The Detroit Tigers were well on their way to writing one of the great three-year comeback stories ever when they suddenly reverted to their usual ways. That is to say, they started losing.
The Tigers began the year an impossible, best-in-baseball 76-36. And they're a very Cubs-like 11-22 since. Actually, Detroit's record is the second worst in baseball since Aug. 7 to -- you guessed it -- the Cubs.
If the Tigers keep losing at this rate, they'll become that rare team to author a great comeback story (from their 119-defeat season of 2003) and an equally compelling collapse story within the same season. Their formerly robust leads of 10 games in the American League Central and 10½ games in the wild-card race are down to 1½ games over the upstart Twins and four games over the world-champion White Sox, respectively.
I'm just like the Tigers. One minute I'm up on them, the next I'm down.
There are so many sound reasons to think the Tigers will hang in there. And just as many reasons to think they will continue to fold like a Laundromat worker.
The Tigers' biggest factors, one through five:
1. Their pitching. Even during their current crummy streak, they tote a sterling 3.75 ERA. "Nobody's pitching is as solid as theirs," one American League scout said. They run the gamut, from a young stud (Justin Verlander) to a temperamental yet reliable veteran (Kenny Rogers) to a radar-busting reliever (Joel Zumaya) to a steady under-the-radar starter (Nate Robertson). Factor: big positive.
2. Their offense. It's inconsistent, and that's on a good day. Magglio Ordoñez is getting hot now after a long homer drought. But rookie Curtis Granderson is staying in his funk. With the exception of the man in the middle, No. 5 hitter Carlos Guillen, and maybe Sean Casey, they don't take enough pitches or walk very often. "We've had a free-swinging club -- that really hasn't changed," Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski said. "We're in a position where we need to be more selective. But when you're struggling, you expand the strike zone even more." Factor: big negative.
3. Their manager. Jim Leyland is the perfect fit. And no, it's not just because he isn't Alan Trammell. "If [Leyland] has his passion and fire, he's as good as anyone," Dombrowski said. To make sure Leyland did still have those qualities, Dombrowski called around, checking with friend Tony La Russa (La Russa, Leland and Dombrowski all started as White Sox decision-makers). However, Dombrowski said his best indicator was when Leyland went hard after the Phillies job and was crestfallen when he was beaten out by Charlie Manuel (that can't be good for any psyche). Leyland won immediate respect from Tigers players. The telling sign was when he moved Ivan Rodriguez out of the No. 3 spot and never heard a discouraging word. Trammell tried the same stunt last year and immediately lost Rodriguez. Factor: big positive.
4. Their playoff experience. It's limited at best. Rodriguez and Rogers are the only Tigers with rings, and Rogers' postseason experience with the 1996 Yankees was mostly in the tag-along role. In 1999 with the Mets, Rogers was the goat in the NLCS loss to the Braves. Otherwise, only Ordoñez, Todd Jones, Neifi Perez, Placido Polanco and Guillen have playoff experience. Factor: small negative.
5. Their schedule. They just got through a brutal stretch that featured the Yankees, Red Sox, Angels, White Sox and Twins. Now come the cream puffs, and nobody devours cream puffs like the Tigers. "No question we played a tough schedule in recent times. But we have to go back to the way we were playing," Dombrowski said. "If we do that, we'll be fine."