Declawed Tigers continue to stumble

CHICAGO -- These aren't big games, says Jim Leyland. This isn't a big series, says Jim Leyland. It's only June, says Jim Leyland.

But Jim Leyland manages a team that hasn't played in these kinds of games since Cecil Fielder was hitting cleanup and Sparky Anderson was spinning his managerial pearls of wisdom. Which means it wasn't exactly last week.

So if those Detroit Tigers of his are going to prove this year that they're as good as their record, they are going to have to find a way to win these games. They are going to have to find a way to beat the Chicago White Sox.

Well, five games into their head-to-head portion of this season, the Tigers haven't beaten the White Sox yet. Not once.

And Wednesday night at U.S. Cellular Field, it happened again: White Sox 4, Tigers 3, on yet another late game-winning hit by White Sox scrubeeni Alex Cintron.

So about the only thing shrinking faster these days than the Stanley Cup TV ratings is the Tigers' lead in the AL Central.

They were five outs away from taking a 3½-game lead Tuesday night. Now, after two straight come-from-ahead losses, that lead is down to half a game -- the smallest it has been since they were tied with the White Sox for first back on May 20.

That will happen, though, when your team has lost eight of its last 10 games, as these Tigers have.

That will happen when you're 0-5 for the year against the team directly behind you in the standings.

That will happen when you've lost three straight series -- to the AL's three resident monsters, the Yankees, Red Sox and White Sox.

All that has happened to the Tigers over the last week and a half. So it's time now to look more closely at them and try to figure out what all this means.

"I love the competition," Leyland said Wednesday, during a typically fascinating postgame dissertation in which he constantly alternated between optimism and realism. "And I love this -- what's going on, because the reality is, if you want to be the best, you've got to beat the best. And right now, they're the best.

"They're the defending world champions. Nobody can take it away from them. They earned it. They did it. They did it the right way. ... They've got a good team.

"But so do we."

The manager makes sure to say that as much as possible, just so no one will forget it at times like this. These Tigers aren't a fluke. They deserve to find themselves in this race. They have proved over their first 59 games that they're good enough to stay in this race.

There is a difference, though, between a good team and a champion. And for two years, the White Sox have spun enough magic when they needed it to win all kinds of games that champions win -- the kind they often had no business winning.

They've won miracle games. They won 48 one-run games (counting the 2005 postseason). They've gone 71-33 against their own division.

They can beat you with their thump. They can beat you with their legs. They can beat you with their arms. They can beat you with their smarts. And they have done all of that against the Tigers this year, and this week.

"They have a little more speed than we do, at the top and at the bottom," Leyland said. "And [they've] got the power in the middle [of the order]. And that's one of the reasons they're the world champions. They're a little more versatile than we are. We've just still got to prove that we can play with them. ...

"So far, they've done everything a little bet better than we have. They've outpitched us. They've outhit us. They've outmanaged us. They've done everything. It's that simple."

Except it's never that simple. The only thing simple here is the math.

The math tells us that the Tigers are 2-10 this year against the White Sox, Yankees and Red Sox -- and 35-12 against everybody else.

Yet the Tigers have trouble believing that the math is telling the truth. They are trying to balance the numbers against the way they feel about themselves. And they would rather believe the psychology feeling than the numerology. Then again, who wouldn't?

"To be honest with you," said third baseman Brandon Inge, "I think we should have won both of these games, the way the feeling of the game went. I've been on the receiving end of it for a long time. So I know what it feels like for a team to come in and just feel like we didn't have a chance. And this time, it feels different. ...

"Those [three losses in four] games against the Yankees last week, that was a different story," Inge went on."Those games, we just got beat. ... But the two games we lost to Boston and the two we lost here, I felt like we were going to win every game. So there's not that feeling of, 'we stink.' It's the feeling of, we just kind of got edged out."

But nobody gets "edged out" by accident. You get edged out when you don't get the kind of hits and make the kind of plays that form the difference between winning and losing.

Two games into this series, the Tigers' next hit with runners in scoring position will be their first. (They're 0-for-12 so far.) And that will get you edged out every time.

Wednesday night, they took one-run leads two innings in a row (the third and fourth). But their spectacular rookie starter, Justin Verlander, gave both of them back a half-inning later. That will get you edged out every time, too.

And in the sixth inning, Verlander had Jim Thome buried in the count, 0 and 2, with one out and nobody on. Next thing Verlander knew, the count was full and he was challenging Thome with a 97-mph fastball -- and Thome was pounding it halfway to Cicero, to put the White Sox ahead again.

If that majestic swat looked way too familiar to the shell-shocked residents of Detroit, there's a reason for that. It was the 46th time Thome had practiced his home run trot against the Tigers. And of all the players who have come to bat against Detroit over the last three decades, NOBODY has hit more bombs against the Tigers than that.

"I was catching for a lot of those home runs, so I remember," Inge said. "I just remember the sound. It used to frustrate me so bad to hear that sound. There's just a few guys who make that special sound every time the ball comes off the bat. When I was catching, that sound used to just ring in my helmet when he'd hit a home run."

Wednesday, Inge had a night off, so he wasn't even playing when Thome struck again (his fourth homer against the Tigers this year). But he knew exactly what he was hearing.

"I was in the dugout tonight," he said. "But I still heard it."

Yet even that thunderous shot wasn't the game-winner -- because a two-error-on-one-play gaffe by White Sox third baseman Joe Crede re-tied this game yet one more time in the top of the seventh.

But a half-inning later, Cintron -- starting at short for a second straight game because Juan Uribe's pregnant wife was in the midst of a childbirth marathon -- singled in the winning run off reliever Jamie Walker.

If this keeps up, Mrs. Uribe might get a bigger World Series share than her husband.

The White Sox bullpen did the rest. And all of a sudden, that team from Detroit that once roared off to a 35-15 start is now holding onto the best record in baseball by only percentage points (at 37-22). The White Sox and Yankees are both tied with the Tigers in the loss column. And the Red Sox and Mets are just one loss behind.

The manager isn't big on talk like that, though. The manager isn't big on making these two losses seem any bigger than they are.

"If we'd have won the first two games and we'd have been up whatever we'd have been up [4½], I wouldn't have thought anything of it," Leyland said. "And I'm not going to think anything of it no matter how we come out of here. It's a nice conversation piece, I guess, for people. But you know, it's not even Father's Day yet."

Nevertheless, the world is watching -- even in June -- because the skeptics in the world always wonder about teams like this.

These Tigers were just the third team in history to win 35 of their first 50 games after losing 90 games the year before (joining the '93 Phillies and '51 White Sox). So will they go on to the World Series like those '93 Phillies? Or will they fade to the middle of the pack like those '51 White Sox?

The Tigers have 103 games left to answer those questions. But they know people don't like to wait. Those people are looking for clues right now.

"In certain instances," said closer Todd Jones, "some series are bigger than others. And I think it's important for us to let the White Sox know we think we're a pretty decent team. We know they're a real good team. But we just want them to know, after this series is over, that we're a good team, too.

"To be honest," Jones said, "I don't think anybody really believes we're any good, outside of the people who have been watching us all year. I think people feel we're like the Nationals of last year, and they're waiting for the other shoe to fall."

So these two weeks -- against the Yankees, Red Sox, White Sox and (once they leave Chicago) Blue Jays -- they represent an opportunity to show those people that neither the shoe nor the sky is falling. These two weeks, "they're a good litmus test, I think," Jones said.

Well, it seems that way. But nine games into the litmus test, the Tigers are only 2-7. So the litmus paper is sure turning some funny colors on them.

"Yeah, it should be blue and orange," Jones quipped. "Not black and blue."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.