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Tigers still World Series contenders after first half

After rough stretch, Detroit reached midway point back atop American League Central

Tigers still World Series contenders after first half

DETROIT -- The Tigers' first half seemed like a story of three different teams.

The squad that started out 27-12 looked like the best team in baseball, sweeping its way through Baltimore and Boston while looking like Zubaz-clad road warriors. The Tigers squad that followed went 9-20, lost the division lead, showed cracks in its previously powerhouse rotation and gave gray hairs to new manager Brad Ausmus. The team that rose out of those two stretches is somewhere in between, which might be where the Tigers belong in judgment for now.

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The Tigers took back the American League Central almost as quickly as they lost it, toyed with the Indians and Rangers on the road, then swept the title-contending A's and Dodgers out of Detroit. However, they also struggled with the young, rebuilding Astros and injury-depleted Rays, who rose out of last place by taking three out of four at Comerica Park.

The Tigers reach the season's midway point much like they began it, firmly among the World Series contenders, if not among the favorites. How they got there featured a series of unexpected plot twists.

Five key developments

1. What happened with Verlander?
Justin Verlander put up some good numbers for about six weeks, going 4-2 with a 2.67 ERA and seven quality starts over his first eight outings. Then the bottom fell out for seven starts, leaving everyone -- including Verlander himself -- theorizing what was wrong. Verlander ended up overhauling his mechanics in June, leaving his game still a work in progress.

2. Revolving door at shortstop
Alex Gonzalez went on an Opening Day roller coaster, booting a ground ball but hitting a walk-off single. Three weeks later, he was out, and Andrew Romine was platooning with Danny Worth, who drew more attention for throwing knuckleballs than fielding ground balls. Six weeks later, Eugenio Suarez was making his debut at shortstop. Caught up yet? Because Hernan Perez is still lurking at Triple-A Toledo, hitting up a storm since Suarez's promotion.

First-half awards
MVP: Victor Martinez
Not only is Martinez protecting Cabrera in the Tigers' lineup, he's nearly duplicating his production.
Cy Young: Max Scherzer
He isn't unbeatable, but he might be pitching as well over the past month as he did at any point during his AL Cy Young Award-winning season last year.
Top rookie: Nick Castellanos
He's had his growing pains, both at the hot corner and at the plate, but he has shown he can make adjustments.
Top reliever: Joba Chamberlain
His offseason signing was frequently questioned, but the former Yankees phenom is doing his best pitching since his 2007 rookie breakout, and he has the veteran savvy to go with it.

3. V-Mart putting together career year at 35
For all the value of diversifying the Tigers' offense, Ausmus still faced the conundrum of finding run producers to hit behind Miguel Cabrera in the lineup. Victor Martinez single-handedly answered the challenge of replacing Prince Fielder as the thumper in the batting order. His career high in home runs is 25, but he headed into the All-Star break with 21. Martinez's second-half production could be in question if his back injury lingers, but the Tigers have certainly benefited from his work so far.

4. Ausmus learns on the fly
Even with Gene Lamont as his bench coach and a veteran staff supporting him, Ausmus is a first-year manager making nearly all these decisions for the first time. He has faced some questions, such as heavy use of a few key relievers, and some immediately regrettable postgame comments, but his patience with Joe Nathan and Phil Coke eventually paid off.

5. Emergence of the other Martinez
The Tigers went into the season wanting a left-handed hitter for their outfield, but J.D. Martinez's ability to hit all kinds of pitching for power has filled the role from the right side. He progressed from mid-April callup from Triple-A Toledo to power-hitting role bat to everyday outfielder to middle-of-the-order player to offensive savior, especially in light of Victor Martinez's back injury.

Five storylines to keep an eye on

1. How will the Tigers solve their crowded outfield?
The Tigers were trying to balance four outfielders for three spots before Victor Martinez's back injury rendered the daily question moot. It could still be a non-issue coming out of the break if Martinez is still hurting, but eventually, the Tigers have to answer: Is J.D. Martinez an everyday player for the stretch run? If so, who sits? If and when Andy Dirks returns from back surgery, the crowd gets tighter, and someone will have to go.

2. How do the Tigers deepen their bullpen?
Joba Chamberlain and Al Alburquerque entered the break on pace for career highs in games pitched, with Alburquerque ranking near the league leaders in appearances. Ian Krol wasn't far before a tired arm landed him on the DL for a couple weeks. Detroit needs depth, whether it's someone currently on staff stepping into a bigger role or a trade bringing in a late-inning arm. Expect the latter in the coming weeks.

Players to watch in second half
Victor Martinez
He was just as big of a run producer as Cabrera in the first half, but back issues are worrisome for 35-year-old hitters.
Eugenio Suarez
The Tigers are giving every indication they're prepared to go into the stretch run with the rookie shortstop, but he'll have to adjust to veteran pitchers and better scouting reports as the season unwinds.
Justin Verlander
He made it through a frustrating summer last year to step up for the playoffs, and the Tigers might need him to do so again.

3. Where does Verlander go from here?
His tireless mechanical work has yielded better results, but he's still not comfortable with his delivery, and he's still prone to the big inning. He went through similar struggles last year before figuring things out in time for the playoffs, when the Tigers really needed him. Verlander is hoping for the same this time, but he isn't quite certain it's going to happen in the same way.

4. Can the Tigers stay healthy through a brutal late-season schedule?
Remember all those off-days and postponements early in the season (six days in April without games)? They're about to come back around in the second half. The Tigers have day-night doubleheaders scheduled for three of the next seven Saturdays, including back-to-back August weekends in Minnesota and Chicago. Even with an off-day, they'll play 24 games over a 23-day stretch in late August and early September. Detroit's depth is about to get tested.

5. Can Porcello keep this up?
Rick Porcello had a case for an All-Star spot with a 12-win first half, including back-to-back shutouts and a 25-inning scoreless streak. If he can keep it up, the Tigers' rotation looks much more formidable for a postseason run with four effective starters. Porcello can't simply rely on a sharply-moving sinker, but he has the secondary pitches now to flummox hitters in different ways.

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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