October 5, 2013 at 1:00 am

Lynn Henning

Tigers' hitting malaise brings season to a crisis point

Oakland, Calif. — One guy, you can understand not hitting, all because he has been swinging for the past month or two with half a body.

But those other guys.

Just what hex was cast upon Austin Jackson these past two weeks, culminating — he hopes — in Saturday night’s four-strikeout nightmare that helped send the Tigers to a 1-0 loss against the Oakland A’s in their division playoff epic at O.co Coliseum?

Whatever happened to Prince Fielder? He drove in 106 runs during the regular season, or at least during those regular-season games when the clean-up batter was hitting more in the fashion of a highly paid ($24 million this year, $168 million in paychecks due down the road) power slugger.

The list is a long one: Torii Hunter. Alex Avila. Omar Infante. Andy Dirks. Everyone has picked a lousy time to cease hitting the ball. Even the great Victor Martinez, who seemed for the past two months to get a hit at least every other at-bat, was 0-for-4 Saturday.

The Tigers have not scored in 17 innings. They have not hit a home run in six games. They have 17 runs in their past nine games.

And unless they change habits Monday and Tuesday at Comerica Park, or in a potential Game 5 should the teams return to Oakland this week, the Tigers will have five months to re-tool an offense that should never have gotten this bad this quickly. Not even when Cabrera is hampered, almost pitifully, as he labors with pitches he once drove 420 feet.

Deep slumber

Nothing worked Saturday against the A’s and their surprise story, rookie Sonny Gray, who looked like most pitchers have looked against the Tigers these past two weeks: like a modern-day version of Bob Feller.

Jim Leyland, the Tigers manager who knows his team is in trouble, tried to do what he always does after his team has been slammed by an opposing pitcher: He credited the pitcher. And he should have, given that Gray, a 23-year-old strikesmeister, was sensational.

Leyland also had to be careful when the A’s had every bit as much trouble with Justin Verlander, the Tigers icon who pitched like one during his seven innings of shutout baseball that matched Gray frame for frame, and then some, as Verlander struck out 11 and allowed four hits, all singles.

“I mean, we’re not swinging the bats maybe the way we’re capable,” Leyland said, being careful not to clobber his club, or insult the A’s, “but you can’t take anything away from that performance tonight.

“We’ll go home and hopefully get the bats going a little bit.”

That could be difficult.

Cabrera appears to be all but finished for 2013, which has been apparent for some time now. You could see, in one at-bat, and on one particular pitch, what he has lost since the groin began grinding down his swing and eviscerating his power.

It came in the sixth, on a gut-high fastball away. It was the brand of pitch Cabrera earlier in the summer or last spring would have crushed into the right-field boondocks. This one ended as a routine fly that Josh Reddick easily caught in right.

Compromised

Manager Bob Melvin and the A’s know what’s going on. They knew it as they scouted Cabrera and the Tigers these past weeks.

“I’m not going to break down his swing,” Melvin said afterward, when asked what he saw of a batting champion and former Triple Crown slasher who now is a more benign basher in the Tigers lineup, with one home run the past six weeks. “The guy is dangerous, regardless, and no matter if he has his legs under him or not, he hits the ball hard up the middle, as he has both games.

“You’re always thinking about where he is in the lineup,” Melvin said, “and potentially a walk waiting to happen.”

That’s true enough, but it’s more of a statement about the old, pre-groin Cabrera. What is now stepping to the plate is simply not the hitter who, in earlier months, would have had something dramatic to say about Saturday night’s scoreboard as the zeroes mounted, until Oakland pushed across a series-tying run in the ninth.

Leyland understood coming into this series that he had troubles even Detroit’s great starting pitching might not overcome. Max Scherzer helped the Tigers escape with a 3-2 victory Friday, thanks to an almost-freak three-run outburst in the first inning.

But there was nothing after Friday’s first inning for the Tigers. And nothing at all Saturday, even as Leyland tried to steal a run in the fifth. The dugout decisions were part of a strategy Leyland had no choice but to ponder after the Tigers and their offense had bogged down so seriously these past two weeks.

The fifth began with a walk to Omar Infante. He was running on a pitch Don Kelly bounced to second, which kept the Tigers out of a double play and put Infante at second with one out.

Jose Iglesias next tapped a slow bounding ball past the pitcher’s mound that was good for an infield single that put runners at the corners, still with one out.

That brought up Jackson, who can be one streaky leadoff hitter, but who tends to be one of the lineup’s better bets. He strikes out (129 times in 614 plate appearances in 2013) but he loomed as a guy perfectly capable of knocking home Infante. He figured to at least keep the inning going as Gray began with three consecutive pitches that missed the strike zone.

Jackson took Gray to 3-and-2. Leyland decided to send the speedy Iglesias, which had two benefits: On a ground ball, it would keep Iglesias safe from an inning-killing double play as it probably scored Infante. And in the event of a strikeout, Iglesias had a good shot at moving into scoring position with a stolen base.

Gray, as it turned out, helped mightily. One of Melvin’s speedier pitchers when it comes to delivering the ball to home plate this time was a tick slow: 1.4 seconds.

Iglesias should have had the base stolen easily. But he got a bad jump, and then, when Jackson chased a bad pitch for strike three, A’s catcher Steven Vogt — the guy with Saturday night’s winning single — fired a bullet to second that nailed Iglesias.

Double play. No runs. Not even an aggressive call, with a good-percentage chance of working one way or another, could move a star-crossed Tigers team into the runs column Saturday.

Which leaves everyone to wonder what might change Monday, or Tuesday, at Comerica Park? Or, during that possible Game 5 finale at O.co Coliseum, the sight of Saturday night’s testament to a Tigers offense that has all but disintegrated.

Lynn.henning@detroitnews.com
Twitter.com/Lynn_Henning

Miguel Cabrera managed one single and one strikeout in four at-bats Saturday. / Robin Buckson / Detroit News
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