August 9, 2014 at 10:16 pm

Lynn Henning

For a first-place team, Tigers sure make life hard on themselves

Toronto — I’m trying to recall a first-place team, in any sport, that has created as much stress, or kindled as much fire and fury, as the 2014 Tigers.

Blanks are drawn.

Never in memory has a sports team from Detroit been in first place for so long and performed in such a fan-infuriating manner, a condition that didn’t improve Saturday after the Tigers blew a lead in the ninth, ruined Max Scherzer’s eight innings of artwork, and eventually lost in 10 innings, 3-2, to the Blue Jays at Rogers Centre.

The Tigers are earning all the grief they’ve been getting. And it’s all because they’re a challenged team, fortunate to be competing in the forgiving American League Central where winning 87 games probably will bag a 2014 division title.

They have issues that, chillingly, are reminiscent of their somber, and not particularly fair, exit from last year’s playoffs. They were a better team last autumn than the world champion Red Sox. But the Tigers were a quart low in healthy bodies and bullpen arms, and that was enough to bequeath the ALCS to Boston.

It is 10 months later and notice where the Tigers are today.

Miguel Cabrera is dealing with a groin issue, probably more serious than anyone but Cabrera knows. It is threatening to become a repeat of his 2013 season when torn abdominal muscles sapped him of his power and led to November surgery.

Based upon past case history, it would be no shock if Cabrera, who refuses to talk about his physical state, is headed again for extensive offseason recovery. He is batting .304 and is 1-for-18 on the past week’s road trip. More telling, his power has practically vanished.

Cabrera’s deterioration, no surprise, is the biggest reason why Detroit’s offense has shut down. The Tigers are too accustomed to him blowing apart games they expect to win because of his mighty bat and their parade of sterling starting pitchers.

But minus their superstar slugger the Tigers are so often softies. They scored six runs in four games at Yankee Stadium. They scored twice Saturday. They had scored two runs in eight innings Friday ahead of two kids, Nick Castellanos and Eugenio Suarez, slamming ninth-inning homers.

This is how it goes on too many occasions with Cabrera aching and Victor Martinez and others having cooled off. The Tigers become baseball ether.

Let the second-guessing begin

Scherzer nearly compensated Saturday for his gang having another forgettable day at the plate, as he all but did at Yankee Stadium last week when Detroit lost, 2-1. What he can’t do is help a bullpen that has ruined so many elegant starts by Tigers pitchers in 2014, including the jewel Scherzer tossed Saturday against Toronto.

This is where the playoffs can yet get away from the Tigers, just as last year’s ALCS dissolved following a Game 2 bullpen nightmare at Boston.

Brad Ausmus knows better than anyone the perils here. That’s because a new manager became an issue Saturday when his relievers failed him, as well as Scherzer, whom the skipper yanked after eight innings and 107 pitches.

There was heavy questioning afterward as Ausmus sat behind a desk in the visiting manager’s office. Could not Scherzer, who has thrown his share of 120-pitch games, have worked one more frame on a day when he was so obviously crushing Blue Jay batters?

Ausmus said no.

“Max is very aware of his pitch-count,” the skipper said, “and he’s very honest with me and with Jeff Jones (pitching coach).

“He had emptied the tank.”

Scherzer’s integrity is such that he wouldn’t squawk even if he hated leaving the game. My guess: He absolutely did. He knew how well he was throwing and how shaky can be any lead he hands over to his bullpen cohorts, whom he supports as faithfully as his manager.

But it is telling that everyone from fans to probably owner Mike Ilitch either feared, or anticipated, what happened during Saturday’s ninth inning.

Injuries, issues piling up

The question is how many more Saturdays and how many more ninth innings are ahead for a star-crossed Tigers team now facing another round of injuries.

Anibal Sanchez is gone with a strained muscle, for how long no one is yet sure. Joakim Soria, who should probably be closing games, had to leave Saturday’s 10th inning with a strained muscle in his side.

It invites more scrutiny of Nathan, the man Ausmus again pronounced Saturday “as our closer.” Nathan needs immediately to alter some ugly numbers.

His ERA is 5.36. Imagine a playoff team’s closer carrying a 5.36 ERA. Notice also that opposing batters this year are hitting .265 against him. His WHIP, which a year ago was 0.90, is today a horrifying 1.55.

Nathan’s career American League numbers entering 2014: a 2.14 ERA and a .188 opposing batting average. You can argue fairly that statistics don’t tell the whole story. In fact, Nathan has been quite good in recent weeks. But Friday and Saturday, he was throwing pitches you would hardly associate with a man so accomplished, and so formerly intimidating, beginning with fastballs that Saturday traveled at 91, maybe 92 mph.

This isn’t to suggest the Tigers pack it in and get ready for the Winter Meetings. This is baseball. This is a game where teams that look hopeless in August (the Cardinals a few years ago) can be lapping up champagne in October.

It’s simply that dreaded double-barreled enemy, beginning with Cabrera’s trials, and extending to a bullpen about as dependable as a Las Vegas game.

It makes all the more curious, and maybe even amusing, that long-term lease the Tigers have held on first place in the so very generous AL Central.

Tigers closer Joe Nathan walks off the mound past manager Brad Ausmus after blowing a save opportunity in the ninth inning Saturday. / Darren Calabrese / Associated Press
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