After the break, rest of AL Central goes Tiger hunting

Detroit has a commanding lead, but pursuing teams aren’t giving up yet.

The Detroit Tigers have as large a cushion in the American League Central Division as any team in several years, going 17-6 leading into the All-Star break. But the teams trailing them don’t view that 6½-game lead as insurmountable.

“Any team has a chance to do something special in the second half,” Kansas City outfielder Alex Gordon said at the All-Star Game at Target Field.

And the Tigers are aware of that. They have led at the break in previous seasons and held that lead. They’ve also led at the break and blown the division.

“It’s going to take a collective effort from everyone to keep playing as well as we have to be able to win the AL Central,” Tigers righthander Max Scherzer said. “It’s going to be a challenge, because the Royals and Indians are very good ballclubs and will be tough.”

As the post-All-Star schedule begins Friday, the Tiger Watch will begin. Can Detroit, which holds the biggest edge of any division leader in baseball, pull away with the title? Will Kansas City and Cleveland get hot and put pressure on the leaders? If the White Sox and Twins don’t pull off an unexpected comeback, will they at least make things interesting?

“Everyone has gotten better,” Royals reliever Greg Holland said. “The Twins have gotten better, we have gotten better. Chicago has gotten better offensively. I think it’s going to be a fun second half. I expect a lot of good, close games like the last couple of years.”

Over the past five years, the team that has led the AL Central at the All-Star break has gone on to win the division only twice. When the Twins won the Central in 2009, they were in third place and four games back of Detroit at the break but ended up winning the division thanks to a memorable Game 163. In 2010, they came back to win from third again, 3½ games behind the White Sox at the break.

But no team in those five years had a lead as big as the Tigers, at 53-38, do now. Blowing a 3½-game lead is one thing. Blowing a 6½-game lead is another.

With a deep rotation, anchored by former Cy Young winners Scherzer and Justin Verlander, it appears unlikely the Tigers will fall apart.

“We’re in first place right now and it is great,” Scherzer said. “But these things can evaporate in a heartbeat. We have to continue to play as good as we did in the first half.”

What could slow the Tigers down is their bullpen. Closer Joe Nathan, a former Twin, has been awful at times this season, going 4-2 with a 5.61 ERA and five blown saves. Reliever Al Alburquerque is tied for third in the league in appearances (45) and seems to appear in every game against the Twins. Trading for bullpen depth could lock up the division.

On paper, that is. On the field, baseball is unpredictable, giving hope to the four teams chasing the Tigers:

• The Royals really struggled at the plate at the beginning of the season and don’t have a lot of power. A 14-4 run in late May and early June briefly landed them in first place. They are fourth in the league in batting with runners in scoring position, which needs to continue in order for them to chase down the Tigers.

• Cleveland has been slowed because of injuries, but All-Star outfielder Michael Brantley and third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall have had breakout seasons. The Indians, however, might be the worst defensive team in the division, which could cost them.

“We’ve kind of played almost like last year, where if we show up and play well in the second half, we have a chance to have very meaningful games down the stretch,” Cleveland manager Terry Francona said. “When that happens, you never know what can happen.”

• Chicago looks to have a short roster. But they have one of the top pitchers in the game in lefthander Chris Sale (8-1, 2.08 ERA) and teams fear rookie first baseman Jose Abreu, who has a league-leading 29 home runs.

“[Abreu] changes the complexion of their lineup,” Scherzer said.

• The Twins are the caboose of this train. After losing at least 96 games in each of the past three seasons, they are on pace to go 76-86.

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  • The key: Will Joe Nathan-led bullpen — 12th in the AL in ERA — hold together to support a deep, talented starting rotation?

  • The key: The Royals are 10th in the AL in runs scored and last in home runs.

  • The key: The Indians have committed more errors than any other team in the AL.

  • The key: The staff ERA of 4.17 ranks 12th among AL teams, one spot ahead of the Twins.

  • The key: Need Joe Mauer and Ricky Nolasco to get healthy and carry the load, as planned.

  • Righthander Ricky Nolasco (47) signed a four-year, $49 million contract in the offseason to become the Twins’ de facto ace, but he’s 5-7 with a 5.90 ERA and rehabbing a right elbow strain.

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