By Larry Lage
The Associated Press
DETROIT - When baseball teams made a trip to Detroit last season, they usually could count on a couple of wins.
A laughingstock in 2003 while losing an AL-record 119 games, the Tigers might not win a division title, but at least they're respectable, just five games under .500 and giving opponents fits.
"It's a completely different atmosphere in this place," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said during a series at Comerica Park. "You used to come in here expecting to win, and now every game is a fight. That's not a team anyone wants to play these days."
Ivan Rodriguez, Carlos Guillen, Ugueth Urbina and Jason Johnson are just some of the newcomers having strong seasons. Young holdovers Omar Infante, Brandon Inge, Mike Maroth and Nate Robertson have gone from prospects to producers.
When the deadline passed Saturday for trades without waivers, Detroit decided it wasn't interested in unloading players suddenly attractive to playoff-hopeful teams.
"Clubs were calling about some of our players, but we liked those players and we weren't looking for just prospects," Tigers president Dave Dombrowski said. "We've made tremendous strides and we feel like we're in a position to keep building toward our goal of a championship."
The Tigers (50-55) are tired about talking about last year, but that doesn't stop the interesting comparisons.
They surpassed the 2003 victory total of 43 in their 91st game, easily setting a record for fewest games needed to overtake a win total from the previous year.
The Tigers finished last year 47 games behind AL Central champion Minnesota and lost 20 more games than the next-worst team in the majors (Tampa Bay). Now, they're 9 1/2 games behind the division-leading Twins and have more wins than nine teams.
"We've come a long way," manager Alan Trammell said.
Last year, the Tigers scored the fewest runs (3.6 per game) in the AL; had the worst fielding percentage (.978) in the league; trailed every team in baseball in batting average (.240) and were among the worst in the majors in ERA (5.30).
This season, they're among the best in baseball in runs (5.3 per game) and batting average (.278). But they've been wildly inconsistent because they rank among baseball's worst in ERA (4.84), fielding percentage (.977) and errors (92).
Detroit's shortcomings, especially with its middle relievers and setup men, has led to an 8-17 record in one-run games and a 4-8 mark in extra innings.
Though the Tigers are not making Minnesota worry about staying atop the division, they do have a shot at ending the season with a .500 record for the first time since 1993.
Rodriguez is a big reason it's even a topic of conversation. He is batting .349, tied with Barry Bonds for the major-league lead.
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