7/5/2014 8:47 P.M. ET
Tigers proving to be as good as advertised
Powerful lineup, star-studded rotation have kept Detroit on top of AL Central
By Mike Bauman / MLB.com
DETROIT -- Saturday's game aside -- way aside, out of even peripheral vision -- the Detroit Tigers amply demonstrated during the first half of the season that they are the best team in the AL Central.
You assumed that going into the season. But now you know it.
The question that will be answered over the next three months, or four months if the Tigers take the argument deep into October, is where the Tigers will rank among baseball's elite teams.
As we speak, they have the second-best record in the American League behind only the Oakland Athletics, a team they swept in a three-game series earlier this week. And even though the Tigers are just beyond the mathematical midpoint of the season, they appear to have already played three seasons.
They opened very well, going 27-12. The Tigers followed this with a 9-20 stretch, from mid-May to mid-June, by the end of which they had fallen out of first place. But they have rebounded in a big way.
They have reclaimed first place in the AL Central, and have won 12 of their last 16 games. That latest stretch was even better before the Tigers lost the last two games to the Tampa Bay Rays, including Saturday's 7-2 clunker. But with the stuff thrown by Rays starter Chris Archer in this outing, nobody else could have done much with him, either.
"He's throwing 95-98 [mph] with sink," said Torii Hunter, normally the right fielder, but a DH in this game. "He's got to be one of the best young pitchers in the game."
The only club in their division that appears to have the kind of pitching to mount a long-term challenge to the Tigers would be Kansas City. The Royals are, sensibly enough, currently in second place.
The Tigers have a wonderfully balanced club, with a diverse, imposing offense, and an outstanding starting rotation. In that rotation, if Justin Verlander has become more nearly mortal, Rick Porcello (11-4, 3.12) has taken a major step forward.
The offense is fourth in the league in runs scored. How does it look to the opposition? Rays ace David Price, who will start in the series finale Sunday night, was asked about pitching in relatively spacious Comerica Park.
"I think the [Detroit] lineup kind of evens that out," Price said with a chuckle. "You can put these guys in the Polo Grounds, they're still going to have the same numbers. You've still got to be able to make pitches, especially against a lineup like this. One through nine can hit the ball out of the park, probably one through seven or eight can do it to all fields.
"This is the best lineup that we will face all year long. It's just a very good lineup. You've got to make pitches, you've got to make plays, a couple hard-hit balls right at people would be appreciated, as well," Price added with a smile.
What makes Detroit's lineup the best?
"I think it's everything," Price said. "Torii Hunter is in the sixth hole and he's got  RBIs, stuff like that. It's crazy. It's just a very complete lineup. They're solid.
"You obviously don't want Miguel [Cabrera] and Victor [Martinez] to beat you, but the guys they have hitting in front of them and the guys they have hitting behind them, there's not an easy out in the lineup. And they all make you work. Whenever you have high-stress pitches against every hitter, even if you don't have runners on base, it takes a little bit more out of you."
And the Tigers have uncovered outfielder J.D. Martinez (.325/.362/.631), who turns out to be yet another middle-of-the-order run producer.
"This is a great club," Hunter said. "Any team that has Miguel Cabrera and the way Victor is swinging, it's definitely one of the best lineups that you could be part of."
There had been some concern that with the evolving situation at shortstop, that the Tigers would be regularly playing rookies on the left side of their infield. But neither Nick Castellanos at third, nor Eugencio Suarez at short has been overmatched by this experience. In fact, they're not conducting themselves like typical rookies.
"It's kind of what we got," Tigers manager Brad Ausmus said. "There are going to be some mistakes made that are 'rookie' mistakes. But they're our shortstop and third baseman and I don't expect that to change.
"And really, they've handled themselves well. They've carried themselves well. A lot of times with young players they have this nervous energy. They don't carry themselves like that. They remain calm. They don't seem awed by Major League stadiums or Major League pitching. They've carried themselves very well."
There will be bumps in the road, even for the Tigers, like running into a very strong relief pitching Friday night and very strong starting pitching on Saturday. As Hunter puts it: "Round ball, round bat, things happen."
But what is going to happen most of the time for the Tigers is victory. The surprise with this team occurs when it doesn't win.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.