October 18, 2013 at 2:34 am

John Niyo

Prince Fielder's production isn't matching price tag

Detroit — First came the rain, then came the boos, raining down on Prince Fielder.

And if you’d been paying attention, you knew both were in the forecast Thursday night at Comerica Park.

If Game 5 was a pivot point in this American League Championship Series between the Tigers and the Boston Red Sox, it also might prove to be one between the baseball fans in Detroit and the team’s highest-paid player.

Because with the Tigers now facing elimination Saturday night at Fenway Park after a 4-3 loss in Game 5, Fielder’s running out of time to alter his team’s October fate, let alone the perceptions of him as a clutch performer in this town.

Thursday’s seventh-inning shower of frustrated voices suggests as much, and, yes, Fielder heard them.

“They’re fans,” he said, calmly addressing a pack of reporters following game. “I mean, it’s definitely not pleasant. But if that’s what they want to do, they can do it.”

It is, as he admitted Thursday night, “part of the deal.”

This wasn’t, though: Prince continues to be a postseason pauper, even though he’s obviously being paid to be a playoff popper.

He’s far from the only hitter in the Tigers lineup who’s struggling. But while his manager has come to his defense publicly this week — he did again prior to Thursday’s game — there’s little doubt he’s leaving his team in the lurch.

Maybe that explains why a guy who generally plays it cool, shrugging off any sense of urgency the way he does beanball pitches, seems to be in a hurry to do something about it at the plate.

Five of his eight at-bats the past two games have been one-pitch outs, with four weak grounders and a line drive to center field in that handful. The other three plate appearances produced a three-pitch ground out, a six-pitch strikeout and a seeing-eye single in the first inning of Game 5 that was his lone highlight Thursday. His next three at-bats he ended innings with ground outs against an overshifted infield.

“I’m just trying to be aggressive,” he said. “Probably a little too aggressive.”

But, he adds, repeating something he often says, “I’m just trying to hit it hard. I’m trying real hard to hit it hard. That’s all right, though. I like to try hard.”

Wanting it

Fielder is a liability in the field, we all know that by now. But he’s supposed to be an asset at the plate. And at the moment, he’s simply not, though he reminded us Thursday night, “I want to hit home runs just as much as everyone else wants me to.”

Fielder hasn’t driven in a run in 10 playoff games this fall. He doesn’t have an RBI in his last 17 postseason games dating to Game 1 of last year’s ALCS — a streak of 62 at-bats — which is a major league record for a cleanup hitter. He has just one home run and three RBIs in 23 postseason games — that’s three RBIs in 97 plate appearances — for the Tigers the past two seasons.

And he certainly didn’t help his own case with the fans after Game 3 in this series, when he said of his playoff slump, “If they throw a mistake, I hit it. If not, I won’t.”

Well, that won’t cut it. Not from a guy in the second year of a record-setting $214 million contract. He’s getting paid $23 million-plus annually to do more than just clean up other people’s mistakes. And I’d be surprised — and the fans should be disappointed — if that postgame comment wasn’t addressed behind closed doors, either by Jim Leyland or one of the team’s veteran leaders — Torii Hunter, Victor Martinez, somebody.

Hunter came to Fielder’s defense in the clubhouse Thursday night, chiding the fans a bit for turning on him.

“He’s working his butt off, he’s doing everything he can,” Hunter said. “I don’t think we should boo Prince. ... We should have positive energy, and not negative energy.”

Sticking by him

But he knows the deal, too. Fielder’s getting paid to empty the bases. And with seven years left on a contract that was destined to be a millstone around this franchise’s neck eventually, there’s already reason to be concerned, even if his manager says otherwise.

“People are looking for the faults, but he’s actually gotten some hits in this series, and really hasn’t swung the bat all that bad,” Leyland said prior to Game 5. “I think a lot of people, when they think of Prince, they relate to the home runs. … But we’ve never asked Prince to hit home runs. We just want Prince to produce. He’s always been a run producer, that’s what we got him for. And that’s what he’s done ever since he’s been here.”

Again, I get it: Leyland isn’t one to throw players under the bus, or on the jetway, as it were, with the Tigers flying to Boston Friday afternoon to face another elimination game Saturday.

“I know people say, ‘You keep waiting for it,’ ” Leyland said. “But I still feel good something big could happen at any time.”

Still, after some career-low — and near-low — power numbers in the regular season, this playoff drought is merely an extension of his career-long postseason struggles. Prior to Thursday’s game, Fielder owned an anemic .197/.288/.343 slash line in 37 playoff games with Milwaukee and Detroit.

So whatever the reason, he’s not hitting, he’s not walking and he’s not slugging.

He’s just shrugging. And that’s why the fans were booing. Hard to blame them, really.

Fielder didn’t Thursday night, to his credit. But all he could offer in the end was a hopeful thought about tomorrow.

“Especially in the postseason,” he said, “you never know when you’re gonna come through.”

john.niyo@detroitnews.com
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Detroit's Prince Fielder swings at a pitch in the first inning Thursday. / Elizabeth Conley / Detroit News
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