Game of year so far exposes Tigers' flaws

I started watching the Detroit Tigers-Cleveland Indians game while in the office this afternoon. Went home. Had a conference call with our editors to discuss the upcoming week. Mowed the lawn. Took the dog for a walk.

The game still wasn’t over. It finally ended after 5 hours, 16 minutes when Al Alburquerque balked home the winning run as the Indians scored twice in the bottom of the 13th inning to cap off a crazy, dramatic, improbably afternoon of baseball.

It completed a three-game sweep for the Indians, right when their season was on the verge of falling apart. It raises the question: Are the Tigers as invincible in the AL Central as it seemed three days ago? More on that later. Some quick thoughts on maybe the best game of the season:

1. Rough outing for Max Scherzer. At one point he had recorded five outs and allowed 10 baserunners, although some shaky Detroit defense contributed to that. Still, as he struggled with his command in the second inning, you could read the frustration on his face. Cleveland scored five runs that inning to take a 6-4 lead and Lonnie Chisenhall homered in the third, but give Scherzer huge props for making it through seven innings without further damage. Sometimes an ace isn’t measured by his zeroes but by outings like this one.

2. A key moment came in the sixth inning: Ian Kinsler struck out on a checked swing that didn’t look like a checked swing but plate umpire Tim Timmons rang him up. On the next pitch, Miguel Cabrera checked his swing although he pretty clearly did swing and Timmons called a strike without appealing to the first-base ump. That angered Cabrera, who said something and was ejected, which in turn angered Brad Ausmus, who also was ejected. Can’t argue balls and strikes and all that, you know. Timmons has been around as a full-time ump since 2000, so I’m a little surprised with the itchy trigger finger. Don Kelly replaced Cabrera and would go 0-for-2 with two walks and a run.

3. Poor Carlos Santana. While the Indians tallied 17 hits, the struggling Santana had none of them, dropping his season line to .146/.303/.268. Is this a case of a guy in a season-long slump or just hitting into a lot of bad luck? A little of both. Santana’s ground-ball/fly-ball/line-drive percentages are 48/37/15 compared to 43/35/22 in 2013, when he hit .268. So, yes, he's hitting fewer line drives. A year ago, he hit .180 on grounders; he has hit .140 this year. But the big difference is fly balls: Santana is hitting 5-for-45 (.111) on fly balls, and four of those five hits are home runs. So he’s 1-for-41 on fly balls that don’t clear the fence. A year ago, he hit .215 on fly balls. That doesn’t necessarily mean he’s unlucky, but it probably means he is due for some flares and bloopers and balls in the gap to start falling.

4. David Murphy tagged Joe Nathan with the game-tying, two-run homer in the ninth. This was Nathan’s third blown save, but the Tigers actually won the earlier two games, so this is the first game the Tigers lost when leading entering the ninth. They were 82-6 a year ago.

5. The Tigers are basically trying to win without a major league shortstop on the roster. Danny Worth went 0-for-6 with four strikeouts and Tigers shortstops are now hitting .184/.247/.213 with no home runs and nine RBIs. That the Tigers are basically winning with an eight-man lineup is a testament to the goodness so far of Victor Martinez and Cabrera.

Which gets us back to the big question above: Are the Tigers invincible in the AL Central? Well, invincible is a strong word. At 27-15, FanGraphs currently gives the Tigers a 90 percent chance of winning the division.

This game certainly exposed the Tigers’ flaws: Shortstop, bench and bullpen depth. Not to mention what happens if Cabrera or Martinez is injured for a lengthy period of time. Of those concerns, I’m actually least worried about the bullpen. Phil Coke, who earned the loss, has just about pitched his way out of Detroit, but Joba Chamberlain, Ian Krol and Alburquerque have generally pitched well as the primary guys in front of Nathan. Maybe Robbie Ray remains in the majors in the pen as well, filling Drew Smyly's lefty role from a year ago.

Maybe the question isn’t whether the Tigers are invincible, but who can challenge them? Remember, as dominant as the Tigers have looked on paper recently, they won the division by one game over Cleveland last year and just three games over Chicago in 2012.

I don’t think it’s going to be that close this year. The Indians showed signs of life these past three days, but they have a lot of winning to do to impress after a bad start. The Twins, White Sox and Royals have obvious flaws.

Never say never, but I’ll go with the computer on this one: The Tigers win the Central going away.