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Tigers roaring again Leyland's team stays afloat despite batting slump, frigid weather and lengthy road swing

TORONTO -- The Detroit Tigers play in baseball's best division so there's no real way to tell if they're even going back to the playoffs this season, let alone making a return trip to the World Series.

But this much is certain: A visit by the Tigers is an event on home teams' calendars now, something that hasn't been true since the 1980s.

"You can sense there's going to be a buzz in all these places when we come in," first baseman Sean Casey said over the weekend prior to a game against the Toronto Blue Jays in Rogers Centre. "We're not surprising anybody this time. We come in now and people are going to be hunting for us. We've got to come with our best. The only way to get back to the World Series is beat the teams gunning for us."

Until their amazing turnaround last season, the Tigers had been one of baseball's most moribund franchises. Now they have the look of a perennial contender thanks to a strong rotation and one of the game's best bullpens. And it's impossible to underestimate the impact of manager Jim Leyland.

Detroit legend Alan Trammell, a hero in the 1984 World Series triumph over San Diego, was fired following the 2005 season when the Tigers finished 71-91, their 12th straight losing campaign. Leyland took over last year and the Tigers roared back on the scene.

They entered 2006 just three years removed from the 43-119 disaster they endured in 2003. It had been 13 years since they had posted a winning record, 19 years since their last trip to the postseason and 22 years since Kirk Gibson's home run soared into the right-field upper deck in old Tiger Stadium to clinch the '84 Series.

But the Tigers surprised everyone by winning 95 games, even though they collapsed in the final week and lost the AL Central to the Twins by a game. As it turned out, that didn't matter. They disposed of the Yankees and Athletics in four games before falling short in the World Series, when their defense fell apart and the Cardinals took care of them in five.

Leyland knows the ante is raised now. Nothing was expected of his team last year. Nothing short of a repeat trip deep into October is expected in 2007.

The Tigers are 7-5 after splitting a four-game set against the Blue Jays to complete a long road trip with a 6-4 record. They have yet to lose back-to-back games.

"I've always loved to take my team on the road," Leyland said. "It's no different now. I want the whole world to see this team. That's just the way it is. I believe in them. I want everybody in baseball to see the Tigers play because I think we've got a good team. It doesn't mean it's easy for us. It's not. It's very difficult.

"But I've always been a big advocate of pumping up how important it is to show other teams' fans what the Tigers look like. I'm very proud of that."

The 62-year-old Leyland is your classic old-school baseball curmudgeon. The gravelly voice spewing the f-bombs, some in jest and some serious. The thinning silver hair. The full ashtray and ever-present cloud of cigarette smoke in his office.

And the players love him.

"He's a difference-maker," Casey said. "Just the way he is, his personality and the respect he commands. He has that great balance where he can be personal with players and have that great friendship but he keeps you at a distance too. He makes sure you know he's the manager. He knows what he's doing so much that you hang on his every word. You just feed off his energy."

Leyland would like to see his team show a little more energy on offense. Like most clubs this year, cold weather has followed the Tigers around. They're batting just .229 and have survived thanks mostly to three late-inning rallies, including Saturday's four-run ninth off Toronto closer B.J. Ryan that produced a 10-7 win.

"I'm getting to see these kind of games are routine around here," said new DH Gary Sheffield, acquired in an offseason trade from the Yankees. "That's the way this team was last year, how they were successful."

Sheffield was brought in to provide more veteran impact in the lineup. Not that Leyland thinks it needed a lot. Leyland is confident he has plenty of offense although several bats have yet to heat up.

Sheffield is batting just .122 while third baseman Brandon Inge opened the season 0 for 20 and is at .128. Casey, the ex-Buffalo Bison who hit a team-best .529 in the World Series, is hitting only .200, outfielder Craig Monroe is at .214 and ALCS hero Magglio Ordonez is at just .234. Ordonez and Sheffield each have just one home run.

Leyland says the impact of last season is felt every day in his clubhouse and pointed out how it played a role in Monroe's 12th-inning grand slam that provided the runs in Wednesday's 4-1 win at Baltimore.

"Look at how Craig Monroe grew up a lot last year," Leyland said. "I think he went from a guy who was not sure of himself in big situations to one who wanted to be up there. That's half the battle. He tiptoed in those situations early on before I got here, not because he wasn't good but because he wasn't sure of himself. Now these guys are."

The Tigers have a veteran closer in Todd Jones, who already has six saves, and some sensational setup men in Joel Zumaya and Fernando Rodney. The top three of the rotation (Jeremy Bonderman, Nate Robertson and Justin Verlander) have combined for a 1.67 ERA in eight starts thus far.

And they've stayed afloat despite playing just two home games and being forced through the season's longest road trip. Now the Tigers can finally settle in at Comerica Park, where they host the Royals tonight to begin a stretch where 12 of their next 16 games are at home.

"They're the defending champs, one of the elite teams around," said Toronto manager John Gibbons. "There's no question about it. I really think they're going to be even better. They've still got all the pitching and you put a guy like Sheffield in their lineup, even if he hasn't really started hitting yet, and it makes a huge difference."

"To get where we were and just fall short, you're really hungry to get back," Casey said. "It was an unbelievable experience even though we didn't win. It was a pretty special time. You don't stop cherishing the memories of the World Series just because you lost. There's not a negative memory of the whole thing. Especially since it motivates you to do it again."

e-mail: mharrington@buffnews.com

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