By Ashley Dunkak

CBS DETROIT –  The Detroit Tigers entered the All-Star break 15 games over .500 and held a 6.5-game lead in the American League Central Division. Despite questions following some big offseason moves and doubt incited by a nasty 30-game slide, the Tigers look good at the more-or-less midway point of the season. Here’s a look at which Detroit players will be particularly key in sending the Tigers farther in the playoffs than last season, when they hit a wall in the American League Championship Series.

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1. Justin Verlander – On the heels of core muscle repair surgery, longtime Tigers ace Justin Verlander has not enjoyed much smooth sailing. Verlander’s ERA through 20 starts this season is 4.88. In eight of his outings, Verlander has fallen short of providing a “quality start” – three or fewer runs in six or more innings – and the Tigers are 2-6 in those games.

Detroit can manage even if they do not have the Verlander of 2011 and 2012, but while the Tigers might not need Verlander to be great, they certainly need him to be good, and that means he will have to improve in the second half for the Tigers to flourish.

2. Victor Martinez – Following Miguel Cabrera in the lineup and quietly having an even better season statistically than his two-time MVP teammate, Martinez has produced at a pace – .328 average and 21 home runs – that will yield one of the best seasons of his career if he can maintain it. Whether he cools off at all, however, is not nearly as important as whether he can stay healthy for the remainder of the season.

Martinez missed 11 games leading up to the All-Star break, so the hope will be that Martinez has healed enough that he can finish the season as basically the same player – something an injury prevented Cabrera from doing last season.

3. Austin Jackson – Former Tigers manager Jim Leyland made waves in the playoffs last year when he moved Jackson from leadoff to eighth in an attempt to take the pressure off Jackson and get his bat going. Since then, however, Jackson is back at the top of the order, and like all leadoff hitters, he gets as many or more at bats than anyone and has the opportunity to set a tone for the rest of the lineup.

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With a .256 batting average midway through the year, Jackson has nearly as many strikeouts (76) as hits (81). Jackson showed signs of turning a corner as the first half wound down, however, with 17 hits in Detroit’s last 12 games. In that span, he has a .333 average. He will begin the second half on a five-game hitting streak.

4. J.D. Martinez – The 26-year-old cut by the Houston Astros has given a major boost to the Detroit lineup, providing pop in a group that in the offseason lost notable slugger Prince Fielder along with two players – Omar Infante and Jhonny Peralta – who were hitting over .300. Martinez has a .346 batting average through 55 games, and he has turned in 13 homers, 17 doubles and 43 runs batted in.

It is almost unthinkable that Martinez could sustain that pace, but if he can stay somewhat close, pitchers will have no choice but to regard him with extreme caution, and that will favor the Tigers.

5. Joe Nathan – The only component of the bullpen in which Tigers fans had confidence entering the season, Nathan effectively shook the faith of fans in the first half. Even after four straight scoreless outings before the All-Star break, Nathan has a 5.61 ERA. A inconsistent bullpen bit Detroit last season, and Nathan and fellow reliever Joba Chamberlain were added in the offseason to fortify the group.

High-scoring games do not happen much in the playoffs, where potent offenses are often neutralized by baseball’s best pitchers, so Nathan will undoubtedly get a significant number of save opportunities in the postseason, and he will need to deliver.


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