Sat, May 06, 2006 - Page 19 News List

Tigers claw their way back to top

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , DETROIT, MICHIGAN

Tigers shortstop Carlos Guillen tags out Chone Figgins of the Angels on an attempted steal at second base during the first inning in Detroit, Michigan, on Thursday.

PHOTO: AP

When Thursday began, the surprising Tigers were tied for the most victories in the major leagues with 19 but were 27th in average home attendance, at 20,979. They needed someone to pitch tickets as well as baseballs at Comerica Park.

So closer Todd Jones spoke with tongue in cheek on WXYT-AM, the radio station that broadcasts Tigers games. "Get your World Series tickets now," Jones told rush-hour commuters on Thursday morning.

Continuing to jest, Jones said the Tigers -- so bad for so long -- were now a combination of the 1927 Yankees and the 2004 Boston Red Sox. "We're the greatest team of all time," Jones declared. "We're not going to lose another game."

Alas, by the time the 24,879 fans headed home in the afternoon, the Tigers had lost to the Los Angeles Angels, 7-2, ending Detroit's six-game winning streak and dropping its record to 19-10, a game and a half behind the Chicago White Sox in the American League Central.

With the 162-game season in its first quarter, the revived Tigers have made a favorable first impression under manager Jim Leyland, who is making a comeback after six seasons away from the dugout because of what he described as burnout.

"Every time you step on the field you're thinking to yourself, `We're going to win this ballgame,'" third baseman Brandon Inge said. "It's something I could really get used to."

Inge said that the Tigers' losing streaks in recent seasons "used to be a straight-downhill snowball." This season's worst stretch lasted four games. "The fans want baseball back in the city," Inge said. "I hear that from everybody."

Although Comerica Park is known as a pitchers' park, the Tigers began Thursday leading the majors in home runs with 44. Despite giving up three homers to the Angels, the pitching staff's earned run average of 3.12 was still best in the majors.

Without even a .500 season since 1993 and only three years removed from the worst season in their 105-year history with 119 defeats, the Tigers are trying to revive one of the bedrock franchises of American professional sports.

Like the White Sox and the Red Sox, the last two Series champions, the Tigers have a legacy, but Detroit's only titles came in 1945, 1968 and 1984. Mike Maroth, a starting pitcher with a 4-1 record, said: "It's time to win. It's been a long time, especially for the fans."

Justin Verlander, Thursday's starter and loser, is a rookie, but he senses the mission.

"We've kind of got a bone to pick with the whole league," said Verlander, who fell to 3-3. "After the last few years, everybody's been handing it to us."

Verlander, 22, is among the new generation of players acquired by Dave Dombrowski, in his fifth season as general manager. Another is the rookie Joel Zumaya, 21, who, like Verlander, can throw consistently from 90mph to 100mph.

Zumaya pitched an inning in relief Wednesday to earn the first victory of his career in a 2-1 defeat of the Angels. His teammates rewarded him with a shower of beverages in the clubhouse.

Zumaya is being groomed as a relief specialist, and his confident body language resembles that of Goose Gossage. "I have a great mentality, a bulldog mentality," Zumaya said. "I like going straight after guys."

He has 13 strikeouts in 10 2/3 innings and an ERA of 3.38. Zumaya's heavy fastball, center fielder Curtis Granderson said, is so menacing, it sets up his curve, which causes hitters' knees to buckle.

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