August 10, 2013 at 9:40 pm

John Niyo

Think the Tigers are dangerous now? Well just wait until Prince Fielder starts hitting

Just wait. Be patient.

That’s the message Lloyd McClendon has been preaching for weeks now — to Prince Fielder, and to anyone asking about Fielder’s summer-long power outage in the middle of the Tigers’ lineup.

And that was, quite understandably, the question earlier this week in Cleveland. After all, Fielder had gone the entire month of July without a double. He’d homered just five times in 54 games — exactly one-third of the season. In a three-month span, dating to early June, he’d batted .244 with a meager .385 slugging percentage and a .707 OPS.

Those aren’t the kind of numbers you expect from your cleanup hitter. Those aren’t the kind of numbers you expect from your No. 7 hitter, frankly.

And for a lineup in need of a lift at the time, with Austin Jackson scuffling in the leadoff spot (he’s not anymore) and Miguel Cabrera playing hurt (not that it seems to matter) and Jhonny Peralta playing solitaire somewhere, well, it’s hard to ignore Fielder when he’s flailing.

Especially when you’re handing him nearly $24 million a season to handle a good share of the heavy lifting for your team. The Tigers certainly aren’t paying Fielder for his defense or baserunning.

But just wait. That was the message from McClendon, the Tigers’ hitting coach.

“Because that’s the thing with true sluggers,” he said. “They’ll go through some stretches, but when they get hot they can put up some ungodly numbers real quick. I suspect that’s what’s gonna happen with him. I believe he’ll get hot and we’ll have a stretch of 10 or 15 games where he’ll just be unconscious.”

He said that Tuesday in Cleveland, before another hitless night for Fielder. As if on cue, Fielder appeared to be heating up, going 5-for-15 the next three games with a pair of walks and four extra-base hits — as many as he had in 26 games in July. His two-run double in the 14th inning won Wednesday’s game against the Indians, and another sparked Thursday’s rout. Fielder added a couple more hits Saturday in the Tigers’ 9-3 drubbing of the Yankees.

“It’s like when I had Magglio Ordonez,” McClendon said. “I’d look back and say, ‘Let me see what he was doing when he was struggling.’ But the guy never struggled. It’s just something that happens, and you work your way through it.

“Prince is a tough guy, he’s strong mentally. He works extremely hard, he looks at video. On all fronts, he’s doing everything he can to get out of this. And I believe this: When it’s all said and done, his numbers are gonna be right where they’re supposed to be.”

Obviously, they’re not right now, those 80 RBIs notwithstanding. (Fielder leads the league in base runners aboard, 391, when hitting, by the way.) And this isn’t a small sample size we’re talking about, either.

Fielder has just one homer in his last 25 games, and now five in his last 59 after Saturday’s game in the Bronx. By comparison, Don Kelly has five in his last 52 — in half as many plate appearances. Fielder’s slugging percentage, thanks largely to a torrid April, is the lowest of his career. His on-base percentage in June was .325. It was .310 in July. The last four seasons it has been over .400.

And it’s that last number, perhaps, that speaks to his silent frustration. In searching for a solution, he appeared to expand his strike zone this summer, chasing too many pitches on too many nights.

“That’s one thing,” McClendon said of Fielder, who’s hitting 50 points below his career average against right-handed pitching this season. “We had that issue some last year. The only thing we talked about is making sure he continues to take his walks. Don’t get too overly aggressive and get outside the zone. He did that for a stretch.”

And that’s the point. If he can start hitting like Prince Fielder again down the stretch — with patience and, presumably, more power — just wait and see how dangerous this Tigers lineup can be.

Tigers slugger Prince Fielder reacts after hitting a single in the sixth inning of Saturday's victory. / Frank Franklin II/Associated Press
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