Notes: Pudge closing in on All-Star start

Notes: Pudge closing in on All-Star start

DETROIT -- Ivan Rodriguez might still give the Tigers a starter in the American League All-Star lineup.

Although Rodriguez remains in second place among catchers in All-Star balloting, according to the latest update released Tuesday, the deficit between him and Boston's Jason Varitek has narrowed from 50,042 votes in last week's release to 35,525 now. It's the closest race going on for an AL starting spot.

Rodriguez is vying for what would be his 11th All-Star start at catcher, which would break him out of a tie with Hall of Famer Johnny Bench and Mike Piazza for the most all-time. He lost out in his bid last year when Varitek was voted into his first All-Star start.

While the two entered Wednesday relatively even in production categories like home runs and RBIs, Rodriguez entered Tuesday batting .310, 51 points higher than Varitek. His 104 total bases are nearly 50 percent more than Varitek. Defensively, Rodriguez has thrown out 8-of-17 would-be basestealers, while Varitek is 5-for-22. Rodriguez's 23 assists from behind the plate are nearly as twice as many as Varitek.

At this point, Rodriguez appears to be Detroit's only chance at an All-Star starter after its first-half success. Second baseman Placido Polanco and first baseman Chris Shelton are the only other Tigers who rank among the top five in balloting at their positions. Polanco is up to fourth among AL second baseman, while Shelton remains fifth.

Pudge is also among the few chances the American League has at making the All-Star Game something other than a Red Sox and Yankees invitational. If the balloting ended today, Angels slugger Vladimir Guerrero would be the only AL starter not from New York or Boston. Guerrero leads AL outfielders with 1,115,476 votes, but the other two outfield spots would go to Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon. Magglio Ordonez, whose resurgence has helped fuel Detroit's offense, ranks just 13th at 315,390.

Run producer atop the lineup: Manager Jim Leyland foresees a point down the road in Curtis Granderson's career when he moves out of the leadoff spot and becomes a middle-of-the-order hitter. In terms of productivity when it counts, he's already putting up numbers like one.

The Tigers' best hitter with runners in scoring position this season is the leadoff man. With two hits in as many opportunities on Monday night against the Rays, Granderson raised his runners-in-scoring-position batting average to .372 (16-for-43), good for ninth among all AL hitters. He's 9-for-16 in such situations since May 22.

The first of Monday's two RISP hits was a case of Granderson catching the Rays defense off-guard. With runners on first and second and nobody out, just about everyone in the ballpark expected Granderson to lay down a sacrifice bunt, especially once third-base coach Gene Lamont had a long conversation with him before he stepped into the batters box. In reality, Lamont was relaying a message to swing away, the same message Leyland gave Granderson earlier.

"One or two [in the order], in that situation, you've got assume he's going to bunt there," Granderson said. "Anybody in the stands probably thought I was bunting there. If the situation were reversed, I'd assume defensively we'd react the same way, too."

So did Rays first baseman Ty Wigginton, who charged in as Tyler Walker delivered a fastball. Granderson delivered a hard bouncer that would've knocked Wigginton on his back had it hit him. Instead, it missed by inches.

"I was trying to get it over him," Granderson said.

Leyland doesn't want to think of him now for the middle of the order. First, he doesn't have another patient hitter who naturally fits at leadoff. Second, he doesn't want Granderson thinking he has to pull the ball at this point in his career.

Day off for Shelton: Shelton was out of Tuesday's lineup following his 0-for-6, four-strikeout game on Monday night. It's the first off-day since June 4 for Shelton, who's 6-for-46 at the plate over his last 13 games and showing the strain of it.

"I'm just getting him away from it for a day," Leyland said. "I'm just going to let him have a day to clear the cobwebs, work with [hitting coach Don Slaught] a little bit, maybe watch some film. The poor guy's really struggling."

The struggling carries over mentally.

"He's a little whipped right now," Leyland continued. "I feel bad for him. There's a catch-22 for a manager. The guy wants to be in there so bad because they always think this is the night they're going to correct it, or it's going to turn around. But on the other side of the coin, from a manager's standpoint, sometimes you don't know for sure if you're doing him a favor or not by playing him right now.

"If it was a different business, and he only worked five days a week, he's in one of those situations now where you'd probably finish work on Friday [and] go to the lake until late Sunday night."

Monroe sits: Craig Monroe's return to the starting lineup lasted one day. After going 0-for-3 with two strikeouts on Monday, Monroe was out of the lineup for the time being. He's not ready to play the field, both he and Leyland said, and his ankle still bothers him when he's swinging.

Leyland played Monroe on Monday because of his history against Rays starter Scott Kazmir, batting 3-for-7 against him for his career.

Draft picks signed: The Tigers agreed to terms with 18 of their selections from last week's First-Year Player Draft. The highest pick of the group was eighth-rounder Chris Cody, the Manhattan College pitcher who emerged as a big-game starter this spring.

Also signed were Hayden Parrott (11th round), Joe Bowen (12th), Angel Castro (13th), Brett Jensen (14th), Jeff Gerbe (16th), Deik Scram (18th), Duane Below (19th), Chris Krawczyk (22nd), Joe Tucker (24th), Derek Witt (28th), Christopher Carlson (29th), Michael Sullivan (31st), Rudy Darrow (32nd), Paul Hammond (35th), Dana Arrowood (38th), Michael Bertram (39th) and Alec Shepherd (47th).

Coming up: The Tigers and Rays continue their four-game series with a 7:05 p.m. ET game Wednesday night at Comerica Park. Jeremy Bonderman (6-4, 4.29 ERA) will try to continue his domination of the Rays, against whom he owns a 3-1 record and 2.20 ERA in four career starts. Mark Hendrickson (3-7, 4.11 ERA) will start for Tampa Bay.

Jason Beck is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.