Can Tigers hold off Tribe in AL Central?

Editor's note: Throughout August, ESPN.com will take a close look at various teams in the hunt for a playoff spot to assess whether they have what it takes to survive the dog days of August and remain in contention come October.

At the bottom of the page, each team will receive a dog bone rating based on our overall analysis: five bones = serious postseason contender; four bones = good contender; three bones = average contender; two bones = poor contender; one bone = no contender.

Who's the big dog?

Miguel Cabrera


In his first three seasons in Detroit, Miguel Cabrera has shown exceptional consistency after the All-Star break, hitting .305 or higher each year. The Tigers' cleanup hitter will need to maintain that reliability down the stretch in 2011 if his club is to win the division. And he should. When facing the Tigers' closest rivals in the standings, Cabrera is hitting .385 against the Indians and .349 against the White Sox -- and after Thursday the club has 10 games left versus Cleveland and six against Chicago.

-- Mike McClary, The Daily Fungo, an affiliate of the SweetSpot Network

Who needs to step up?

The Tigers hoped, apparently against hope, that Carlos Guillen would be the answer at second base -- at least offensively. Twenty games after returning to the lineup he's been worse at the plate than predecessors Scott Sizemore and Will Rhymes. If the Tigers are to play meaningful games in September, they need Guillen in August to produce more than his current .213 average and .238 on-base percentage. A lot more.

-- Mike McClary, The Daily Fungo, an affiliate of the SweetSpot Network

Key stat: Verlander's strikeouts


Justin Verlander in 2011:

Justin Verlander has been the key to Detroit's success this season, sitting in the top three in the American League in wins, innings pitched, strikeouts (his 14 games of eight or more K's are the most in the majors), opponent batting average, complete games and ERA. The righty goes for his 17th win Thursday night and is on pace to become the first Tigers pitcher to reach 20 wins since Bill Gullickson in 1991.

Verlander's curveball has been dominant this season, particularly against left-handed hitters. Lefties are hitting just .095 (7-for-74) in at-bats that end with a curve and righties are hitting only .169 (11-for-65). His 64 strikeouts with the curveball are third-most in the AL and 46 percent of plate appearances that have ended with a curve were strikeouts.

-- Mark Malzewski and Hank Gargiulo, ESPN Stats & Info

Where are they going?

Baseball isn't tailored to individual exploits. Batting orders and starting rotations reduce the impact that any one player can make, and teams have only limited control of when a player's appearances occur.

Nonetheless, at times this season it's seemed as though Verlander has put the Tigers on his proverbial back.

The Tigers, who hold a two-game lead over the Cleveland Indians in the American League Central, have won 68 percent of their games started by Verlander this season. With anyone else but Verlander on the mound, they've been a sub-.500 team.

For more of Ben Lindbergh's analysis, click hereInsider .