Detroit — It was scrawled on the white greaseboard in the center of the Tigers clubhouse, a timely statement that was at least half-accurate.
“The Storm is Over” was the message, author unknown. For Detroit and the surrounding area, the historic drenching indeed had passed, thankfully. For the Tigers, returning from a 2-7 road trip, the forecast was less clear.
The Buck starts here, as rookie Buck Farmer made his major-league debut and pitched decently in an 8-4 victory over the Pirates on Wednesday night. And the buck stops here, with a veteran team trying to weather the heat. There was palpable tension as the Tigers came home, residue from a blown seven-and-a-half-game division lead.
One way to lift the pressure is with the bats, including three clutch RBIs from Victor Martinez. The other way is to choose experience over aggravation, and the Tigers are determined to do just that.
It starts with the team’s leaders, and they had a message. After his three-hit performance, Martinez was surprisingly emotional as he explained how the Tigers are trying to beat the frustration.
“To be honest, we don’t really care what people say,” Martinez said. “There’s so many negative people out there. It’s not fair when people are thinking we gotta win this division by 10, 15, 20 games. Don’t forget we’re playing major league baseball, not little league teams.”
'We got a great ballclub'
There have been a few boos at Comerica Park, and another sellout crowd (41,043) did some minor venting when Joe Nathan walked the first two batters in the ninth. It’s a pressurized atmosphere borne of expectations, and Martinez understands that. But it doesn’t make the job any easier.
“Fans have all the right to be mad, they’re paying money to see a good show,” he said. “We’re in a really tough stretch, and this is when we need the fans the most. We believe in what we got. We’re not gonna keep playing like this for too long, we got too good of a team. … We just gotta relax and let things happen. You can’t hit a three-run home run with nobody on.”
It was a sentiment echoed by others, as the Tigers tried to calm nerves now that they’ve slipped behind the Royals into second place. Justin Verlander, sidelined with a sore shoulder but relieved to avoid the disabled list, also was eager to shoo the clouds.
“I think this is a team that has the firepower to withstand a few injuries, especially with the acquisition of David (Price),” Verlander said. “We got a great ballclub. This is very similar to what happened earlier when everybody started panicking and then they stopped panicking.”
That was when the Tigers slogged through a 9-20 stretch, recovered to take a big lead, and then slogged again. This time, it’s deep into August and the Royals are hot and three key pitchers —Verlander, Anibal Sanchez, Joakim Soria — are hurting.
Miguel Cabrera seemingly hasn’t shaken the effects of off-season core muscle surgery and his power numbers are way down. He’s still hitting the ball hard, just not as deep, and when his drive in the fifth inning was caught at the centerfield wall for a sacrifice fly, he could hardly believe it, throwing his arms up in dismay.
Cabrera will be back, we know that. He hasn’t been in his normal playful (and dominant) mood for a while, and until that changes, the Tigers will feel it. He’s still having a solid season, but it’s symptomatic of what ails the Tigers – no one looks quite like themselves.
Verlander got testy when a certain someone (hi!) pressed him on whether the shoulder had bothered him for a while. He acknowledged it probably had but didn’t want to discuss it further, and emphasized the point with a verbal snap. Fair enough. We can’t demand a no-excuses approach, then be miffed when a player doesn’t readily accept the alibi.
But frustration is unavoidable. Ian Kinsler stood up after the Tigers’ loss in Pittsburgh Tuesday night and voiced his opinion, although no one characterized it as a team meeting. There are questions, ones they’ve answered before.
“That’s the wonderful thing about this sport — I don’t think anybody will stop panicking until we win the World Series,” Verlander said. “I don’t think panicking is the right word — people are fretting. But every team goes through a rough stretch.”
Let’s be clear here. The Tigers aren’t minimizing the concerns, just trying to minimize the focus on the concerns, if that makes sense. That’s why you declare a storm has passed before the water actually recedes.
It’s why Brad Ausmus, who has never been through this as a manager, sat placidly in the dugout and declined to discuss Kinsler’s speech, or whether anything like that was necessary. When a team is slumping, brooding doesn’t help.
“This is a veteran group, and the handful of guys who aren’t, they can look at the veterans and see they’re taking it in stride,” Ausmus said. “There hasn’t been anything that stands out in terms of a red flag. It’s one of the better clubhouses I’ve been in.”
'Adding pressure doesn't make it easier'
The Tigers aren’t falling apart, but when a team is staggered physically, and hitters are flailing, it can look that way. It especially can look that way when the team is a heavy favorite to reach the playoffs.
They’re human, they sense the pressure. Verlander has felt it enough to push through a rough season because he prides himself on being an ace and a workhorse who never has been on the disabled list. Cabrera feels the same way, knowing how much he’s counted on.
It’s an admirable trait, and the Tigers have shown they can turn it on as quickly as it’s doused. Speeches and messages hammer the point, although not as well as hammering the ball hammers the point.
“I’ve spoken to the players, but that’s between me and the team,” Ausmus said. “Sometimes players do need a kick in the butt. I think these guys individually feel pressure to perform, and more often than not, adding pressure doesn’t make it easier.”
It might get harder before it gets easier, and it may never get easy for the Tigers. Positive messages are fine, but it’ll take more to change the lingering color of the sky.