Chicago — You walk into the Tigers clubhouse these days and it often is a place you are eager to leave.
The fun isn’t there. And that’s because good baseball isn’t much in display.
Monday night at U.S. Cellular Field, in a Tigers dressing room where the only sound was players clanking silver against postgame supper plates, the heaviness returned. This somber, sullen, dreary air hovers over a team that has been losing too many games these past three weeks, as it did again Monday in falling to the White Sox, 6-5, mostly because three errors, and a breakdown in starting pitching, and one fewer good at-bat than it required, conspired to flatten a team for the 15th time in its past 21 games.
The Tigers can no longer expect the kinder, gentler American League Central Division to give them a lifeline. They are obliged to win baseball games and take hold of a division Detroit should probably own but instead is fighting to survive.
Or, is that necessarily accurate, this supposition that because the Tigers have Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, and what earlier this spring was known as the best starting rotation in baseball, they should be all but granted Central Division supremacy?
Maybe they aren’t that good. It was a thought, frankly, that hung with the Tigers as they broke camp in Florida in March. Yes, they had historically superior starting pitching. And starting pitching is the basis for a championship team.
But baseball is a terribly merciless game. It doesn’t suffer weakness. If you have a single component part out of kilter, you’re vulnerable. Showcase an alternating sequence of soft spots and you can get into real trouble, fast — as in losing 15 of 21 to give away that once-hefty division lead Detroit had but 22 days ago.
Defenses lapses, batting slumps
These days it is always something. If the starters do their job, the bullpen often collapses. If the bullpen hangs in, as it did Monday, a slipshod start by Rick Porcello can put a team in a hole. If someone fails to drive home a run with a man on third and fewer than two out — as was the case with Ian Kinsler in the ninth, even if he got rung up on a bad call by umpire Jeff Nelson — you can lose by one run a game you probably should have won.
If the defense commits three errors, as also happened Monday with the Tigers, a team that has had alarming problems in the field is further compromised. Throw in the usual collection of slumps and not even the arrival of sweet-swinging rookie shortstop Eugenio Suarez can lift a team that seemed not long ago to be in trouble at only one spot: shortstop.
Is this going to be the pattern in 2014? Win just often enough to stay in the chase? Tease that you really are a first-place team and a heavy contender for a World Series when you’re perhaps not much better than a .500 club?
Or, maybe the question already has been answered. Porcello was off-key Monday night. Justin Verlander has had problems of late. Max Scherzer has not been the omnipotent Cy Young Award winner from a year ago who vanquishes bats with his relentless thunderbolts.
The starters will be just fine — probably. But that leads to Detroit’s ongoing bullpen issues and to the reality, affirmed Monday by front-office chief Dave Dombrowski, that Detroit’s bullpen crisis has only one realistic, practical solution 10 days into June.
Joe Nathan, all 39 years of him, must return to form. And while Dombrowski doesn’t share in this thought, Nathan must rebound at a point age suggests he might not get it back.
You cannot write off Nathan as the Tigers closer. Not with pitching prowess he regularly unleashed as late as last season for the Rangers. But at some point, the threshold at which a pitcher can be effective slips into the past. The Tigers bet, to the tune of $20 million and two years, that Nathan would hold up through next year.
Now, a man with a 7.04 ERA makes you wonder what might be asked of an entire team. Was too much expected? From Nathan? From a roster that has neither featured the hitting, the defense, or sufficient pitching to avoid a three-week tailspin?
Not a habit
Brad Ausmus is doing all a manager can do. This is a game decided by one thing and one thing, only: player performance. But to see so many cylinders misfiring, sometimes simultaneously, is to wonder whether this team isn’t destined for more nights where a locker room becomes a mausoleum.
“If this were a group of young guys, I’d be concerned about a snowball effect,” Ausmus said late Monday night, sitting behind his desk in the visiting manager’s office.
“We could have won last night and didn’t,” he said, referring to Sunday night’s haunting defeat delivered, once again, by Red Sox menace David Ortiz and his ninth-inning home run.
“We could have won tonight and didn’t. But I don’t think that (a habit of losing) is gonna happen with this group of guys.”
Not to debate this team’s capabilities, but anymore you are free to ask: Why not? There is no entitlement in baseball. You win what you deserve to win. Maybe, just maybe, this 2014 group is doing nothing more than playing the way teams with flaws perform.