Anaheim, Calif. — They have nine weeks to decide their status as a 2014 playoff baseball team.
Feel free to wonder if the Tigers will be any different Sept. 28, when they finish their regular season against the Twins at Comerica Park, than they are today, or than they have been during a maddeningly inconsistent four months when they have been as much a yo-yo as a first-place club.
Consider the past two nights against the Angels, which followed a reasonably brilliant series opener Thursday at Angel Park of Anaheim when the Tigers and Max Scherzer won, 6-4.
They got six hits and a run Friday in losing, 2-1. They got four hits Saturday in losing, 4-0, their fifth shutout since June 13.
Games such as these last two duds effectively doused some of the fire the Tigers and their fan club had mutually stoked after Dave Dombrowski pulled off another of his July swaps that seem, each summer, to push his team into the playoffs.
He got the roster piece his club most needed, a dynamite reliever who can work any role in which manager Brad Ausmus sticks him. Joakim Soria is charged with making the Tigers’ back-end bullpen less susceptible to breakdowns and, most important, to the brand of disaster the Tigers experienced during their last two playoff runs.
But all it took were games Friday and Saturday to prove the Tigers need more than relievers to win a championship Dombrowski is aching to bring his boss, Tigers owner Mike Ilitch.
It is always something with the Tigers, mostly because in baseball it is always something with any team.
Victor Martinez and J.D. Martinez suddenly are not hitting. Alex Avila, who looked a couple of weeks ago as if he was coming out of his funk, is back in his funk. It is not a consistent team for the simple reason so many people have taken turns fiddling with the hot-and-cold water taps.
“Just part of baseball,” Ausmus said Saturday night, after a game in which he had been excused in the third inning for challenging some ambiguous replay rules.
There wasn’t much else a manager could say. Earlier in the season, Austin Jackson was not hitting a lick. Now, no one can get him out. He has been getting two hits a game for what seems like a month now.
Ian Kinsler was helping carry the Tigers through the schedule’s first half. But he has cooled considerably, as has Victor Martinez, who for so long looked as if he would hit .350 this season and slug 30 or more home runs.
Miguel Cabrera is having a good year, but by his standards it isn’t the prize he or the Tigers anticipated. Nick Castellanos is holding his own, as is his left-side infield cohort and fellow rookie, Eugenio Suarez, each of whom has helped mightily. But neither of these kids can offer more than bottom-of-the-order support.
When the Tigers’ corner outfielders can be as in-and-out as any other section of Ausmus’ order, it begets a stop-and-start personality. There are interludes, good and bad, with the Tigers hitters that have been a match for those other power-on, power-off components within this rather unusual 2014 crew.
Justin Verlander had, as he said, an “OK” start Saturday. But it was nothing — nothing — you would associate with Verlander’s past. He struck out four batters in seven innings. He walked three. He allowed six hits and three runs.
Those numbers are more in line with some back-end guy who pitches for the Padres or Mets or Astros. But when you bring into the Tigers’ overall mix in 2014 the reality of Verlander’s slide, coupled with past bullpen problems that might or might not be history, it’s no wonder fans — and probably a front office — wonder if this team will ever get it together ahead of October.
Everyone wonders if Dombrowski has yet another trick in the works ahead of Wednesday’s trade deadline. It would be silly to rule out anything, even a blockbuster, for the simple reason Dombrowski has been making improbable deals in Detroit since he sealed the Cabrera acquisition in 2007.
He has been open to adding a left-handed reliever, although it clearly isn’t an imperative. If he were to truly stun Tigers Nation and all of baseball, he would swing some sort of coup that would bring to Ausmus’ lineup a heavy left-handed hitter, no doubt for one of his outfield corners.
He has the prospects to do it, just as he had the material to make Wednesday’s deal for Soria. It isn’t a percentage call by any means, but neither was it expected that he would get Doug Fister in 2011, or Anibal Sanchez in 2012, or even Soria last week when so many clubs across the big leagues were looking for shutdown relievers.
More likely, this current mix essentially will be the team with which the Tigers will try and win another American League Central Division flag. And if that goes their way, it will be the group they will take into October.
At that point, it will be a simple matter of performance. How will these guys, who have been so confoundedly unpredictable during these past months, be playing as autumn arrives?
Your bet is as good as anyone’s. Some of us quit a month or two ago trying to find a handle for this 2014 team, a most unusual band of brothers.