It shouldn’t be this hard.
That has been the overriding feeling with this Tigers team for the last few months, if not the last few years.
And so it was again this weekend, even as they did an about-face against the Twins, rebounding from a pair of losses that Justin Verlander politely termed “demoralizing” to split a four-game series and keep pace with Kansas City in the American League Central.
Easy does it? Hardly.
There they were Sunday, on a hot, humid afternoon in the Land of 10,000 Pitches, adding on runs like good teams do and then handing a four-run lead to the bullpen.
And yet soon enough there was manager Brad Ausmus, strolling out of the dugout with a look of indigestion on his face, motioning to the bullpen and asking Phil Coke to rescue his team. Al Alburquerque had loaded the bases with one out, bringing the tying run to the plate and — after inducing another fly-out to shallow left field — Coke in from the pen to face Joe Mauer.
Coke, with a good track record against Mauer (1-for-15 since 2010), quickly built an 0-2 count against the former MVP. But then the Tigers lefty made things interesting, as the count went full — and the game nearly went tilt — before Coke, who’d pitched in just four Tigers victories since June, blew a fastball by Mauer to end the threat.
And start the countdown, I guess. Without, um, looking it up, let’s just say the Tigers’ magic number is 33. Because they’ve got 33 games left to make us all forget the last three months, 33 games left to decide their regular-season fate, and, yes, 33 games left in this referendum on their rookie manager, who probably had the best — and worst — description Sunday for this Jekyl-and-Hyde trip his team just completed.
They lost David Price’s one-hit gem in Tampa and then coughed up 42 runs in their next four games, yet still managed to win four of seven “so it’s certainly not awful,” Ausmus told Fox Sports Detroit.
Lack of energy
Of course, that’s certainly not the standard his bosses were shooting for when they hired him to manage a team that had won three consecutive division titles but lost in the AL Championship Series twice in three years.
Not what ownership had in mind with a $162 million payroll, either. Especially considering it’s $70 million higher than those first-place Royals that Ausmus & Co. now find themselves chasing with barely a month left in the season.
Ausmus is well aware of all that. And he has had his moments this season, good and bad, from the blistering start in April and May to that ill-conceived joke in June and some laughable in-game decisions in July and August. His even-keel approach still plays to good reviews in the clubhouse. But we’ll learn a lot more about him as a manager between now and the end of September, without a doubt.
Can the Tigers do it? Of course they can.
But that’s ignoring the point, really, with this team. They have to do it. Missing the playoffs isn’t an acceptable option.
Nor was the lackluster effort we’ve seen — and they’ve acknowledged — in recent weeks. Torii Hunter said he sensed a lack of energy in the losses in Pittsburgh and again in Minnesota.
And true or not, it’s no surprise that some of the veteran leaders on this team — Hunter, Ian Kinsler and Victor Martinez — played pivotal roles in the salvage operation Saturday night and Sunday. Kinsler had six hits and scored six runs in the series. Martinez homered and drove in four runs Sunday, as did Hunter, who also made a terrific running catch and aggressively broke up a double play to help set the tone.
“It shows a little fight in us,” Hunter said. “We’re starting to come along.”
They’ve still got a long way to go, though, even with the bats heating up. (The 60 hits against the Twins were the most for Detroit in a four-game series since 1956.) The Tigers are 17-21 since the All-Star break, they still have eight of their next 11 games on the road and their two highest-paid players are struggling.
Justin Verlander gamely returned to pitch the second game of the doubleheader Saturday night, but he’s nowhere near his dominant form. And Miguel Cabrera is looking more like the Miggy of late 2013 than the Triple Crown winner who preceded him. Since July 1, Cabrera has just three home runs and 22 RBIs in 46 games, and his slugging percentage (.437) in that stretch is 125 points lower than his career average. Sunday, he sat out to rest a nagging ankle injury that may bother him throughout this stretch run.
Healthy returns from the disabled list by starter Anibal Sanchez and reliever Joakim Soria could provide a much-needed jolt in the next week or so. And among the encouraging signs this weekend was the professional work at the plate by rookies Nick Castellanos and Eugenio Suarez.
But the bullpen remains an albatross — most notably Joe Nathan’s ninth-inning sputtering — the defense remains a sore point and the offense remains something of an enigma. So it’ll be up to Ausmus to tie this all together in the end.
Easier said than done, apparently.