Henning: Tigers' woes are pitching-inflicted
Detroit — To the extent a manager can do anything about it, Brad Ausmus cannot and will not let a team and a season — and his job — slip away three weeks into April.
It’s not his doing when Anibal Sanchez lasts 2⅓ innings, as happened Saturday during a Tigers-Indians game at Comerica Park that should have been interesting and entertaining and instead turned into a 10-1 massacre by the Indians.
It’s not because of any Ausmus malfeasance that Miguel Cabrera is batting .210 with one home run and six RBIs. And, no, the skipper hasn’t been swinging the bat for Justin Upton, who has struck out 30 times in 16 games.
It’s no more Ausmus’ fault that the Tigers have lost eight games than it’s to his credit the Tigers have won eight.
But it’s not wise for a manager, this manager in particular, to accept a three-game losing skid as one of those routine interludes in a long season. Not when a team with Detroit’s supposed firepower scores two runs in three tumbles that have made everyone forget about what had been a fairly tidy first two weeks for the Tigers.
You can bet all of the above was on a skipper’s mind when he gathered the lads late Saturday for some stern overviews.
“There was a discussion – let’s leave it at that,” Ausmus said after everyone pretty much knew what had gone on, thanks to an uncommonly long delay ahead of the post-game clubhouse doors opening.
“We’ve lost three in a row, we got out (tails) kicked today, and I don’t like it.”
Justin Verlander wasn’t expected to offer any light on what might have been discussed following Saturday’s disaster. And he didn’t when approached as he finished dressing at his clubhouse locker.
What he instead said was absolutely true: Verlander reminded his questioner that this was three games. Three games the Tigers have lost in a 162-game season.
You can make no more of a three-game slide than the Tigers had a right to make of their 3-0 start, a giddy interval that came courtesy of a sweep at Miami and an Opening Day shutout of the Yankees in Detroit.
The Tigers’ problems – and pluses – then and now are fairly tidily summarized:
Their starting pitching, which is what most matters for any playoff team, has been all over the place. For all of Jordan Zimmermann’s artistry, there have been too many bad games from Mike Pelfrey and Sanchez and others to make this, at the moment, a playoff-grade rotation.
The starters’ breakdowns have in turn worn out a bullpen. And if pitching problems of any degree show up, it means your offense must score at full-throttle. This was the case early in April, but with good opposing arms showing up, and those mystifying blackouts hanging over Cabrera and Upton, the Tigers have been caught both ways.
This led Saturday to a third consecutive knockout during which all of a team’s flaws have been magnified. From erratic pitching, to cold hitters, to the occasional baserunning gaffe, the Tigers have not looked good or played particularly well during the past week.
But note the time frame: past week.
Lumber company will report
In step with Verlander’s point, baseball’s flip side should be acknowledged. The Tigers could easily win their next three and everything would be seashells and balloons, as old basketball color man Al McGuire would say.
Cabrera will hit. Why he’s been so locked up, neither driving the ball nor showing any of his old fury, is an utter mystery. But assume a man of his grandeur who is healthy and who last week turned 33 will be back in sync soon.
Upton is 28. Remember his career numbers, crafted over nine – nine – big-league seasons heading into 2016: .271 batting average, .352 on-base percentage, .828 OPS.
You don’t lose your batting eye or your athleticism at 28. He’ll straighten out. But, again, this can’t be a long path back or it will take a toll on everyone, including Upton who is running into problems with the fans, not to mention a manager who is vulnerable.
The other issues are pitching-specific.
The Tigers can get by with a shaky Pelfrey, for example, because they, fairly quickly, will be able to replace him with one of their able Triple-A talents: Daniel Norris, Matt Boyd, or, perhaps in short time, Michael Fulmer.
But they cannot have three starters taking turns pitching acceptably and poorly. That’s a recipe for last place when the American League is utterly loaded in 2016 and doesn’t feature a single weakling.
This is probably the deepest and most versatile team the Tigers have put together in the past 10 years. But there’s a caveat: The front-line starting pitching, a team’s drive train, isn’t as formidable as some of those past division winners that, on balance, probably had less talent than the 2016 group.
Not much consolation there if the rotation isn’t cooperating. Not much solace, either, for a manager who knows his guys must play better if their season, and his, are to carry on minus the strife that was on display Saturday at Comerica Park.