TIGERS PROVE THEY ARE BEST STORY IN BASEBALL

Francisco Liriano started Monday morning as a sports cover story on the national edition of the New York Times. That’s pretty heady stuff for a 22 year-old. Most athletes go their entire lives and never get that treatment. The Times cooed over Liriano’s amazing year, his incredible numbers, how he’s going so well, he might win the Cy Young award in his rookie season.

But before the sun set Monday evening, Liriano was just another guy walking to the showers early, the latest victim of an astounding Detroit Tiger team whose motto should be: “What else you got?”

One of these days, the national media won’t be able to keep the Tigers off the front of their sports sections. One of these days, cable sports networks won’t begin with the tight races between Yankees and Red Sox, they’ll begin with the first and best story in baseball this year, the one that plays at Comerica Park.

Until that day, the Tigers can keep doing what they’re doing; knocking down whatever gets set up in front of them. Monday it was Liriano, the Minnesota sensation from a backwater town in the Dominican Republic who only switched from outfield to pitcher a few years ago. He has a wicked slider and great strikeout numbers. He has, indeed, entering the game with a 12-2 record, been having a terrific season.

Against everybody else.

Against Detroit, he’d been very mortal, having given up nine runs in 11 innings, a 6.94 ERA. On Monday, he lasted less time than my first bag of popcorn: four innings, 10 hits, four runs, including a homer, and a wild pitch.

What else you got?

We’ve got great rookie pitchers, too

“Tonight we were able to put the bat on the ball,” said Craig Monroe, who’s done a lot of that lately. “But he’s a great pitcher. You can’t take nothing away from him.”

Actually, the Tigers can. They can take the ball away from him. They came out pounding Monday night, two hits in the first inning, another in the second, three more and two runs in the third. This is how they are. They don’t whimper. They don’t get intimidated. They’re like an electric pencil sharpener: they don’t care what color, what size, or how much lead you got; they whittle you down, same as the last stick.

“If you want to be the best,” Monroe said after the 9-3 win, “you have to beat the best.”

Done. Liriano left after the fourth, and was tagged with just his third loss of the year. Reports were he left with elbow pain. I’ll bet that wasn’t the only thing that hurt.

But it wasn’t just the Tigers offense that won the night. Brandon Inge made two more spectacular plays at third base. Pudge Rodriguez had a beautiful sacrifice bunt.

Zach Miner, the other rookie pitcher out there, scattered seven hits, and got the win.

In case nobody noticed, Miner, 24, and Justin Verlander, 23, now have a combined record of 21-6. Throw in the other rookie, Joel Zumaya, and it’s 27-7.

Rookies. In case nobody noticed.

“I feel bad for Justin,” Miner said after his win. “To me, he’s got the best stuff in baseball. … But he’s the type of guy – and I’m the same – you know, Liriano’s great, he gets all the publicity, it’s OK that nobody really talks about me. I’ll go my whole career like that as long as I’m pitching well.”

Sunny days are here again

You love that kind of attitude. Then again, what don’t you love about this team right now? Every night, you ask somebody “Tigers win?” and they say “Yup” and it’s like someone saying, “weather forecast for tomorrow is 78 and sunny and no humidity – again!”

The unthinkable is becoming the inevitable. The Twins, with every loss like Monday’s, shrink their slim chances of catching Detroit and lose ground in the wild card chase. The Yankees play the White Sox this week, which means one of them is going to lose ground to Detroit as well.

“I don’t think any of us will ever be comfortable until it’s champagne time when we win something,” Miner said.

That’s fine. But some lessons are teaching themselves. One of them, Francisco Liriano can recite by heart: this is not the town you want to come into as a cover story. You may leave running for cover instead.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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