Detroit spent $214 million on first baseman Prince Fielder during the offseason to solidify one of baseball's premier lineups. Many expected that signing to push the Tigers, who fell to Texas in the ALCS last season, over the top.
Instead, Jim Leyland's bunch has suffered from all-around inconsistency, which has plagued a number of Detroit's hitters, starters and relievers. As a result, the Tigers have spent most of the season looking up at the White Sox and Indians in the AL Central standings.
"I think we've had a lot of changes," Leyland said. "We've had a lot of ups and downs. ... That's all part of it, but actually we're holding up halfway decent. But we still got to get over that hump."
Meanwhile, the Pirates have set out to prove that their claim on first place in July last season was no fluke. Pittsburgh briefly tied Cincinnati for the best record in the NL Central last week before cooling off against the Orioles. Still, the Pirates remain within reach of the division lead, ahead of the usual heavyweights in St. Louis and Milwaukee.
How the Pirates have stayed afloat in the division race is the surprising aspect. The Bucs entered Thursday's action ranked second-to-last in baseball in scoring, with 3.43 runs per game, and in batting average, at .229 as a team.
The club's pitching, especially A.J. Burnett, who will toe the rubber on Friday, has played a large part in Pittsburgh's success. The veteran right-hander has recorded a victory in each of his last six trips to the hill, compiling a 2.17 ERA over that span.
"It's fun to take the mound for a bunch of guys like this," Burnett said. "They come out and play hard every day."
The Tigers will counter with right-hander Doug Fister (1-3, 2.68), who tossed six scoreless innings against the Rockies on Saturday in his first outing since returning from a stint on the disabled list.
"The way we're playing, we're fighting for everything we get," Tigers reliever Phil Coke said. "But instead of coming up short, it's kind of swinging in our favor now."
Tigers: Avila returns to action behind the plate
Detroit activated catcher Alex Avila from the 15-day disabled list on Thursday. Avila, who missed more than two weeks with a right hamstring strain, went 1-for-4 and caught a runner stealing second base in his first game back. An All-Star in 2011, Avila played in three contests for Triple-A Toledo while rehabbing his injury.
To clear roster space for Avila, the club optioned Bryan Holaday to Toledo. The 24-year-old played in four games in his first big league stint, going 3-for-10 with a double.
"I like him a lot," Leyland said. "He can catch and throw here right now. He blocks the ball well, has got good energy, sees the ball well, good thrower. I like that. If he doesn't hit, he's probably a backup. If he hits, he's probably a regular somewhere."
Third baseman Nick Castellanos and reliever Bruce Rondon, both playing for Double-A Erie, will represent the Tigers in the annual All-Star Futures Game.
Castellanos, the Tigers' top pick in the 2010 First-Year Player Draft, hit .405 in 55 games for Class A Lakeland before earning a promotion to Erie. He's the No. 42 prospect in MLB.com's Top 100.
Rondon racked up 15 saves for Lakeland before joining the SeaWolves, for whom he recorded his first save on Wednesday.
Pirates: Pair of pitchers to represent Pittsburgh
Pitchers Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon were selected to play for the U.S. Team in the All-Star Futures Game.
Cole, the No. 1 overall selection in the 2011 First-Year Player Draft, made his Double-A debut on Wednesday in Altoona. He went 5-1 with a 2.55 ERA in 13 starts at advanced Class A Bradenton.
Taillon, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2010 Draft, is 4-6 with a 4.10 ERA for Bradenton. Taillon is the No. 5 prospect in MLB.com's Top 100, while Cole checks in at No. 8.
"We'd like them to challenge themselves," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said, "to get competitive with it, to engage and embrace the competition level they're at, to get to a place where they're repeating deliveries or repeating swings or repeating performances, where they start standing out."
After finishing May with a .190 batting average, Casey McGehee is batting .340 in the month of June, and Hurdle is pleased with McGehee's turnaround.
"I think he's found a comfort zone in the box," Hurdle said. "He's worked his way out of it. For him to be able to hit in the middle of lineup obviously adds strength to our lineup. He's not a split guy. He's hit right-handers. He's hit some left-handers. He's given us good at-bats. The month of June's been very good to him.
"From a competitive standpoint, it helps. That's why we went out to acquire him. We felt that this bat would play in the middle of our lineup, and he could help be a run producer."
Fielder has slugged 28 home runs against the Pirates in his career, his most against any team.