Power surge

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DETROIT (AP) – Chris Shelton is hotter than his hair color.

Plucked off baseball’s scrap heap a couple of years ago, Detroit’s redheaded first baseman is now more than a curiosity or cute, opening-week story.

Instead, Shelton is proving he has staying power with nine home runs through 13 games, putting him in an elite group in baseball history.

Albert Pujols of the St. Louis Cardinals hit the same impressive mark Monday night. He and Shelton lead the majors, and are just the fourth and fifth players to homer at least nine times in their team’s first 13 games. Mike Schmidt hit 11 home runs during the first 13 games of 1976; Larry Walker (1997) and Luis Gonzalez (2001) also had nine homers in their first 13 games, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

“I’m not going to lie. I’ve paid attention to that a little bit,” Shelton said. “When you turn on the TV, that’s all you see. It feels unreal to put me with all those names.

“This past week has been a little tougher to enjoy the success I’m having because we’re not winning.”

The Tigers won their first five games, the last AL team to lose a game, then dropped six of their next eight.

Heading into Tuesday night’s game at Oakland, Shelton was among baseball’s leaders with a .471 batting average, 17 RBIs, 24 hits, including five doubles and three triples – an impressive total for the 6-foot, 215-pounder.

“He’s a real good young hitter who has the potential to be an outstanding old hitter,” Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. “He’s the real deal.”

Shelton has been batting sixth in Detroit’s lineup, and Leyland said he would be a “blooming idiot” to move him. Leyland also said he isn’t thinking about resting him soon.

Shelton turns 26 in June, giving Detroit hope it might finally have a player to count on in the years to come.

The Tigers have made countless moves that haven’t worked out while going 12 straight seasons without a winning record. But they found a gem off the scrap heap on Dec. 15, 2003, when the Pittsburgh Pirates left Shelton unprotected at the winter meetings in the Rule 5 draft.

“Our scouts thought he could hit at a big league level because he swung a good bat and had a good command of the strike zone,” Tigers president and general manager Dave Dombrowski said Monday night. “We weren’t sure where he was going to play defensively, but we liked his makeup as a hard worker and we put him at first base on the first day that we had.

“He’s really worked hard defensively, and he’s become very solid.”

Shelton, who had six errors last year, has not committed an error in his first 13 games this season.

The Pirates said they didn’t have Shelton on their 40-man roster when Detroit selected him – for $50,000 – because they were hoping to pick up solid, veteran free agents as they had in the past.

“I wasn’t surprised. I was more disappointed that they only protected 37 guys on their roster,” said Shelton, picked by Pittsburgh in the 33rd round in the June 2001 draft. “All of my success is predicated on everybody telling me I can’t do this or that. It’s given me a chip on my shoulder to prove people wrong.”

Pittsburgh general manager Dave Littlefield, leading a franchise that has struggled for more than a decade, has become testy when questioned about his decision to leave Shelton unprotected.

“As much as you hate to have players selected, it made the most sense for us,” Littlefield said.

To keep Shelton from going back to Pittsburgh, the Tigers had to keep him on the major league roster in 2004.

Shelton hit just .196 in 27 games two years ago, then showed glimpses of his potential last year after starting the season at Triple-A Toledo. He was called up May 31 and hit .368 from June 14-July 1 and had a 15-game hitting streak later in July before finishing with a .299 average, 18 homers and 59 RBIs.

Shelton is a career .332 hitter in the minors with 48 home runs in 1,186 at-bats.

Even if Shelton can’t come close to keeping up his staggering pace, he will be one of the best bargains in professional sports. The Tigers have an $82.3 million payroll, ranking 14th in baseball, and will pay him $365,000.

“We’re all very excited for Big Red,” Detroit outfielder Craig Monroe said. “We all just hope he can stay focused and keep it up.”

Shelton, regularly surrounded by a slew of reporters, TV cameras and radio station microphones, tries to downplay his start and point out what he’s not doing well.

“I’m striking out way too much,” said Shelton, who fanned out 16 times in his first 51 at-bats. “I’m either hitting the ball out of the park, getting an extra-base hit – or I’m striking out.”

Shelton became the first major leaguer to hit nine home runs this season when he pulled Paul Byrd’s 0-2 pitch over the left-field fence in a 10-2 loss Monday to the Cleveland Indians.

“He has tremendous bat speed,” Byrd said. “He’s a legitimate hitter. I don’t know if he’ll end the season leading the league in home runs, but he’s no flash in the pan.”

In Tigers history, which dates to 1901, only Cecil Fielder – with 10 in 1996 – and Shelton have hit at least nine homers in the entire month of April.

“Maybe when the season is over, I can realize what I did to start the season and that I did something special,” Shelton said. “Right now, it’s about getting some wins.”

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