April 5, 2014 at 1:00 am

Lynn Henning

Tigers' aggressive attitude is evident on basepaths

Detroit — If this keeps up, Brad Ausmus will be signing an extension longer than Miguel Cabrera’s.

Ausmus, a rookie manager who doesn’t act like a greenhorn, sat in the glow of the interview room’s lights following Friday’s game and agreed a Tigers team that is 3-0 following Friday’s 10-4 bashing of the Orioles at Comerica Park is doing at least a few things right.

Ausmus first talked not about Cabrera’s four hits, one of which was a rocket-ride of a home run into the left-field seats that gave Cabrera 2,000 hits in his already staggering big-league career. Neither was he particularly loquacious about Friday’s Tigers pitchers.

What pleased him most was a moment on the basepaths. He appreciated how Victor Martinez took second on a ball in the dirt during the Tigers’ four-run fourth inning.

It was an example of dimension. Of how a mindset can meld with a team’s overall skills to make a difference in an inning that occasionally will make a difference in a game.

“It was the fact he was aware and that he reacted,” said Ausmus, whose spring camp aimed to turn the Tigers into a team obsessed with thinking bolder thoughts about taking bases and pressuring defenses.

To his center fielder, Austin Jackson, Ausmus tossed another bouquet. He liked Jackson’s decision in the third when he tried to squeeze a double out of a single to left field. Jackson (batting .417) knew David Lough, who throws left-handed, was chasing the ball in a direction opposite his throwing motion. Lough gunned him down at second, by an eyelash, although the manager wasn’t bothered. He cheered Jackson’s judgment and hustle.

Different ways to win

The Tigers have won three games this week in ways that speak to their strategically split personality. They won pretty much on pitching in their opening two victories over the Royals. They won Friday because a lineup that probably will be better than forecasted pounded the Orioles with 17 hits, including three home runs (Torii Hunter and Rajai Davis joined Cabrera) to match doubles by Jackson and rookie Nick Castellanos, whose hitting smarts are becoming the equal of his swing.

Note those words: hitting smarts. Castellanos is still learning big-league life’s realities. Keeping your head up as you churn toward third base is a way to avoid scooting past coach Dave Clark’s stop sign and getting your tail tagged for a bad 8-3-5 putout, as happened in the second.

Rookie miscues will diminish. A kid’s high-gear hitting skills, as well as his steadily more comfortable work at third base, already have made Castellanos one of the best stories of the Tigers’ early weeks. He might prove to be the team’s most significant rookie in years, in part because he allowed Cabrera to transform the Tigers’ first base defense.

Defense tightens up

Consider the play Cabrera made in the Orioles’ sixth that followed a leadoff walk to Nelson Cruz. Steve Clevenger ripped a two-hopper that Cabrera dug from the dirt. In a blur of a step-and-throw sequence, Cabrera whistled a throw to second, then did a fast dance step to the bag for a lovely 3-6-3 double play.

This, too, is a way in which the Tigers have profoundly changed in 2014. They have more ability to do more things that, cumulatively, can win baseball games.

“It feels like a different style of baseball we’re playing since I’ve been here,” said Justin Verlander, a pitcher who appreciates his 2014 team’s broader baseball dexterity. “It’s good to be able to produce runs in that fashion.

“Before, we’d get a lot of extra-base hits and home runs. But there was a reason last year we lost a lot of one-run games late. It’s a good mix now. We’ve got a nice, deep lineup and a lot of great pieces. We’ve got guys who create havoc and other guys who just bang.”

They also have some bullpen issues. Note that Drew Smyly, a supposed starting pitcher, tossed three scoreless innings as a reliever Friday. Joba Chamberlain, who was offered his first taste of Tigers duty in the ninth inning of a 10-2 game, saw his fastball battered for four hits and a pair of Orioles runs.

And so this is far from an unsinkable bunch. The counter-point is they have more facets than any Tigers team in recent memory. They have a greater range of overall skill, which is the big reason why a team is 3-0. That winning streak won’t last long. But a 44-year-old manager can feel good about this week’s initiation and what it confirms about his new team’s ability to shake up a ballgame.

Lynn.henning@detroitnews.com
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Victor Martinez is safe at second for the Tigers after stealing his first base since July 1, 2011. / Elizabeth Conley / Detroit News
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