Tigers ignore burden of high expectations
Dominant pitching, powerful sluggers have Detroit poised for title run
HOUSTON -- So, Torii Hunter, how are you enjoying your new life with the Detroit Tigers?
"We have a lot of fun in this clubhouse," he said. "Guys are cracking jokes. We've got some comedians on this team."
Someone mentions that having a few laughs is important during a season that might run from early February through late October. That's especially true of these Detroit Tigers, who begin the 2013 campaign with the highest of expectations.
In other words -- and this may be not be fair, but life often isn't -- anything less than returning to the World Series will be seen by some as a huge disappointment.
"Just laughing and joking around eases the failure," Hunter said. "It's just a lot of fun with these guys.
Is this the best team you've played for?
"So far, it is," he said.
He runs down a list of all the things the Tigers do well.
"All cylinders," he said. "Starting pitching. Bullpen coming around. Offense. Running the bases well. Good defense. It's everything."
Indeed, it would be difficult to find a team in all of baseball that looks better than the Tigers at the moment. Just a year removed from a season in which everything was harder than it was expected to be, the Tigers are rolling early this season.
Ace Justin Verlander took a no-hitter into the seventh inning on Sunday afternoon. He didn't get the no-no, but the Tigers beat the Astros, 9-0, to complete their first four-game road sweep in seven years.
Overall, they've won nine of their last 10 to run their record to 19-11. They're second in the American League in both runs and ERA. A rotation led by Verlander and Max Scherzer has been every bit as good as advertised. So has a lineup with Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder in the middle. And the bullpen looks dramatically different with closer Jose Valverde back in the saddle.
So, Jim Leyland, what's not to like?
"We've got a good team," the manager said simply. "We'll see how good we play."
He gently reminded the questioner that it was May 5, and very few championships have been won by then. Seeing how he won his 1,695th game in 22 years as a Major League manager on Sunday, he has learned not to take anything for granted.
"You're real happy every day you win a game," he said. "I know how hard it is to win games up here. We very easily could have lost two of these. Those first two are precious wins."
Even with Cabrera, who is leading the American League with a .385 batting average and was the 2012 AL Most Valuable Player, the strength of the Tigers is a rotation that probably is the deepest and most talented in the game.
Verlander departed after allowing two hits in seven innings, giving the Tigers their 20th quality start in 22 games. He lowered his ERA to 1.55, second only to Clay Buchholz's 1.01 in the AL. Offense will come and go, but the Detroit pitching is so good that it's going to give the Tigers a chance to win every single night.
"That's one thing you do feel pretty good about when you get in your car to go to work," Leyland said. "You feel pretty good about that. There's no question about that. That's what Earl Weaver used to say. I learned that from him a long time ago. He said when he gets in his car to go to work how he feels depends on who's pitching for him that night. He felt pretty good there for quite a while. I feel the same way. We do put a very good Major League pitcher out there on a regular basis."
So far, this season is far different from last year when the Tigers were in third place in the AL Central at the All-Star break and didn't take over first place for good until the 155th game.
For the Tigers, the challenge is to ignore the expectations and to play every single day rather than looking ahead to all the fun they might have in October.
"I think it's very easy," Fielder said. "We've had the experience of getting to the World Series. We know what we're capable of. Every day is the day that's important."
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.