Sheffield's two-run homer in the first inning off Rangers starter Kevin Millwood was a rare opposite-field shot for the notorious pull hitter.
"Sheffield is so strong, he can hit it out anywhere," shrugged Tigers manager Jim Leyland, who also managed the slugger for a season and a half in Florida in 1997-98.
The second homer, a two-run blast to left off Millwood in the third, moved Sheffield past Yankees immortal Joe DiMaggio on the career RBI list.
"He's a great hitter," conceded Millwood, who had held Sheffield homerless for 31 at-bats before Wednesday.
And Sheffield's run-scoring single in the fourth gave the Tigers a 7-0 lead and chased Millwood (2-5). It left Sheffield with 1,539 career RBIs, tied for 40th on the all-time list with Hall of Famer Harry Heilmann, and one RBI behind another Hall inductee, Willie Stargell (1,540).
Along with 470 career home runs (29th all-time, five behind Stargell and Stan Musial), 2,448 career hits and a .297 career batting average, the nine-time All-Star is assembling a statistical resume that will be difficult for Hall voters to refute.
"Obviously, he's been a great player," Leyland said. "And I think it's OK to want to have numbers, as long as it's within the team concept.
"Gary Sheffield, for sure, always plays within the parameters of the team. He breaks up double plays, he steals bases. I don't have a problem with players wanting to have big numbers. That's what gets you into the Hall of Fame. Now, if you're doing it at the expense of not doing what it takes to win games, that's different."
And Sheffield, Leyland stressed, doesn't get seduced by a selfish pursuit of statistics. It is his team-first attitude that has earned him respect from his manager and teammates.
"Nothing surprises me with that guy, whatever he does on the field," said appreciative Tigers starter Justin Verlander (6-2), who pitched seven shutout innings with the help of Sheffield's early prowess.
"They gave me a lot of runs early and let me be aggressive."
Verlander's performance was important for a team hoping to let its bullpen catch its collective breath. Nate Robertson's failure to record a single out in his start Tuesday burdened the Tigers' bullpen with nine unexpected innings. But Verlander chewed up the Rangers' batting order for seven innings, allowing only five hits and two walks while striking out six. Bobby Seay and Todd Jones pitched a perfect inning each to finish things off.
"He had good stuff tonight," Rangers first baseman Mark Teixeira said of Verlander. "When a guy is throwing 99 mph and is controlling his changeup and slider, you're not going to get many hits off him."
Verlander understood the importance of pitching deep into the ballgame Wednesday, sparing the bullpen until reinforcements arrive.
"Definitely," he said. "It seems like a few times recently, including my last start, our bullpen has been a little bit stretched. I tried to do what I could to give them a little break."
Help will arrive in time for Thursday's finale of the three-game series. The Tigers announced after the game that right-handers Yorman Bazardo and Aquilino Lopez have been summoned from Triple-A Toledo. They will replace Robertson, who was placed on the 15-day disabled list before the game because of arm fatigue, and right-hander Zack Miner.
Miner joined Robertson on the disabled list after the game because of elbow tendinitis. The diagnosis left Leyland relieved after fearing something more severe.
"We're fighting through a lot of tough situations right now," Leyland said. "But I'm proud of how they're doing. Nothing fazes them too much. This club seems to respond to the situations that arise, even though we've had our share of bites this year.
"They're a pleasure to manage."
Sheffield, 38, set the tone early Wednesday by slugging two-run homers in his first two at-bats. Coupled with Curtis Granderson's RBI triple and a run-scoring single by Placido Polanco, the Tigers staked Verlander to a 6-0 lead after three.
Sheffield singled home Brandon Inge for a 7-0 lead in the fourth, chasing Millwood. After Rangers reliever Wes Littleton gave up back-to-back home runs to Carlos Guillen and Rodriguez to lead off the fifth, Texas trailed 9-0.
Polanco singled with one out in the sixth and moved into scoring position when Sheffield grounded out. Magglio Ordonez singled to score Polanco for a 10-0 lead, notching his team-leading 54th RBI.
Ordonez has driven in 48 runs in his last 44 games. Sheffield has tallied 30 RBIs in his last 31 games.
The rout marked the 11th loss in 14 games for the last-place Rangers (21-38), who continue to struggle under first-year manager Ron Washington.
The Tigers (33-25) have won three of four since hitting a skid with seven losses in eight games. Detroit closed within 2 1/2 games of first-place Cleveland in the AL Central, as the Indians dropped a 4-2 decision to Kansas City.