Chicago — In those moments after the curtain has crashed on a bad ballgame, and before media questioners arrive, a manager has a few minutes with his team to offer personal reviews.
Not surprisingly, Brad Ausmus stayed away from specifics when asked after Sunday’s disaster what he might have said to the Tigers. They had just been embarrassed, 6-2, in a game that would have been canceled in the second inning had baseball’s standards and practices police gotten their way.
“I’ve already said what I needed to say to them,” Ausmus responded when asked how he approached his team following an effort so shoddy.
Was it a rhetorical question to wonder if this was the worst effort by his team in 2014?
“I don’t know if it’s the worst,” the Tigers’ first-year skipper said, “but it’s certainly up there.”
The Tigers have dealt with a certain distinction in 2014, perhaps unfairly. They have either been in first place or been within spitting distance of first for almost the entire season. And yet there have been non-contending Tigers teams that probably generated less frustration and wrath from fans.
Sunday was another example of how a possible playoff-bound team can turn its followers into a seething swarm of snipers.
They made four errors of the kind you see codified in a box score. But they made other gaffes, the worst of which was Adam Eaton’s fly ball to left leading off the White Sox’s half of the first.
J.D. Martinez retreated late on a drive that should have been a standard put-out. He got a high, backhand glove on the ball — and then had it plop from his mitt. The official scorer somehow called it a double. It was an error all the way.
Ausmus was asked later if Eaton’s drive was a “playable ball.”
He answered in one, concise and necessary word: “Yes.”
Eaton later cruised into second on what should have been a single and instead became a double when no one was guarding second base and Martinez made a relay throw to the middle infield’s general vicinity.
These things, including three botched ground balls Sunday, happen in baseball. They afflict all clubs when the reality of 162 games and human beings can conspire to make a single afternoon a baseball abomination.
But other realities also factor into Sunday’s game and into a team’s 2014 storyline.
Own worst enemies
This is a Tigers team that invites too much of its own derision. Fans expect bullpens to function without making a mess of things, as happened in the eighth inning of Saturday night’s victory over the White Sox.
They particularly expect big-leaguers to play big-league defense. But these chronic slip-ups, especially in the outfield, lead to ire from Comerica Park’s customers and to a credibility problem when the Tigers and playoffs are mentioned in the same sentence.
It’s fair to wonder if Ausmus is tough enough, fiery enough, experienced enough, to minimize miscues. Does he contribute to or construct a culture where mistakes and mental blackouts are viewed as verboten?
At this stage of a manager’s career, the answer is probably yes. He deserves at least a passing grade when players are the people who execute, or fail to execute, everyday plays.
Tigers players were no more going to reveal Ausmus’ words to them Sunday than was the manager. But a simple question to Don Kelly, who made one of Sunday’s errors, was answered directly.
Did the manager effectively make his point — in other words, his disgust — known to the team afterward?
“Effectively,” Kelly answered, with a nod.
These periodic Tigers failings — whether it happens to be breakdowns by relievers, or botched fly balls, or an offense that too many times is missing Miguel Cabrera’s high horsepower — cannot be placed at the feet of a manager. Not this season.
But players bring negative scrutiny to a skipper when a team that early Sunday was tied for first place proceeds to play as if a game against the White Sox is one of those throwaway rehearsals from the Grapefruit League season.
If such habits persist, a manager at some point will be looked at by the team’s overall boss, Dave Dombrowski, as part of an ongoing problem. That’s because sloppy defense and missed assignments won’t be identified by the general manager as ingredients he built into his roster.
It’s one of baseball’s realities. People like to blame someone for a team that isn’t making them happy. The Tigers, strangely, have been minimalists on the happy scale in 2014.