St. Petersburg, Fla. — His critics want emotion. Preferably, emotion that flows like lava in the Tigers clubhouse, incinerating hitters, pitchers, fielders — any Tigers player responsible for losses, three of which came in three ugly days of baseball at Tropicana Field.
They got their dash of managerial vitriol Thursday after the Tigers had dropped their series finale to the Tampa Bay Rays, 8-1, looking for 27 innings as if they had never played a game on artificial turf or had never dealt with Tropicana’s overhead shroud of cloth and metal that can make fly balls disappear into a stadium’s domed ether.
“The worst defensive series I’ve seen since I’ve been here,” Brad Ausmus fumed after the Tigers, who came to town with an 8-4 record and thoughts of a season's surprise taking root, tumbled to 8-7 heading into a weekend series against the Twins at Minneapolis.
“The defense killed us this series. It was awful. And it cost us pitches, it cost us runs, and it cost us games.
“And, quite frankly, it’s got to be better. If it doesn’t get better, there’ll be changes.”
For those who thought the bullpen was the Tigers’ sore spot, it remains on probation, as Wednesday night’s nightmarish 8-7 loss to the Rays confirmed.
Defense was not supposed to be an issue for Ausmus’ crew in 2017. Defense tends to be more of a constant. It can be more focus-controlled. It should not break down to the extent it did as the Tigers during three ugly games lost balls against Tropicana’s ceiling murk, became confused when fans — fans — hollered that they had fly balls the Tigers were about to miss, or botched foul pop-ups when pitchers (Daniel Norris was Thursday’s over-zealous soul) raced into territory that should have been occupied solely by the first baseman.
“These are big-league players,” Ausmus said in words that were more like a United States attorney’s indictment. “We should be able to make those plays.
“Mistakes will be made. But you can’t make that many mistakes.”
Thursday’s report card was bad from the get-go.
Dixon Machado was playing shortstop as Jose Iglesias was monitored for a concussion dealt during Wednesday night’s game-ending collision at second base. Machado threw away a first-inning relay on what should have been a simple ground-out.
An inning later, a bloop single to right bounced high off Tropicana’s artificial grass and over right-fielder Tyler Collins’ head for a triple that became part of a three-run Rays rally.
There were more near-miss collisions Thursday — after assorted bungles on fly balls earlier in the series — that left Ausmus wondering if injuries as much as errors would be part of three games’ carnage.
And then there was the fifth-inning pop-up into first base’s foul ground. Alex Avila, playing first as Miguel Cabrera worked at designated hitter and Victor Martinez was rested, should have had exclusive territorial rights to an easy play.
Norris, however, is a terrific athlete. He is active-plus. He has made plays before that are entertaining and brave and thoroughly uncommon for a pitcher.
But discretion and judgment are also required. And when he galloped like a Kentucky Derby horse heading to the wire, crossing a base path and chalk-lines and heading toward the Rays dugout in a bid to grab Tim Beckham’s pop fly, Avila heard Norris’ hooves pounding the turf, braced for impact, and slightly over-ran a ball that fell for a blown play by the Tigers.
“Absolutely, that’s a first baseman’s ball all the way,” Ausmus said as virtual embers flew from his mouth. “That’s where Daniel Norris sometimes fights himself. He’s got to back off.”
It didn’t diminish Norris’ primary work. He was spinning four excellent pitches: a fastball that ran 93-94, slider, curveball, and change-up.
But the mangled defense stretched innings and pushed his pitch-count to 101 when he was finally excused with two gone in the fifth.
Norris was socked for eight hits and four earned runs, while walking two and striking out four.
He gave way to Warwick Saupold, who pitched 3 1/3 innings and allowed three hits — all home runs.
Strange days, indeed, for the Tigers during this stint in St. Pete.
“The most frustrating part is the poor performance,” Ausmus repeated, returning to his prosecution of Detroit’s defense. “We should be able to catch big-league fly balls.”
Of course, Ausmus would be the first to say, at least privately, that his defense will have an easier time patching up than perhaps his unsettled pitchers can straighten out.
Saupold was told after Thursday’s game that he’ll be rejoining Triple A Toledo, where a helpful organizational pitcher can work every five days in the Mud Hens rotation.
Blaine Hardy, a left-handed reliever who has generally gotten the job done in his three years with the Tigers, will rejoin the team in Minnesota and looms as an asset on a relief corps that needs all available muscle.
But what the Tigers most require after a wrenching return to Florida is to play baseball in a manner shown during their first 12 regular-season games.
When, that is, they were making plays big-leaguers tend to pull off with relative ease. When they were looking like potential contenders. When they didn’t fire up a manager who this week couldn’t quite believe what he had seen from Detroit’s baseball professionals.