Jim Leyland lay shirtless on the blue couch in his Comerica Park office last week as he fielded questions about his team's wayward course at midseason. The Tigers manager often looks like he has just gotten up from a nap during his pregame media session, but by first pitch, intensity is steaming from his ears.
His posture on this day, however, seemed appropriate. The Tigers have been lying down all season. After adding Prince Fielder to join Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera on a talent-laden roster, the Tigers were consensus picks to run away with their second consecutive American League Central title. But as Leyland spoke, Detroit was still below .500.
"I feel the same way about my team as I did when we started," Leyland said. "I like my team a lot. ... We've survived. That's what we've done so far is survived. We haven't gotten on that total positive run that I think we'll get on. So hopefully we've got something to look forward to, but you've gotta do it. No guarantees."
The Tigers (44-42) went on to win their final five games before the All-Star break. As the second half opens Friday, they remain the team to watch in the AL Central, but don't try telling that to the first-place White Sox (47-38) or second-place Indians (44-41). The Royals and Twins have double-digit deficits, and they have to be kicking themselves, because with halfway decent starting pitching, they would be right in the scrum. Instead, Kansas City has the second-worst starting pitching ERA in the American League at 5.16, and the Twins are last at 5.68.
Cleveland All-Star closer Chris Perez said it's a three-team race for the division title among the White Sox, Indians and Tigers. He believes the division will have just one playoff team, even with an extra wild-card spot this year.
The Orioles and Angels would be the two wild-card winners if the postseason opened today. The Indians and Tigers are among six other AL teams within 2 1/2 games of a wild-card spot, but Perez insists he won't be paying attention to those standings.
"We're going to have to win the Central," he said. "The second wild card is coming out of the AL East. That's the superior division in our league."
Logic says Cleveland will fade. The Indians are 18-23 since May 25 and have given up 29 more runs than they have scored for the season. For comparison, Chicago's run differential is plus-63, Detroit's is plus-6, and the Twins' is a major league-worst minus-87.
The White Sox have been one of baseball's biggest surprises under first-year manager Robin Ventura. After finishing 79-83 last year in their final season under Ozzie Guillen, they took off this May with 13 victories in 14 games.
The team leveled off for a while, but then General Manager Kenny Williams acquired Kevin Youkilis from the Red Sox in a trade that already looks like a steal, especially because Cleveland also tried getting Youkilis. Boston agreed to pay most of Youkilis' remaining salary, and Chicago didn't have to part with any of its best prospects.
Youkilis batted .347 with three homers and 14 RBI in his first 15 games for Chicago, leading the charge last week when the White Sox swept a three-game series from Texas.
"If I was a fan of the [White Sox], I'd be very pumped about the stuff going on here,'' first baseman Paul Konerko said. "Not only the attitude but getting so many answers here as we go along."
Konerko was one of four All-Stars for the White Sox, joining Adam Dunn, Jake Peavy and Chris Sale. With a 2.85 ERA, Peavy is having his best season since 2008, and Sale has rivaled Verlander as the toughest pitcher in the division, going 10-2 with a 2.19 ERA.
"He's tough," Twins catcher Joe Mauer said of Sale, a 6-6 lefthander. "I've compared the way his ball comes in to Randy Johnson. I was able to face Randy a couple times before he retired, and [Sale's] got a great angle coming in like that. He throws hard, and he's got great movement on his pitches. ... I kind of wish he was in a different division."
Sale and Verlander could have some important showdowns coming. The White Sox and Tigers have split eight games so far and still have three series remaining, including two with games in September.
Leyland better hope his team stays off its back the rest of the way.