June 20, 2014 at 7:09 pm

Bob Wojnowski

Tigers' tough stretch puts Brad Ausmus' judgment to the test

Brad Ausmus hasn't come close to cracking, but he sure hasn't found it easy. He said he wakes up many mornings at 5, his mind churning with lineup ideas. (Robin Buckson / Detroit News)

Detroit — The Tigers needed that. Joe Nathan desperately needed that. Fans craved it, just for reassurance their team wasn’t suddenly imported from Toledo.

But you know who really, really needed a break in the storm clouds? Brad Ausmus really needed that.

The Tigers dodged a complete disaster with a 2-1 victory Thursday over the Royals, averting a four-game sweep and reverting to their good-pitching ways, at least for a day. Anibal Sanchez unleashed another stellar effort and Nathan unearthed his form with a superb three-strikeout ninth inning.

One victory doesn’t solve everything, or necessarily change anything, especially with a big series in Cleveland looming. But it’s not an overstatement to say this is the most dangerous stretch in a long season, and for the Tigers and their rookie manager, it was (and still is) a major gut-check.

While the Royals were piling up 10 straight victories to grab first place, messes were piling up all around the Tigers. For the first time, the focus shifted to Ausmus, who added to the problem with an inappropriate attempt at humor. He has publicly apologized several times for an insensitive joke about beating his wife, and his remorse was immediate and earnest.

Judging Ausmus on one unfortunate moment is narrow thinking. But what it unwittingly spawned was a mini-referendum on his lack of managerial experience, and whether that’s a factor. Ausmus’ response since the gaffe Wednesday has been admirable, and certainly sounds authentic. He patiently discussed the mistake and blamed no one but himself, and that should confine it to a 24-hour swirl.

“I still feel awful about it,” Ausmus said. “There was nothing in my head that I wanted to hurt or offend anyone, and if I did, I still apologize. It was poor judgment and it won’t happen again. … I don’t want to candy-coat it — I don’t think I’ve had a worse day (as a manager). But this win would’ve felt good if I had that day or not.”

Questioning his calm

The Tigers had lost 20 of 29 before edging the Royals, and the very trait touted as Ausmus’ strength — unwavering calm — was being scrutinized. How could such a talented team stumble so meekly, so repeatedly? The easy answer — “hey, that’s baseball” — wasn’t flying anymore.

But it’s amazing how a team looks when its starting pitcher mows down hitters and the setup reliever (Joba Chamberlain) does the same, and then the 39-year-old closer throws like he’s 29 after the worst stretch of his career.

That’s why one victory was legitimately important for the Tigers. It’s not about their hitting, still feeble with only four hits. It’s not about climbing within a half game of first. It’s about steadying themselves, and Nathan apparently finding what he’d lost — an arm-slot adjustment of a couple inches — and firing fastballs past the hottest team in baseball.

“I’m not saying after this one outing, I’m back,” Nathan said. “But we found an arm slot that works, and I can get more whip on my pitches. It’s a humbling sport, so if you think you got it, the next day it’s gonna turn around and kick you in the butt.”

Just one inning, but Nathan finally was delivering heat instead of feeling it, an absolute must for the Tigers to win. In some ways, he’s linked with Ausmus, newcomers on a veteran team entrusted with two of the most stressful jobs in the game. Nathan showed cracks, and worked furiously with pitching coach Jeff Jones to put himself back together.

Stay the course

I don’t think Ausmus has come close to cracking, but he sure hasn’t found it easy. He said he wakes up many mornings at 5, his mind churning with lineup ideas.

“When you’re losing and you can’t seem to do anything right, you try to find something that might make a difference,” Ausmus said. “But I think if a manager does something off-the-wall drastic, he loses the respect of the players. … I’ve talked to other managers and (Jim) Leyland and it’s always the same message — you got a good team, stay the course, be yourself and things will come back to the way they should be. And I do firmly believe that.”

This is where the smart calm should matter. The Tigers may turn out to be too flawed, but I doubt it’ll be because of poor judgment by Ausmus. He regrets some moves he’s made, but he has an air of self-confidence that’s not oppressive. He has a sarcastic humor the players like, and you hope this controversy makes him more aware, but not wary.

“This is his first year, obviously he’s going to go through things he’s probably never experienced before,” Chamberlain said. “We all do dumb (stuff) in our life. ... Brad’s (demeanor) is never different. He’s from California — I mean, he wears a wave watch, not even a normal watch. He’s going through it with us, and we got each other’s back.”

The Tigers know they’re better than they’ve shown, a point Ausmus has made so often, he’s sick of saying it. Stay positive, stay calm, rely on what you know. And when mistakes are made, acknowledge them and learn from them.

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com
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