Detroit Tigers Survive—but Barely—The Weekend In Minnesota

George McGinnieCorrespondent ISeptember 21, 2009

CHICAGO - JUNE 08:  Ryan Raburn #25 of the Detroit Tigers swings at the pitch against the Chicago White Sox on June 8, 2009 at U.S. Cellular Field in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)


That's the Tigers' magic number this morning.

With 13 games left and a three-game lead, 11 is really the only number that matters right now.

Over the weekend, the Tigers lost twice to the Twins, but more importantly won once. That is all we asked of the team, and that was all that was truly required of it to keep Minnesota at arms' length as the season enters the final two weeks.

Detroit lost in all the ways you expect to lose in the HHH Metrodome. Part was timely hitting by Minnesota. Part of it was "dome hits," best defined as some wacky bounce off the turf, or maybe a fly ball that disappears against the dirty ceiling of the place. Part of it was another young Twins' pitcher stepping up to the challenge. And yes, some of it was strange managerial decisions from the Tigers' dugout.

But you know what? Unless Minnesota manages to rally back to a tie in the American League Central Division after 162 games are played, the Tigers never again have to step inside the place I disdainfully lovingly call Hubert's House of Horrors again. And they left it in a fine position for winning the division.

It was ugly. It was blood-pressure raising. But it's over now.

Detroit has a magic number of 11. Minnesota has 10 games on the road starting tonight with a trip to U.S. Cellular Field in Chicago. Things are just fine.

It wasn't a fun weekend by any stretch of the imagination, but you have to feel pretty good about the Tigers' chances of winning their first division title in 22 years right now.

There were two key points to take away from the series for me:

Tigers manager Jim Leyland has to trust Ryan Raburn in left field and play him there as often as he can. I don't think Raburn is a terrific fielder by any means. But he is better than Carlos Guillen, and he's more suited for the playoff push than Donnie Kelly.

For August and for the first half of September, Raburn brought a much-needed bat to a listless Tigers' offense. He had a .957 OPS split for August and has been effective in most starts this month. He has ceded some playing time to a platoon with Guillen, who holds his own in the outfield. (But as followers of Great Lakes shipwrecks can tell you, "holding our own" isn't necessarily the phrase you want to hear. Raburn is better than Guillen in the field.)

Saturday, the issue came to a head when Guillen left for defensive-replacement Kelly. By now, you know the fateful results. Fielding in just his third game in the Metrodome, Kelly lost the ball in the ceiling. It's not really his fault. It happens to players with far more experience. But he entered a close game cold, and disaster followed. Sure, a player who started and played in every game could have made the same mistake. Certainly Twins' players lose the ball in the ceiling, too.

But I was not in favor of the move, nor surprised by the results.

Raburn pinch-hit for the other half of the left field platoon, Guillen, on Sunday. He struck out in his first at-bat, but made up for it with a home run—his 13th—to lead off the eighth inning.

So I can only conclude this: The Tigers do not seem to me to be significantly better at defense nor at scoring runs the way the left field platoon has been used lately. I think worse things could happen than seeing Raburn play daily down the stretch, although it leaves Marcus Thames, Aubrey Huff and Guillen—all who have had similar mediocre results at the plate recently—fighting it out at designated hitter.

The second key thing I took of the weekend is Detroit's pitching seems to be back on track. Rick Porcello and the bullpen did fine on Friday, but the Tigers failed to score. Justin Verlander pitched great for seven-plus innings on Saturday, but the aforementioned Dome hit and Leyland's strange decision to leave him and his 120+ pitch count in against lefty Jason Kubel with bases loaded in the eighth inning cost several runs. Sunday, Nate Robertson came back from his groin injury to make a third good start in four attempts.

A bad pitch by Brandon Lyon that resulted in Michael Cuddyer's three-run home run on Saturday was really the only blemish by the bullpen. Zach Miner's pitching in relief of Robertson on Sunday was huge.

Needless to say, after the meltdown the previous 10 games, the Tigers' pitchers looked much more like the ones we've watched most of the season.

So again, it's back to the batting. Or lack of. But that's nothing new.

The team as a whole really did look this weekend pretty much the same as the Tigers' team that built a seven-game lead earlier this month.

You're always going to be worried after a bad stretch of baseball, but that fog might be lifting right on time.

So remember: the magic number is 11. The Tigers have seven home games remaining (including a key series against the Twins), as well as a pair of road series against the depleted Indians and White Sox. Meanwhile, the Twins are on the road—where they've played 9-games-under-.500—for 10 consecutive games.

At this point of the year, a three-game lead seems pretty big.

Nothing is won yet, but some of that cause for worry has past.