Last year, the Detroit Tigers sneaked up on people. Now, even President Bush picks them to repeat as American League champions.
"I think Detroit will be in the World Series," Bush told ESPN on Sunday. "I think they'll nose out Boston. I know that may be counterintuitive, but their young pitching is great, and they've got the flamethrower Zumala back."
When "Baseball Tonight" host Karl Ravech corrected Bush on Joel Zumaya's last name, the former Texas Rangers owner said, "Zumala, Zumaya. I think they'll be pretty tough."
Fresh off that presidential endorsement, the Tigers begin a three-game series against the Twins tonight at the Metrodome, hoping to stunt Minnesota's recent momentum. The Twins, 4-0 since the All-Star break, have pulled within six games of the Tigers in the AL Central. Even though the Twins are chasing both Detroit and Cleveland, they sense the Tigers are the team to beat.
Last year, Detroit went 59-29 before the All-Star break but only 36-38 after the break, losing the division title to the Twins on the season's final day. This year, the Tigers weren't quite as good at the break (52-34), but they're poised for a much better second half.
"They've had some injuries to their bullpen, but I think their lineup is second to none," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "They're averaging five or six runs per game. You expect them to be very good."
The Tigers lead the majors with 535 runs scored, and unlike the Twins, their lineup has no obvious holes:
Leadoff man Curtis Granderson leads the majors with 55 extra-base hits.
Placido Polanco, the MVP of last year's AL Championship Series, has a back injury, but he's batting .335.
Gary Sheffield has 20 of his 22 home runs and 54 of his 62 RBI since the end of April.
Magglio Ordonez leads the majors with a .358 batting average.
Carlos Guillen leads major league shortstops -- by a long shot -- with a .943 on-base-plus-slugging percentage.
Ivan Rodriguez, a 14-time All-Star catcher, is batting .296.
First baseman Sean Casey is batting .300.
Left fielder Craig Monroe is batting only .220, so manager Jim Leyland has been playing Marcus Thames, who has 11 home runs in 148 at-bats.
Brandon Inge, one of the finer defensive third basemen in the game, also has 11 homers.
"We have to stay healthy; that's the key," said Guillen, who was hobbled last August, as was Polanco, leading to the team's second-half slump. "Yeah, we've got a pretty good lineup, but it's a long season. You've got to be ready to play nine innings every day."
If Detroit's offense doesn't get teams, its pitching often does. The Twins are 5-4 against the Tigers this year, but the last meeting -- July 1 in Detroit -- left a disappointing taste, as Jeremy Bonderman outdueled Scott Baker for a 1-0 victory, the run coming on Thames' eighth-inning homer.
Bonderman is 10-1. Justin Verlander is 11-3. At age 42, Kenny Rogers (3-1) is back from surgery to remove a blood clot from his left shoulder. And while tonight's starter, Nate Robertson (5-6), has struggled, rookie Andrew Miller's emergence allowed Detroit to trade soft-tossing Mike Maroth to St. Louis.
"We know we've got a good team," Verlander said. "And the best part about it is we like each other, and we just play and have fun. If we can do that, I think we should have a good second half."
As Bush knows, the bullpen has been this team's one question mark. Zumaya has been out since early May because of a ruptured finger tendon, and Fernando Rodney has been on the disabled list twice because of right arm issues. The Tigers hope both can return to the mound by mid-August.
Meantime, Detroit has found ways to patch the holes. Former starters Chad Durbin and Zach Miner have moved to relief roles and been increasingly effective.
The Tigers also miss lefthander Jamie Walker from last year's World Series team, but now they have Bobby Seay and Macay McBride (obtained from Atlanta) pitching well from the left side.
The beleaguered bullpen recently ran off a string of 16 2/3 scoreless innings. On June 28, Tigers relievers ranked third to last in the majors with a 5.25 ERA, but that number has since been trimmed to 4.75.
Remember, the Tigers overcame last year's late-season collapse, defeating the Yankees and A's en route to the World Series.
"I think we learned a lot just going through those situations," Verlander said. "Anything we come across this year -- adversity, and playing under pressure situations -- I think all those experiences helped us."
Now expectations are high. Even from the Oval Office.