Kansas City, Mo. — Brad Ausmus has been careful, so careful, about saying the wrong thing, about acting presumptuous, about making the kind of mistake a rookie manager might have been expected to at least approach in his first 90 days running the Tigers.
But Ausmus is aware of the minefield. And one of the perils he has been particularly sharp in sidestepping is making any proclamations about his Tigers team.
If you want a 44-year-old skipper to tell you his ballclub is good, he will not say it — not in words so intractable. If you want him to come down on Phil Coke, which the fan base would appreciate after Coke again had a horrible night Saturday in the Tigers’ otherwise slick 9-2 victory over the Royals at Kauffman Stadium, he will not acknowledge Coke is in trouble, as Ausmus’ predecessor, Jim Leyland, would certainly have done.
He does not feel he has yet earned that brand of critical license. Not during these early months in a job, and in a game, that is unmerciful to the arrogant or to even those who are politely certain of their opinions.
And so it was understandable Saturday when it was mentioned to Ausmus his team was playing good baseball of late, in a manner that hinted everything was clicking.
“I think we’re getting there,” Ausmus said, in words about as daring as any he has used in sizing up his team. “Day in and day out, our starting pitching is still giving us a chance to be in games.”
On that enduring Tigers trait Ausmus is so very right. Starting pitching is the reason today the Tigers own a four-game lead in the American League Central Division. Starting pitching is the quality that could, and should, help them to a fourth consecutive playoff ticket.
This assumes the bullpen avoids disintegrating against better teams Detroit will eventually face. And that is nothing that can be safely bet on today. It likewise assumes neither the Royals, White Sox, nor Indians, will get hot, which is an easier prognostication today than it might be on July 4, or even earlier.
Ausmus understands this because he understands big-league baseball and its power to make managers look silly if they so much as whisper an expectation, or go an inch too far in expressing confidence.
His respect for baseball’s cruelty is doubly warranted when you look at the Tigers.
The importance of defense
This, remember, was a team with serious problems when the Tigers left Florida five weeks ago. Those ills have only been slightly remedied.
The Tigers lost two players in Florida who did enormous damage to areas you can’t allow to be compromised in the big leagues. Their bullpen was wounded grievously when Bruce Rondon departed for the elbow surgeon. Their infield defense, so vital to those pitchers, was partially destroyed when Jose Iglesias was lost to stress fractures.
It is now the first week of May and the Tigers have patched up. But they have only patched up.
Andrew Romine hits precious little and yet has shown how invaluable a good glove and strong arm can be when a team’s pitching is as strong as Detroit’s. In the days since he became Ausmus’ more regular answer at short, Romine has cleaned up the infield’s left-side mess, at least defensively.
You can see how much the team’s complexion has changed with the simple addition of a guy who might not hit .210. No longer is there anxiety on ground balls. Pitchers can relax. Interestingly, fans relax. The game is in good hands with Romine. Ausmus, a graybeard catcher who knows everything about the game’s nerve center, infield defense, is aware of how much Romine has meant to this steadily improving team he is steering through the early weeks of spring.
But there is another factor at work in this team and in its opportunity to build a big lead early in the 2014 schedule.
The offense has been all but sensational. Not only because Victor Martinez has absorbed much of Miguel Cabrera’s old freight, but rather, because the lineup has been producing from leadoff to at least the batting order’s No. 8 spot.
This is why the Tigers score runs late in games when they used to be dead and buried after the sixth. This is why the Tigers started slow Saturday but ended up with nine runs, five of which were scored in the ninth.
It is because Rajai Davis can get a hit and can run like a track sprinter. It’s because Ian Kinsler has been the epitome of a professional hitter in his top-of-the-order turns.
The kid, Nick Castellanos, has slipped of late, but not in any way that is threatening. His at-bats have remained good. He stings the ball. He is going to be a tremendous hitter in Detroit for years. And his numbers by the end of this season could be nothing short of gaudy.
But look, too, at Torii Hunter’s rejuvenation, at Austin Jackson’s emergence as a real American League star, at Alex Avila’s shake-off of a miserable April slump that has seen him slider closer to being the important hitter and RBI man he should be.
This is why the Tigers are making their bullpen situation seem, on so many days and nights, trivial. They are killing the competition with too much starting pitching and, now, with hitting and with speed that was never featured on those earlier Tigers playoff rosters.
“When teams start scoring runs,” Ausmus said after Saturday night’s romp, “is when all parts of a batting order are getting on base and you’re flipping it over into the top of the lineup.”
That’s what the Tigers did Saturday. It is what they have been doing of late. Toss in a little Rick Porcello here, a dash of Drew Smyly here, in tandem with three locomotives at the front of their rotation — Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, and Anibal Sanchez — and you can all but negate those troubled areas that the Tigers, like all big-league teams, must accept in some measure.
It’s only 25 games into a 162-game season. Most races get tight during warmer months when good teams have a tendency to close on the front-runner.
Ausmus knows this, of course. He knows his bullpen’s issues. He realizes the schedule will get less forgiving. It is why a manager is being so very delicate in his words, even as he knows the best starting pitching in all of baseball is one immense reason for a rookie skipper to be at peace.