help but come back down to earth at least somewhat, so unless Jackson cuts down on his league-leading 170 strikeouts or develops more power an even better second year isn’t guaranteed.

So how are they gonna do?

Much like the Twins and White Sox, the Tigers have a good but flawed roster that seems headed for 88-92 wins. I’d peg them for third place, but realistically all three teams are basically co-favorites and the Tigers may have the division’s highest ceiling.

And That Happened: Sunday’s scores and highlights

ST. PETERSBURG, FL - SEPTEMBER 25: Luke Maile #46 of the Tampa Bay Rays tries to make the tag on Dustin Pedroia #15 of the Boston Red Sox at home plate as Pedroia scores the winning run in the tenth inning of their game at Tropicana Field on September 25, 2016 in St. Petersburg, Florida. (Photo by Joseph Garnett Jr. /Getty Images)
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Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Blue Jays 4, Yankees 3: Toronto blew a 2-1 lead in the top of the ninth but scored two of their own in the bottom half, first with an Ezequiel Carrera squeeze bunt topped with an Edwin Encarnacion walkoff RBI single to win it. Toronto remains in the first Wild Card position, a game and a half ahead of Baltimore and three games ahead of the Tigers.

White Sox 3, Indians 0: Carlos Rodon was dominant, shutting the Tribe out for eight and punching out 11. Carlos Sanchez drove in two of the Sox’ three runs. Fun fact: when we bought our first house back in 1999, my ex-wife’s credit report came back with the name “Carlos Sanchez” listed under “possible aliases.” We got the mortgage anyway and nothing was ever disrupted, but I’m keepin’ my eye on you, Carlos. Or maybe I should’ve just been more suspicious about my ex-wife back in the day. She seems like a normal, well-adjusted person, but what if she’s really a spy for the Venezuelan government?

Royals 12, Tigers 9: The Royals jumped out to a 7-0 lead after three innings against Matt Boyd and Anibal Sanchez and, try as they did, the Tigers never pulled closer than to within two. Whit Merrifield tripled in the first and hit a single and a double as well. The Royals hit four homers as a team. Dropping two of three to the Royals caused the Tigers to drop out of Wild Card position.

Mets 17, Phillies 0: The Mets are losing pitchers every week but it sorta does’t matter when you play the Phillies. New York took three of four in the series, scoring 44 runs in those four games. Yes, they gave up 23 and that might not always be the best thing in a four-game series, but they’re up a game on San Francisco and up a game and a half on St. Louis at the moment so they can’t really complain. Asdrubal Cabrera hit a grand slam, Jose Reyes had four RBI, including two, not one, but two bases-loaded walks. Curtis Granderson hit his 30th homer of the year.

Red Sox 3, Rays 2: And the Red Sox never lost again. That’s 11 in a row. Dustin Pedroia scored the go-ahead run in the 10th on David Ortiz‘s RBI double despite the fact that he should’ve been dead to rights at the plate. He avoided the tag — and missed home plate — but lunged back to the plate as Rays catcher Luke Maile dropped the ball. Pedroia also hit a homer. Oh, and Red Sox starter Eduardo Rodriguez struck out a career-high 13 in five and a third. At one point he and reliever Heath Hembree combined to strike out 11 consecutive batters. That’s a major league record. It’s also the sort of thing which should probably make the Rays petition the league to just let them go home and forfeit the last week of the season because, Jesus, what’s the point?

Orioles 2, Diamondbacks 1Hyun Soo Kim hit an early two-run homer and it held up. Dylan Bundy allowed the one run on three hits over five innings. Zach Britton got his 46th save.

Nationals 10, Pirates 7: Controversy here as Jung Ho Kang faked a tag on Bryce Harper, causing Harper to slide awkwardly which caused him to injure his thumb. Later, when Kang came up to bat he was buzzed by Nats pitcher A.J. Cole, leading to the benches clearing. So, apparently, faking a tag is a violation of the unwritten rules. Maybe someone should tell that to Derek Jeter and the million of other guys who have deked runners in the past:

Whatever the case, the Nats scored five runs in the eighth inning to come back from a deficit, powered by a Jayson Werth two-run homer which tied it along with two RBI singles and a bases loaded walk. Harper will have X-Rays on his thumb today to see how bad off he is.

Reds 4, Brewers 2Brandon Finnegan tossed five shutout innings to kick things off and Cincinnati built a 4-0 lead by the seventh inning. Finnegan only needed 54 pitches to get through five, but he game out as his leg tightened up following being hit with a comebacker in the second inning.

Mariners 4, Twins 3: Two homers for Nelson Cruz and one for Jesus Sucre. Seattle is two and a half behind Baltimore for the second Wild Card spot after going 12-5 in their last 17. Such and up and down team this year.

Astros 4, Angels 1: Joe Musgrove was strong and Evan Gattis, Tony Kemp and Tyler White homered. Houston is three back of Baltimore. They and Seattle can play the what-coulda-been game all winter.

Athletics 7, Rangers 1: The A’s avoid the sweep with a seven-run second inning that ended this one not long after it started. Jharel Cotton was strong once again, going seven innings while allowing one run. Since his callup in early September he’s allowed only four earned runs in 25 innings. The season highlight for the A’s is gonna be a midseason trade with the Dodgers to get Cotton.

Dodgers 4, Rockies 3: The Dodgers have had a load of highlights this year, including this walkoff win to clinch the NL West. Second baseman Charlie Culberson delivered the solo homer in the bottom of the 10th inning. Not that he was the only hero. The Dodgers were trailing 2-1 in the seventh when Corey Seager tripled in a run to tie the game. Rockies outfielder David Dahl gave Colorado the lead in the ninth with a solo home run off of Kenley Jansen. But Seager hit a game-tying solo shot in the bottom half of the ninth to send it to extras. What an exciting final game in Dodger Stadium for Vin Scully.

Padres 4, Giants 3: Manuel Margot tripled in the seventh inning and then scored the go-ahead run on Wil Myers‘ RBI single. The Giants were eliminated from division crown contention, and are hanging on by their fingernails in the Wild Card race after splitting a four-game set with San Diego.

Cubs 3, Cardinals 1: David Ross homered on the night he was given a touching tribute by the Cubs while Jon Lester tossed shutout ball into the seventh to pick up his 19th win. Ross got a nice sendoff when Joe Maddon came to lift Lester in the seventh. Rather than just pat Lester on the butt and let him walk off, he took Ross out of the game first, allowing him to leave to a standing ovation.

Braves vs. Marlins: POSTPONED: The time you won your town the race,
We chaired you through the marketplace;
Man and boy stood cheering by,
As home we brought you shoulder-high.

To-day, the road all runners come,
Shoulder-high we bring you home,
And set you at your threshold down,
Townsman of a stiller town.

Smart lad, to slip betimes away
From fields where glory does not stay
And early though the laurel grows
It withers quicker than the rose.

Eyes the shady night has shut
Cannot see the record cut,
And silence sounds no worse than cheers
After earth has stopped the ears:

Now you will not swell the rout
Of lads that wore their honours out,
Runners whom renown outran
And the name died before the man.

So set, before its echoes fade,
The fleet foot on the sill of shade,
And hold to the low lintel up
The still-defended challenge-cup.

And round that early-laurelled head
Will flock to gaze the strengthless dead,
And find unwithered on its curls
The garland briefer than a girl’s.

Red Sox set a new major league record with 11 strikeouts in a row

BALTIMORE, MD - SEPTEMBER 20: Starting pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez #52 of the Boston Red Sox works the first inning against the Baltimore Orioles at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on September 20, 2016 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
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Lost in the nifty base running by Dustin Pedroia that won Sunday’s game against the Rays, the Red Sox set a new major league record by striking out 11 batters in a row, per Peter Abraham of The Boston Globe. Starter Eduardo Rodriguez struck out the final six Rays he faced and reliever Heath Hembree struck out five Rays in a row after that. Tom Seaver had the previous consecutive strikeout streak of 10, set on April 22, 1970 against the Padres.

The Red Sox also set a team record with 23 strikeouts in total: 13 by Rodriguez, five by Hembree, one by Matt Barnes, and four by Joe Kelly. Per Abraham, that’s the most strikeouts in a 10-inning game since at least 1913 and the most in a game of any length since 2004.

For Rodriguez, Sunday marked the first double-digit strikeout game of his career. He has pitched quite well since returning to the rotation at the start of the second half. Over 13 starts, the lefty has a 3.10 ERA with a 70/23 K/BB ratio in 72 2/3 innings.