Brad Ausmus' expression doesn't show much, but when the Tigers dropped from a hot start to a startling stumble, he actually showed something. (Elizabeth Conley / Detroit News)
Detroit — It looked like it was going to be ridiculously easy, and then the strangest thing happened. Call it a funk, a fluke, or simple baseball reality, but in three short weeks, the Tigers went from Zubaz-wearing sluggers to zzzz-inducing sleepers, then began scratching back.
From the ragged closer situation to slumping hitters and pitchers, there were signs of alarm in a few places, but none in the office down the hall. Brad Ausmus may be a rookie manager, but this isn’t his first rollercoaster ride. After beating the Red Sox the first two games, the Tigers blew the sweep Sunday night when David Ortiz slammed a three-run homer in the ninth off Joba Chamberlain for a 5-3 victory.
The Tigers rebounded a bit this weekend, but it’s important to note what Ausmus didn’t do during the struggles. He didn’t flinch. He didn’t rage. I’m not sure he even sweat, or scowled.
Ausmus’ expression doesn’t show much, but when the Tigers dropped from a hot start to a startling stumble, he actually showed something. The biggest question when he replaced Jim Leyland was whether a guy who had never managed an inning of pro ball would have a lot to learn. It’s good to see he understands the curve and isn’t trying to reinvent a team that’s still in first place, flaws and all.
“You assume the track records will come to fruition, so I guess that makes it easier,” Ausmus said. “I don’t think I’m an overly panicky person in general, so even if we didn’t have those (touted) starters, I wouldn’t be panicky.”
When the Tigers were going 4-13 after a 27-12 start, there wasn’t a temptation to prove the new guy might be young (45), but he’s no pushover? You know, throw a fit or something?
“A fit? No,” Ausmus said. “I’ve spoken to the players a couple times, but it was nothing like a fit. There’s no reason to throw a fit unless it’s lack of effort or lack of concentration, and that’s not the case. This isn’t a youth travel team. Certainly yelling at major league players that are 30 years old, you’re not gonna get the response in the long haul.”
And that’s what this is — a long haul disguised as a short window. The Tigers were such overwhelming favorites to win the Central, some dopes (hi!) probably figured they’d clinch in June. There was nothing to fear but the Tigers themselves, which still may be true. But with the Indians, White Sox, Royals and Twins all jumbled around .500 and four games behind, the planned cakewalk, which started to look like a bored-walk, might be a jaywalk.
Joe Nathan looks lost, and that’s one of the biggest worries. As good as Chamberlain had been, Ausmus and Dave Dombrowski don’t want to try a new closer. Nathan may not have his classic swing-and-miss pitches, but he did convert 10 straight save opportunities at one point. Chamberlain attempted to finish off the Red Sox Sunday night because Nathan had thrown a lot of pitches the past two games.
The Tigers also have an all-rookie left side of the infield, and while Nick Castellanos has been scorching and Eugenio Suarez shows promise, it’s hardly ideal. The offense had short-circuited, and on top of it all, the vaunted starters had taken turns faltering, although that’s way, way down the list of concerns. Baseball seasons are long, taxing endeavors littered with failure, even for the good teams.
“The best thing about Brad is, he played 18 seasons in the big leagues, so he knows what it’s like to have some failure,” Torii Hunter said. “We had a meeting a couple days ago and he just lifted us up. He had everything positive to say. Oh, he has gotten on our butts, but we respect him, we love him and we’re gonna go out there and play hard for him.”
Hunter happily donned the Tigers’ Zubaz pants again this weekend, the ones that were symbols of their swagger, and to some, omens of their slide. None of it affects Ausmus. Players talk about his biting humor, but mostly about his unrelenting calm.
This is the subtle edge the Tigers were hoping for when they hired a guy who played 18 seasons in the majors, three with the Tigers, and was catching as recently as 2010. He’s close in age to veteran players, and I think that partly explains some of his strategic tendencies.
For instance, the Tigers don’t bunt much (they’re last in the majors with four sacrifices), which indicates trust in hitters. Ausmus doesn’t liberally use his bench for punitive purposes, preferring to let players play it out. And he listens, as he did Saturday night when Max Scherzer campaigned in the seventh inning to stay in and face Ortiz. Ausmus allowed it, and although Ortiz doubled, it was a telling exchange.
“I’ve been on the mound in that situation hundreds of times, just not as the manager,” Ausmus said. “Even though I wasn’t making the decision then (as a catcher), I knew what I would’ve done. So I wouldn’t say it’s a new situation for me. I’m definitely not that far removed from playing, which probably makes it easier to relate to these guys. I’ll take into account what the player says, but the player doesn’t make the decision.”
It helps that Ausmus inherited a title-worthy team, and can toss Scherzer, Anibal Sanchez, Justin Verlander and Rick Porcello on the mound. But like we said, it might not be as easy as expected.
Talk about a delicate balance — Ausmus has to deal with the issue of a 39-year-old closer who has labored badly. And the manager is doing all he can to support Nathan without damaging the team’s chances. Fans understandably display frustration, but Ausmus can’t.
“I’m not overly concerned,” he said. “The truth is, we need Joe Nathan to pitch well and close games, so we’re gonna have to find a way to work through this. The good news is, he feels fine. His velocity is the same as a year ago when he had an outstanding year, and he’s only six months older than when last season ended.”
It’s a clever deflection, to acknowledge the problem and minimize it at the same time. The true Tigers are somewhere between the recent lethargy and the opening power. He’s still young and new, but Ausmus appears capable of handling both.