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Torrid Tigers are touching all the bases Strange cast evolves into formidable force

THE BALTIMORE SUN

DETROIT -- If the Orioles have any idea of making a quick recovery against the Detroit Tigers this weekend, they better be well-armed for the task. They might score a few runs against a still suspect pitching staff, but they don't have a chance if it turns into batting practice.

What started out to be a recycling center for strikeout artists who also hit home runs has evolved into baseball's most formidable offensive force. But not even manager Sparky Anderson, who can find a lining to match every strand of his silvery hair, could foresee this group developing into such a force.

Consider the makeup of this bunch that is the biggest story of the young baseball season. The Tigers have:

* A guy (Cecil Fielder) who beefed up on sushi during a year in Japan because he couldn't get a job in the big leagues.

* One (Rob Deer) who struck out in the bratwurst capital of the world and was cut adrift by the Milwaukee Brewers.

* Another (Mickey Tettleton) who some said couldn't hit his way out of a bird's nest and was kicked out of the coop by the Orioles.

* A utility man (Tony Phillips) who left a World Series champion for more money and playing time.

* A top starter (David Wells) released by the defending champion Toronto Blue Jays, who desperately need pitching.

* A reject (Chad Kreuter) who found out there wasn't enough room for him in Texas, but is close to leading the league in hitting.

* And an original (Kirk Gibson) who made stops in Los Angeles, Kansas City and Pittsburgh before realizing there's no place like home.

Toss in a handful of key organizational products (Lou Whitaker, Alan Trammell, Mike Henneman, Travis Fryman, Scott Livingstone), plus a variety of mostly nondescript free agents and a well-seasoned manager, and you get the baseball version of a blue-ribbon pot pie.

"It's a team that really hasn't changed much from last year," said Toronto manager Cito Gaston, who had a firsthand look earlier in the week. "The only new guy [offensively] is Gibson.

"You know they can hit. If they get a couple of guys on base, they can hurt you in a hurry."

An understatement, for sure, as the Blue Jays found out. The Tigers are on a record-threatening pace to score more than 1,100 runs and hit more than 200 home runs, astronomical numbers even in an expansion year.

Tettleton, whose .223 average in 1990 convinced the Orioles it was time to give Chris Hoiles a chance, already has started at four positions (catcher, left field, right field and first base). He's hitting just .200, but has seven homers and 28 RBI in 31 games.

"I'm just a bigger, slower version of Tony Phillips [Anderson's resident jack-of-all-trades]," said Tettleton. "My goal is to play shortstop this year." He probably doesn't have to worry about that, though Anderson has had no qualms about sacrificing defense for offense.

In the first game of the series against the Blue Jays this week, on the artificial turf of SkyDome, he kept leadoff man Phillips on the bench and put Trammell in left field and Tettleton in right. Center fielder Milt Cuyler led off for the first time in two years -- and got four hits. The next night, Tettleton and Fryman got the night off -- and the Tigers hit five home runs and scored 13 runs.

"When your team is going good, everybody plays better, and that's when you give them some rest," said Anderson, who is rapidly becoming the modern version of Casey Stengel. "You don't have a very good team if you have to have all your guys every night. It's when you're going bad that you've got to have all your firepower in there."

Anderson really doesn't have to worry about that, because baseball rules don't allow him enough latitude to get all of his firepower in the lineup at the same time. Tettleton boosted his average to .200 going 1-for-4 last night, but he's on a pace to hit 35 homers and drive in 140 runs, and Deer, also on a 35-homer pace, is hitting .211 -- but the Tigers' team batting average is a monstrous .295.

Kreuter, who bats ninth, is five plate appearances away from leading the league with his .427 average, Gibson is the official leader at .385, Phillips is hitting .352 and Fryman .328. The one hitter heretofore missing from the mix is the biggest -- and the only player Anderson has written into the lineup every game.

After the first week of the season, Fielder went 20 games without a home run, his longest stretch since joining the Tigers in 1990. The robust first baseman hit only one homer in a 28-game stretch before hammering two against the Blue Jays Wednesday night, but he hasn't lost any distance.

Fielder's previous three homers heading into last night's game have been calculated at 459, 422 and 416 feet -- and indications are there's plenty more where they came from. "I was going to give him a day off [in Toronto], but when he gets on a roll, he can get those things [home runs] in bunches," said Anderson.

"I've been feeling real good the last week or so," Fielder said. "I'm starting to get good swings. Sooner or later, I'm going to get the pitches I've been fouling off or missing."

The Blue Jays found out what a frightening sight the Tigers can be when the leader is on the loose. This is a team pitchers would sacrifice a year on the pension plan to join, and the guy currently enjoying it the most is Wells (4-1), who faces the Orioles tomorrow night.

The rotund left-hander was always out of step with the Blue Jays, who axed his $2 million salary the day they acquired outfielder Darrin Jackson (same salary) from the San Diego Padres. Two days later, Dave Stewart broke down and Toronto ultimately lost two more starters (Al Leiter and Jack Morris) to the disabled list.

"They [the Blue Jays] were more worried about my weight than the way I pitched," said Wells. "They made their decision -- and it was the wrong one."

Another Toronto reject, left-handed reliever Bob MacDonald, is 3-1 after dropping last night's 6-5 decision, giving the ex-Blue Jays a 7-2 record. "It's almost as if Toronto decided to give the rest of us a chance, the way they went about rebuilding," said Phillips. The reference was to the dismantling of the pitching staff by the World Series champions (Jimmy Key is with the Yankees and Tom Henke is in Texas).

One pitcher who hasn't taken advantage of the run production is Mike Moore, who is still expected to be the staff ace but has wasted a chance to have a career start. Since losing on Opening Day, Moore has gone eight starts without a defeat, but only two of the wins are registered in his name.

The Tigers have averaged 9.1 runs in games started by Moore (would Fernando Valenzuela love to pitch for this team or what?). Had the right-hander been able to hold the opposition to four runs in each of his starts, he would be 8-0 with a no-decision. Instead he has the worst 2-1 record in the majors.

"It's the most runs I've ever had in my life," said Moore, who had two five-run leads and couldn't last three innings two nights ago. "But it's also the worst I've pitched in my life."

Moore undoubtedly regrets the victories he's squandered, but the tidal wave of runs has prevented any serious damage. And the Tigers are enjoying the run while it lasts. A year ago, they lost their first six games of the season and never looked ahead, compiling eight losing streaks of four games or more.

After 33 games this year, they have yet to lose more than two in a row. "You've got to ride it while you can ride it," said Gibson, the 35-year-old slugging philosopher.

And right now, the mob from Motown is riding to a beat all its own.

MURDERERS' ROW?

Through Wednesday, the Tigers have 226 runs and 41 home runs. If they continue on that pace, here's how they would stack up against a few of the most productive teams in American League history:

Team.. .. .. .. ..G.. .. ..Runs.. .. .. ..HR

1927 Yankees.. ..154.. .. ..975.. .. .. .158

1931 Yankees.. ..153.. .. .1067*.. .. ...155

1961 Yankees.. ..162.. .. ..827.. .. ...240*

1993 Tigers.. ...162.. .. .1144.. .. .. .208

* - AL record

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