Tigers' baserunner Prince Fielder is called out at third in the sixth inning during Game 6 of the American League baseball championship series on Saturday. (Elise Amendola / Associated Press)
Detroit — With all that talent, all that starting pitching and all those expectations, a season doesn’t end quietly. There is blame, and there are repercussions.
The Tigers are done, just short of their World Series goal again. They’re one of the top four or five teams in baseball, but not quite as good as the Red Sox. They still have great players and great potential but they’re top-heavy, and they collapsed under the weight.
Prince Fielder is the symbol of this, fair or not. He capped a miserable postseason with a belly-flop, a fateful dive back toward third base in a base-running blunder that cost the Tigers mightily in their 5-2 loss in Game 6.
Fans are angry with Fielder for his perceived indifference and power-less playoffs. With Miguel Cabrera injured, the Tigers needed Fielder more than ever, and he was absent. It’s fair criticism, whether he likes it or not. His salary is large and his production was puny, and he hurts himself further with an odd, detached persona that makes it seem like he doesn’t care. (He does.) He hit .182 this postseason with a staggering 0 home runs and 0 RBIs.
So, before Dave Dombrowski and Jim Leyland figure out the plan going forward, they have to objectively answer this: Would they have won with a healthy Cabrera and a better Fielder? And this: Can Fielder repair his reputation here?
Unfortunately, it’s never as simple as one player’s failures. I’m not ready to declare Fielder the Slugger Formerly Known as Prince, but the Tigers probably won’t ever get their money’s worth, and likely won’t get what they want from him emotionally. Frustration can’t trump reality and Fielder’s contract (seven years, $168 million remaining) likely makes him untradeable, although I think the Tigers could explore the market, if it exists.
The fact is, this team had season-long issues that became series-crushing problems. Dombrowski never adequately fixed the bullpen, which failed spectacularly and wasted brilliant starting pitching. People gripe about Leyland’s strategy but he’s a good manager for this team, and should be back. The Tigers have no speed in a station-to-station offense that looks great when the sluggers are slugging, and dead when they’re not.
Late Saturday night, more than an hour after Shane Victorino’s grand slam had lifted the Red Sox, the Tigers’ clubhouse was slowly emptying out. Fielder sat in a corner, the last player still in uniform, occasionally accepting hugs from teammates.
It was a rough season for Fielder, not fully reflected in his numbers — .279 average, 25 home runs, 106 RBIs. He was in the midst of a divorce. He extended his consecutive-games-played streak to 505, but at what energy cost? For the final three months, his bash buddy, Cabrera, was a superstar shell because of injuries, and the focus and pressure shifted to Fielder. He did not wear it well.
The Tigers have fiery players who say and do emphatic things. Victor Martinez was perfectly clutch, and Torii Hunter is a symbol of excitability. The pitching tandem of Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander is all flair and dominance.
Fielder is different, with an indifferent demeanor, a personality trait he uses to deflect attention. Being laidback might help him deal with pressure, but it sure doesn’t help him with public perception.
Asked after the final defeat if it would linger with him, he shrugged.
“No,” he said. “It’s over. You gotta be a man about it. I got kids, and if I’m sitting around pouting, how am I gonna tell them to keep their chins up? It’s a team. We’re here to win — if I didn’t get any hits and we’d have won, everything would’ve been all right.”
No one -- no one -- wants to hear that after a potential World Series team is eliminated. If Fielder was clubbing home runs, he could say whatever he wants. Actually, he can say whatever he wants anyhow, but now he has a battle to reconnect with Detroit fans.
I don’t think Fielder’s words or actions outright bothered teammates, but there has to be simmering frustration. Cabrera was a determined pro and refused to pin anything on his injuries, despite the obvious impact. Everyone understands hitters can struggle against good pitching, and to the Tigers’ credit, there was no finger-pointing or excuse-making.
“I felt we were one or two plays from going to the World Series, it just didn’t happen,” said Verlander, who was poised for a Game 7 that never came. “You can’t just look at one guy and say, oh it’s his fault. That’s not right. Those guys got us here, you put ‘em in the lineup and see what happens. If we go to the World Series, who knows who could be the hero -- could be Austin (Jackson), could be Prince, could be Miggy.”
Jackson did bounce back, and when Cabrera heals, he’ll be powerful again. With such deep starting pitching, not a lot will change on this roster, but some things must. Fielder is only 29 and one season doesn’t necessarily indicate a downward arc from stardom, although his slugging percentage of .457 was a career low. I assume he’ll be doubly motivated; I just don’t expect him to talk about it in an enlightening way.
Early in the series, Fielder dismissed his struggles with this annoying rejoinder: “If (pitchers) throw a mistake, I hit it. If not, I won’t.”
Later, asked about fans booing his effort, Fielder said, “If they can do it, they would play.”
He didn’t speak with bitterness, just an unsettling detachment. None of the statements ultimately matter, unless you don’t hit. No, Fielder is not the only reason the Tigers lost. But as this team takes a tough, critical look at itself, Fielder had better do the same.