Detroit — Everyone knows this is an all-or-nothing season for the Tigers, and it’s perfectly reflected by their all-or-nothing offense. It swings from exhilarating to exasperating, and I’d suggest you get used to it, except you probably already are.
It’s a tough way to win consistently, and we shouldn’t be surprised the Tigers are looking like the team they were in 2012. That’s not a bad thing, considering they made it to the World Series, but it’s not the easiest way to navigate a long season.
The Tigers were back to thumping Thursday, pounding 13 hits to beat the Rays, 5-2. Detroit is 32-26 and in first place in a division it could win swinging blindfolded. (Guys, that’s a joke, not a suggestion).
It helps to have superb starting pitching, and Max Scherzer keeps making the spectacular look mundane. He moved to 8-0 one day after Doug Fister was even better, but got stuck with a loss. The Tigers have wasted a few sterling pitching performances, but this team was built for the long, slugging haul.
That doesn’t excuse the offensive inconsistencies, but it explains them. Can they change? Not really, not with such little speed, although the pending return of leadoff catalyst Austin Jackson could help manufacture runs.
Martinez a key
The relevant question is, can the Tigers win this way? If they pitch like this, of course they can. The rotation has delivered quality starts in 12 of the past 13 games, yet the Tigers are 6-7. For all their hitting prowess, they have the 12th-best record in baseball.
The Tigers lead the majors in average and on-base percentage and are third in runs. One way they can push more toward “all” than “nothing” is if Victor Martinez recaptures past form. He flashed it in this one, with a two-run homer and RBI single, vital in the middle of the lineup.
Opposing managers wake up every day dreaming of intentionally walking Miguel Cabrera, and Prince Fielder has done a decent job making them pay. The next guy also must make them pay with clutch hits. After missing last season with a knee injury, Martinez needed time to find his stroke, and if he’s finding it, look out.
“It’s hard not to get frustrated,” said Martinez, hitting .231. “I don’t have anything on my mind about how I lost a year. I’ve never had any excuses in my career.”
There was a hint of frustration in Martinez’s voice, a function of the team’s expectations. The Tigers have, arguably, the best starting rotation. They have the best 3-4 punch in Cabrera and Fielder. They have a shaky bullpen back-ended by the riddle that is Jose Valverde, who pitched a perfect ninth Thursday.
While we can’t take our eyes off the relievers, that’s really not the primary puzzle. The Tigers have softball-lineup qualities, and I mean that in a respectful way. When they’re slugging, they’re wildly entertaining. When they’re not, they move base to base, if they move at all.
I recognize the silliness of the argument, that a team that scores prolifically has to score even more. But it does. The Tigers have tallied 10-plus runs eight times, which is positively frightful. They’ve also been shut out a league-high six times, almost as frightful.
That’s why the rotation has tremendous ERAs — Anibal Sanchez (2.65), Scherzer (3.24), Fister (3.27), Justin Verlander (3.70) — yet outside of Scherzer’s 8-0, the rest of the foursome is 18-12. Somehow, the Tigers are the lowest-scoring high-scoring team around. If they’re not hitting the ball over the fence or up the gaps, they can get four singles in an inning without scoring (hey, it happened against the Pirates).
Jim Leyland said the production fluctuations were “mind-boggling,” but there’s no sense fretting about it.
“You have to understand — and I’m not complaining at all — there’s a few guys in our lineup who don’t run too good, so we sometimes don’t get that extra run,” Leyland said. “I like our offense very much, but it’s a different type of offense. We don’t have the capability to be real, real creative.”
People usually pounce on two solutions — more bunts and steals — but it’s not that simple. First of all, bunting generally is a waste of an out, and by nature of their power composition, the Tigers aren’t good bunters.
As for speed, the Tigers are 28th in the majors in stolen bases, but you know who’s 30th, 29th and 27th? Why, it’s the Reds, Cardinals and Braves — the three best teams in the National League.
The Tigers won’t run around the bases, but they still could run away with the division. For all the local angst, the gambling site Bovada.com recently posted updated World Series odds, and the Tigers remain favorites to win it.
That’s partly a function of the weak AL Central. The once-hot Indians come to town this weekend, and if the Tigers do what they do, they’ll score in sporadic bunches and hope their starters shut the other guys down. In one sense, it’s not so hard to figure out why the Tigers are so hard to figure out.