October 7, 2013 at 1:00 am

John Niyo

Tigers need Prince Fielder to fix his postseason funk

Detroit — But for an eighth-inning grab of a pop-up in foul territory Saturday night, Prince Fielder never got his glove on a ball in play in a 1-0 loss at Oakland Game 1 of the American League Divisional Series.

Nine innings without a putout at first base. And then that key single off the bat of Seth Smith that went skidding past him to set up Stephen Vogt’s winning hit. It was almost as if Fielder didn’t need to be there, TBS analyst Dennis Eckersley joked in the postgame recap.

This is no joke, though: The Tigers desperately need Fielder to be present and accounted for in the middle of their lineup right now. And after the first two ALDS games in Oakland — and given his postseason track record — there’s ample reason to worry he won’t be.

In 30 career postseason games, Fielder is hitting .179 with a .268 on-base percentage and a .348 slugging percentage. Half those games have come with Detroit now, and Fielder’s playoff totals with the Tigers are alarmingly weak: a .167/.219/.217 slash line that’s even more jarring when you consider his $23 million-plus annual salary.

Fielder finished last year’s playoffs in a funk at the plate, going 1-for-14 without an RBI as the Tigers were swept by the Giants in the World Series. He’s off to a sluggish start again this October, with one single in his first eight at-bats in Oakland. His lone run production was a double-play grounder in the first inning of Game 1 that scored Torii Hunter.

And perhaps not coincidentally, the Tigers haven’t plated a run since, returning home early Sunday with a series split — that does get lost amid all the angst — and a serious drought of 17 consecutive scoreless innings.

Maybe everyone’s making too much of the Tigers’ struggles at the plate right now. After all, the A’s numbers in the first two games are virtually identical, only with (a lot) more strikeouts.

But as Jim Leyland likes to say, the Tigers are “pretty good” when they’re hitting the ball in the gap and over the fence. When they’re not — and they aren’t at the moment — they’re pretty frustrating to watch, wasting terrific pitching performances like the one Justin Verlander turned in Saturday night.

No time to panic

Leyland acknowledges something’s amiss — that’s one reason why he’ll start Jhonny Peralta in left field today in Game 3 — but he’s not about to panic. And he insists his hitters aren’t, either.

“I haven’t seen any signs of anybody on our club pressing,” he said Sunday afternoon when he met with the media at Comerica Park. “I think they’re really competing. They seem to be in good spirits. The clubhouse has good atmosphere. You really never know, because you can’t get inside the individual to know the answer to that question. But I don’t see any signs of that.”

What you see is what you get, though. And what they’re getting from Fielder suggests otherwise, doesn’t it? The players were off after the long flight home from the West Coast, and Fielder hasn’t much to say recently, but that’s essentially what I asked Leyland on Sunday.

“There are cases — and I don’t know if this is the case with Prince at all — but there are cases where people try too hard to do something and sometimes that works against them,” Leyland said. “And I’m not saying that’s the case with him.”

But it might be. And it certainly would be understandable, given that contract and the expectations that go along with it. And also given the fact Miguel Cabrera is obviously not himself at the plate, his power and his presence sapped by injury.

Fielder struggled for much of the late spring and early summer, and his power numbers were noticeably off this season. His slugging percentage was the lowest of his career. His home run ratio was his lowest since his rookie year in 2005. His walk rate was his lowest since ’06, his first full season in the majors. His strikeout rate was his highest since 2010.

Still, Fielder did heat up in August and September, hitting .322 with a .510 slugging percentage from Aug. 1 until the division-clinching win in Minnesota a couple weeks ago.

“And, I mean, he’s capable of popping out with a big moment at any time — that’s the way I kind of look at it,” Leyland said. “Like I said, I feel real good about him being up there in any situation. And I know that he’s the type of player that has a chance to break out at any time with a three-run homer or a big hit. So hopefully we’ll get that.”

There’s no time like the present.


Tigers first baseman Prince Fielder is 1-for-8 in the American League Division Series against the Athletics. / Robin Buckson / Detroit News
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