Detroit Tigers’ stars shining bright in thick of division race

Before he turned his career to pitching, Joe Nathan played shortstop. “At least half my life,” he would later recall. So on the mound Tuesday night, in the top of the ninth, with “two of the quickest guys in the game” on first and second and Nathan facing the real possibility that the lead and this game and a tie for first place in the AL Central might all slip away, his old infielder’s instincts kicked in.

He caught a look from second baseman Ian Kinsler, made a leg kick as if he were coming to the plate, then turned and caught Kansas City’s speedy Jarrod Dyson in mid-steal, like a burglar when the floodlights suddenly burst on.

“My heart was going a million beats a minute,” Nathan admitted. As Dyson scrambled to get back to the bag, Nathan poised to make the throw. Sometimes, when this happens, the pitcher is so excited, the ball sails into centerfield. But Nathan took a small stutter step, his old shortstop footing kicking in, and threw a perfect strike to Kinsler, who made the pickoff.

Dyson was gone. So were the Royals. Nathan turned his attention back to home plate, trying to calm himself down, and, a few pitches later, fooled Salvador Perez for strike three and the final out.

Hey, Tiger fans. It’s 10 days into September. Do you know where your baseball team is?

Back in first place.

That’s right. After nearly a month in the shadow of the throne, the Tigers moved into a virtual tie with Kansas City atop the AL Central,stopping the Royals at Comerica Park Tuesday night, 4-2 — capped by a typical pulse-rising performance by Nathan, but this time capped by everything right.

“A big win for us,” he said after his 30th save of the year, preserving a gem by Max Scherzer. “We needed to get back to where we wanted to be, and that’s atop the division with (the Royals). … We definitely shifted the pressure over to their clubhouse.”

Back on top.

Stars are aligning

There’s a common adage in sports that when the going gets toughest, the stars must perform. This is certainly true of quarterbacks in football, goalies in hockey, and of the biggest names in basketball. By and large, it is true in baseball, too.

“They’re not gonna play big every single game,” said Brad Ausmus after Tuesday’s win, “but I think overall the bigger names are bigger names because they’ve done it before”

So far, the Tigers have made a September surge with their big guns blazing. Miguel Cabrera is doing his part. He may not be able to run very well, but his bat is suddenly ship-shape. He came into Tuesday on an eight game hitting streak, with a whopping .486 average during that time. He added a double and a walk Tuesday night. Victor Martinez had been right there with him, a nine game hitting streak and a .471 average coming in. J.D Martinez now has 11 hits and three home runs this month — including a near-miss grand slam in the first and a solo dinger in the fifth Tuesday night.

As for pitching stars, David Price has had one bad inning and 14 great ones in September. Justin Verlander finally got it together on Monday. And Scherzer? He allowed just two runs in a Tigers win over Cleveland last week, and just one run in his win Tuesday.

“Max was awesome tonight,” Nathan said,

Which brings us back to the closer. Nathan is almost as big a name at his position as the Tigers have. Fans forget that, because, for the most part, Nathan has made them want to forget his entire 2014 campaign.

But Ausmus knows there’s what you did before and what you can do now. “It was a good save for him tonight,” the manager said. “The only thing I’m hoping for is that Joe continues to be Joe down the stretch for three more weeks.”

Back on top.

Back where they belong

Make no mistake. The Tigers should lead their division. They should be on a three-game winning streak. And they should continue this until the end of the year. Kansas City is a great story. And by now, everyone knows the Royals haven’t seen a postseason since the George Brett days in the 1980’s. If you didn’t know that, SportsCenter will remind you every 5 minutes.

But the Tigers are not interested in other teams’ feel good stories. This roster was assembled to win big and to be there when the smoke clears.

They have been in first place for so much of the season.

All of April.

All of May.

All but three days in June.

All of July.

And then, after five losses in six games, they fell out. And with the exception of one brief night on Aug. 30, they’ve been the second banana.

Until Tuesday.

“I’m aware of them,” Ausmus said of the standings. “But it makes no difference when we step on the field tomorrow.”

Not to the players. But it does to the fans. Detroit is back to where it belongs, back to where a team with Cabrera, Martinez, David Price, Verlander and Scherzer should belong. The Tigers are not the Royals. You shouldn’t hear people saying, “Who ARE these guys?”

They are who they need to be and who they were Tuesday night — timely hitting, great starting pitching, and a closing pitcher who makes a play as big as his name, even if he had to dig into his inner shortstop to make it.

“It was a very cool moment,” Nathan said, smiling.

Back on top.

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