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Tigers keeping even keel amid tepid start

Tigers keeping even keel amid tepid start

Tigers keeping even keel amid tepid start
DETROIT -- One year ago this week, the Tigers held what might have been the most important team meeting of their American League Central championship season. Never mind that they weren't within eyesight of the division lead when it happened.

If it wasn't the most important closed-door meeting, it was at least the loudest. The shouts were clearly audible down the hall and into the manager's office as Jim Leyland tried to put his team's series sweep in Cleveland -- part of an eventual seven-game losing streak -- into perspective.

"We have to figure out how to win games," Miguel Cabrera said after that meeting. "We've got to do something different and try to win more games. We have a great team. We know we can play better. We know we can win."

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It took the Tigers a month and a half to make up what was at one point an eight-game gap in the standings, but they eventually did win. Detroit was five games under .500 the day after the meeting, but the club crossed back over the break-even threshold a week later.

The Tigers are .500 now (12-12), and they haven't been under .500 all year. It just feels like those quotes could be cut and pasted into a story on this team right now.

That's the difference that expectations make. Last year's team was expected to contend. This year's team has been expected to dominate. That's how a stretch of eight losses in 10 games takes on crisis proportions, and how a team lingering out of the division lead during a rough stretch becomes a disappointment.

It's also how expectations that were welcomed in Spring Training take on a whole different feeling during the ebbs and flows of a long season.

"You talk about horrible starts. What are we, .500? That's not really a horrible start," Justin Verlander said. "We're just kind of see-sawing, and that's what happened to us a bit last year. Once we got over the first month or so, I think you saw we'd get hot, we'd get cold. It was kind of up and down, then all of a sudden we caught our groove and just went.

"I feel like it's kind of similar right now, just not to the extent it was early on last year. We're just trying to find ourselves as a team, hopefully a little bit sooner than last year, because I think we're a little bit ahead of where we were last year."

After four weeks, the season breaks down into two distinct streaks. The Tigers got off to a 9-3 stretch, and while they weren't blowing out teams, they were coming up with what they needed, going 4-0 in one-run games. They're 3-9 since, though, and have dropped their last four one-run decisions.

Statistically, it's surprisingly similar, for better or worse. Detroit has the same .702 OPS through 24 games this year that it had through 27 games last April, and the club is scoring runs at a slightly higher rate, though 26 of its 105 runs -- just about one-fourth -- came in its three-game season-opening sweep of the Red Sox at Comerica Park.

Pitching-wise, the Tigers' ERA is more than a half-run lower this year, and their strikeout-to-walk ratio is better. They're giving up more hits, a higher batting average and a higher OPS.

Confidence-wise, they're ahead of last year. That team was trying to show it could win. This year's team already has, and it's trying to get back there. The Tigers don't want to assume they'll hit a hot streak at the right time, like they did last year, but they don't want to panic that their hot streak isn't now.

"I don't think anybody's freaking out," said Verlander, who actually enjoyed his best opening month despite his expectations. "I don't think anybody's looking at us saying, 'God, they're horrible, this is not what we expect.' I think maybe some of the expectations that were placed upon us were sky high, and they expect that from Day 1. Baseball doesn't work that way.

"You're not going to win every single game of the season. It's just the nature of the beast. You're going to go through ups and downs throughout the course of the season. You just want to have more ups than downs. That's why we play so many games in this wonderful sport."

That's what the Tigers are learning to handle. Those who were around in 2008 remember expectations well. That team was 10-14 through four weeks, but lost its first seven. It also took until the end of June for Detroit to sniff .500.

At one point last week, Leyland compared the first-month stats of many of his players. His catcher, Alex Avila, hit about 90 points lower this April than last, with a 167-point difference in OPS. Ryan Raburn, who actually had a productive April last year, is further off than that. Cabrera's numbers are down, though they are still very good with better run production. Jhonny Peralta has struggled batting, as has Brennan Boesch, but Austin Jackson is on a tear.

Leyland wanted to know. He did not want to worry. He understands why fans would.

"You just have to learn as the manager of a team that people just go day to day, game to game," Leyland said. "The emotion is so great, particularly with the Tiger fans, which is so great, that it's just up and down, up and down. 

"I mean, we're a month into the season. Everybody's floundering around like they do every year. Somebody will get hot at the right time during the season, or somebody will cool off, and somebody will win."

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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