DETROIT — Justin Verlander spent all sorts of time over the last couple months trying to figure out what was wrong and why he was no longer dominating hitters with his terrific fastball.
Then he reached the All-Star break — with 10 wins and a 3.50 ERA.
"I wasn't where I'd like to be pretty much the whole half, but I was able to battle and end up with some pretty decent numbers," Verlander said.
Verlander could have been speaking for his entire team. The Detroit Tigers entered the season amid sky-high expectations after winning the American League pennant in 2012. They've endured drama in their bullpen and a frustrating record in close games, but with the break about to end, Detroit is performing pretty close to expectations. The Tigers lead the AL Central by 1 1/2 games over the Cleveland Indians.
The outlook is probably better than it was a year ago at the break, when the Tigers were in third place, 3 1/2 games off the pace. Detroit trailed the Chicago White Sox well into September before finally winning the division with an 88-74 record. This year, the Tigers (52-42) are on pace for about 90 wins, and Cleveland is the team mounting a serious challenge so far.
"I think we've hung in there," Detroit manager Jim Leyland said. "I truly think that's what's going to decide who wins — the team that's the toughest the second half, can grind it out on a daily basis, stay tough day in and day out, I think that's the team that's going to win."
Miguel Cabrera is following up his Triple Crown season with a run at a second straight AL MVP award. He's hitting .365 with 30 home runs and 95 RBIs, and Prince Fielder is providing plenty of power with 16 homers.
Throw in Max Scherzer's 13-1 record — he was the AL's starting pitcher in the All-Star game — and there have been plenty of story lines at Comerica Park. But it's been hard for Tigers fans to feel comfortable. Their team is 3-9 in extra-inning games, and the bullpen remains unsettled.
Detroit entered the year with uncertainty at the closer spot. Rookie Bruce Rondon hasn't been able to take over that role, and although the Tigers brought veteran Jose Valverde back for a bit, he eventually faltered. Joaquin Benoit has converted all eight of his save chances and has a 1.64 ERA, but relievers Al Alburquerque and Phil Coke have had their problems.
And then there's Verlander, who is still averaging about a strikeout an inning but has been hit harder this year. He's been trying his best to improve his fastball control, and a big second half from the right-hander would go a long way toward helping the Tigers shake the Indians.
"I don't think we've shown our potential yet. I think we've been a little bit inconsistent, but hey, you can't be too upset," Verlander said. "We're in first place, so that's where we want to be."
Detroit began this season with an eye on its first World Series title since 1984 — and yes, expectations of an easy road to the postseason may have been unrealistic.
"I think we've done pretty good," Leyland said. "I think some people think you're supposed to walk away with the Central and be in the playoffs and go to the World Series. It just doesn't work like that."
The race in the division is close enough that one extended slump could jeopardize Detroit's postseason hopes. But the reverse is true, too. All season long, these Tigers have looked like they could pull away from the AL Central at any point.
"I think everybody in this locker room knows how to prepare themselves for a 162-game season, not just to get off to a sprint start. It's a marathon," Verlander said. "I like this team a lot. I think we're really going to show what we can do this second half."