Jim Leyland likes to say “momentum is as good as the next day’s starting pitcher.”
Sunday’s starting pitchers were pretty good, both Henderson Alvarez of the Marlins, who happened to throw a no-hitter against the Tigers, and Justin Verlander, a Tigers employee who struck out 10 and allowed no runs and three hits in his six-inning shift.
We know, and have known for some time, that baseball’s love affair with starting pitching is embodied by Leyland’s Tigers.
Now in play is the other side of the competitive coin. Detroit is increasingly a dark entry in the postseason playoffs that for the Tigers begin Friday at Oakland.
The Tigers closed their regular season with a momentum-deficient week. They lost, 1-0, Sunday and lost, 2-1, Saturday. They lost, 3-2, Friday, which was their first game after managing a 1-0 division-clinching victory against the impoverished Twins.
The Tigers have not scored more than four runs in a game since they turned a 6-0 ninth-inning deficit into an 12-inning 7-6 victory over Chicago.
Bring on the playoffs. After all, playing really good teams like the A’s, rather than the Marlins, Twins, and White Sox, ought to clamp the old jumper cables to the Tigers offense, right?
Well, no. Not right.
The Tigers have troubles, most of them associated with a certain third baseman whose sore groin has helped to short-circuit the Tigers’ alleged attack. Miguel Cabrera, not coincidentally, was missing from Sunday’s lineup as Leyland attempted to give his superstar a break. Noteworthy about Sunday’s day off is the Tigers and their medical counsel didn’t believe an extended vacation was going to be helpful in the early, or even late, days of Cabrera’s injury.
Throw in Cabrera’s usual contribution, which these days is at least one or two singles, and Alvarez might not have turned the Tigers bats to ashes in their regular-calendar closeout.
Of course, one might have expected the Tigers otherwise to have scraped up at least a hit, even if Leyland was dutifully giving a few of his valiant regulars a breather: Cabrera, Austin Jackson, Torii Hunter, and Victor Martinez (no designated hitter allowed at National League ballparks), as well as a cameo to Prince Fielder, who had one at-bat.
It left Alvarez to attack the likes of Don Kelly, Ramon Santiago, Matt Tuiasosopo, Hernan Perez, and Nick Castellanos, not that Alvarez need place any asterisk on Sunday’s masterpiece. He earned it.
The Tigers, though, might be placing an asterisk on their 2013 season if Cabrera’s groin and his teammates’ bats don’t revive ahead of next weekend’s opening playoff games against the A’s. The Tigers have led the league in hitting for most of 2013. They had one of the biggest run differentials of any team in baseball.
They hit home runs. They slapped doubles and the occasional triple. They chewed up many a team, or at least scored enough to win, as their starting pitchers and less superior relievers held serve.
But in recent weeks the Tigers have morphed into an offensive phantom. Their solid pitching has been muted by batters who seem unacquainted with slugging percentage. Minus the old, pre-groin, Cabrera, the Tigers are not breaking up games with enough big innings or big hits, particularly when this team might as well be stamped with the revised title of a broadway musical: Legs Miserables.
The boys can’t run. Not many of them.
That a few of them do have sufficient speed to get an infield hit or at least score from second base on a single is what makes Sunday’s suffocation at Miami all the more mysterious.
But this is what happens when your superstar, not only your most valuable player but the league’s MVP — and probably for a second consecutive season — is taking restricted swings because of an aching abdomen that has put the Tigers’ postseason into peril.
Hitting is contagious, as they say. So are epidemics. The Tigers have developed a viral case of cold bats brought on, it seems, by a No. 3 hitter who can’t carry a team the way he uniquely did when he was swinging freely and with his old dynamism.
Momentum is as good as your next day’s starter, no question. And right now, any starting pitcher confronting the Tigers has serious momentum on his side.