Jim Leyland's job as the daily public evaluator for the Tigers is to walk a line slightly safer than a circus high wire. He must be upbeat about his team, but low-key in issuing grades. It is why he was spare with the tributes when it was mentioned after a weekend sweep of the Houston Astros that the first-place Tigers were playing rather well. "We're doing OK," Leyland said of a team that has won nine of 10 heading into a dangerous, and perhaps revealing, two-game series against the talented Washington Nationals that begins tonight at Nationals Park. In fact, the Tigers are looking like the team most forecasters expect to win the American League Central ahead of a potentially long October playoff march. They are fourth in baseball and second in the American League (Rangers are first) in pitching. They are second in the big leagues (Rockies are first) and tops in the American League in hitting. And, somewhat surprisingly, they are second in the majors in fielding (Rockies are first), which says more about the garden-variety plays the Tigers are making than it focuses on defensive range, where Detroit is a more revealing 25th. Leyland was particularly careful about ordering champagne after the Tigers had mopped up on an Astros team that has baseball's worst record. He had to soft-pedal the sudden bullpen stability, which can be the most temperamental facet of any big league team. But what Leyland knows, at least internally, is his troops have shaken off their scattered, even ditzy, April ways. May is here and so is warmer weather. It is perhaps no coincidence that the lineup is hitting with more top-to-bottom punch and pitchers who wondered in April if they were gripping snowballs or baseballs have found their rhythm.