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Tigers retain growl with role players, defense, and pitching

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The Detroit Tigers are not supposed to be traveling first class this year in the American League East, as formidable on the road as they are at home. The Tigers are supposed to be running scared and complaining about how badly their run production is off from last season.

But with the season just about half over, it is the Tigers who are riding high in first place. Although Detroit won the AL East last season with a 98-64 record, many observers wondered if the club had made a mistake in letting free-agent slugger Kirk Gibson get away to the Los Angeles Dodgers and trading for light-hitting outfielder Gary Pettis, who carries a .242 batting average and has little power.

Further dimming the outlook was the decling effectiveness of relief pitcher Willie Hernandez, whose saves dropped from 32 in 1984, when he won the Cy Young Award, to just eight last year. The screwball-throwing southpaw was pitching so poorly a year ago, the Tigers sent him back to the minors for two games to see if he could get straightened out.

``I enjoy it when people say we're nothing,'' Detroit manager Sparky Anderson says. ``But I know my players and what they can do. I know the kind of effort I'll get from them. I've never been around a better group.''

If all this sounds vaguely familiar, it is only because Anderson has made statements like that hundreds of times before.

What has kept the Tigers jungle-tough has been their pitching, a tight defense that makes the routine plays as well as many spectacular ones, and more good role players than probably any other team in baseball. Reserves who sit on Sparky's bench never seem to have any problems with rust. He winds them up when he needs help and they produce.

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