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Tigers' injuries narrow AL Central race

If you went by star power and expectations alone, the Detroit Tigers were supposed to have long since sewed up the AL Central. But much as they had trouble fending off the Cleveland Indians last year, this year it looks as if events will conspire to keep them closer to the Kansas City Royals. Because make no mistake, David Price or no David Price, losing Anibal Sanchez for as much as four weeks and Joakim Soria for most of August isn’t going to help matters any.

First, there’s the matter of timing. Losing Sanchez couldn’t happen at a worse moment, with the Royals just a game and a half back. Whether Sanchez misses three or four weeks, he’s out of the picture for a stretch on the schedule when the Tigers have to play two doubleheaders, both on the road, the first on Aug. 23 against the Twins and then again a week later on the 30th against the White Sox. That means we may see the Tigers turning not just to their sixth guy on the rotation depth chart (probably Robbie Ray) but also their seventh (which may or may not be Drew VerHagen, since he’s lost time to a back injury).

Then, in the bullpen you have the challenge of replacing Soria at a time when Joe Nathan is doing his best Papa Grande impression when it comes to late-game spontaneous combustion. Nathan isn’t alone when it comes to failing to provide relief: Al Alburquerque and lefties Ian Krol and Phil Coke have combined to allow 35 of 101 inherited runners to score, worse than league average, and much worse than what you’d expect for a late-game crew handed plenty of leads on a contending team. That all three have inherited more than 30 baserunners apiece reflects their usage pattern, because rookie skipper Brad Ausmus has already been very matchup-conscious this season: Tigers relievers average less than an inning per appearance, getting an AL-low 2.8 outs per appearance. (The only other manager averaging less than three outs from his relievers is the hyper-kinetic Terry Francona with the Indians.) Soria was supposed to help fix that by giving the Tigers someone besides Joba Chamberlain to work in more of a setup than a situational role, but that’s off the table for at least two weeks.

Two things can make this less of a problem. First, the offense could crank out enough runs to keep games out of reach of opponents. That’s easier said than done, as the Tigers have seen their run scoring since the deadline -- and the decision to trade away Austin Jackson -- drop from 4.7 runs to 3.6 per game. They don’t have the pen to be able to count on converting games into wins with those kinds of narrow margins on the scoreboard.

Second, they could use Justin Verlander resembling the Verlander of old to fully fill the gap left with Sanchez absent. The good news there is that Verlander has rattled off four consecutive quality starts, averaging more than seven innings per turn with a 3.14 ERA. Less happy is that his strikeout rate has remained low during that time (16.2 percent, not much different than his 16.8 percent clip on the season). But if Verlander can get turned around in-season, the Tigers would still have a front four that can take anybody in any series for any length of time, perhaps even with as few as three runs to work with.

The situation is anything but good, but looking at it from the Tigers’ perspective, you might be more optimistic about getting more runs down the stretch from a lineup led by Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez, or getting great starts from Justin Verlander. There’s less reason for optimism about the bullpen, but if they get those two things, they may be able to keep the Royals at bay. Either way it looks like we’re going to get to enjoy another down-to-the-wire AL Central race.

Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.