By Ashley Dunkak
DETROIT (CBS DETROIT) – The Detroit Tigers finally look like the team so many dreamed it would be.
With a 14-inning victory Wednesday night, the Tigers got their 11th straight victory. Detroit has won 15 of its last 16 games. It holds a six-game lead in the American League Central. The Tigers are 22 games over .500.
Are streaks flukey? Yes. Has the competition at times been suspect? Yes.
Regardless, the run the Tigers are on is a great sign of how the team is gelling.
Winning 11 straight is hard. The Tigers team that went to the World Series 2012 never did it. That group never strung together a streak of more than six. The 2011 team won 12 in a row, which was the first time that had been achieved by the Tigers since 1934.
Is 2012 Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera the one to credit for all the success? Well, sure, but he has missed seven of the last 15 games with an injury. How about fellow slugger Prince Fielder? He had a timely hit Wednesday, a two-strike double that won the game, but his batting average is a paltry .214 since the All-Star break. Maybe 2011 Cy Young and MVP Justin Verlander? He’s picked up his game recently, of course, but he has not been the untouchable force he was the last two years. All-Star Game starter Max Scherzer? Of course, but then again, starters only throw every five games.
All those stars have been solid, as expected. What was less anticipated, and much more telling as far as whether the team has what it takes to go all the way back to the World Series, were the contributions of everyone else.
Wednesday’s 14-inning game exemplified that idea.
Cabrera hit the two-out, first-pitch home run to give Detroit the lead in the eighth inning, but had 38-year-old Torii Hunter not slapped a single and gotten on base before Cabrera, the homer would have simply tied the game instead of giving the Tigers the advantage.
Austin Jackson, who had the hot bat after returning from injury but has since cooled, homered in the sixth and smacked a leadoff double in the top of the 14th. Hernan Perez, who came up from Triple-A Toledo to play second base in the absence of Omar Infante, walked following Jackson’s double. Fielder scored Jackson and Perez with a double, and the game was back in hand for Detroit.
That would not have mattered though, if not for the stellar relief provided by the Tigers bullpen.
The usually steady Drew Smyly struggled, giving up back-to-back doubles in the bottom of the eighth. Rookie Bruce Rondon came in and sat down the next three batters. He sizzled pitch after pitch past the Indians. One fastball, clocked at 103 miles per hour, hit the mitt before the batter could swing. In that inning, Rondon only threw one pitch under 100.
Rondon pitched a one-two-three bottom of the ninth as well. Jose Veras, just acquired from the Houston Astros, also threw a perfect inning: three up, three down in the 10th.
Then came Jeremy Bonderman. It was his first outing with the Tigers after being called up from Triple A, where he had been signed by the Tigers after he was released by the Seattle Mariners after posting a 4.93 ERA over seven games with them. This season is Bonderman’s first in baseball since 2010.
Nevertheless, Bonderman – formerly a starter – pitched the bottom of the 11th, the bottom of the 12th and the bottom of the 13th, allowing only one hit.
Finally, Joaquin Benoit entered the game. The Tigers had the lead, and it was his job to save the game, just as he had done 13 times before, including in the last three straight. Benoit did not start the season as a closer, and at first, after he was handed the job after Jose Valverde was sent down, he may not have even wanted that role. Now that he has it, though, he has done it to perfection.
Over the other games of this 11-game win streak, both catcher Alex Avila and versatile defender Don Kelly have belted game-changing home runs. Statistically, those two are perhaps among the least likely to turn in the winning hits, and yet, like their teammates, they have risen to the occasion in important moments.
If the Tigers can continue to get contributions from all over its lineup and bullpen like it has the last couple of weeks, Detroit might see another World Series yet.