Henning: Tigers sinking when they're not in sync
Oakland, Calif. — They hit — sometimes. They pitch — sometimes. They make plays and do honorable baseball acts lots of times.
But they sit at 24-25 nearly one-third of the way into a 2016 season and it’s perfectly fair to wonder if the Tigers will ever align skills sufficient to make one of those serious playoff runs in which they specialized for a string of years.
They lost a game Sunday to the last-place Oakland A’s, who beat them, 4-2. The A’s won a series the Tigers had planned on bagging as part of their late-May renaissance.
But now they arrive Monday at Angel Stadium of Anaheim having lost three of their last four. The Angels, of course, have beaten the Tigers in 18 of their last 21 games. It’s history that doesn’t make for great psychology, especially when you’ve just dropped two of three to the A’s.
Why that happened, at least in terms of Sunday’s defeat, is reflective of a team that, again, doesn’t do enough good things simultaneously.
The Tigers got a fine start Sunday from a troubled pitcher, Mike Pelfrey. He was superb through five innings and threw the ball well in the sixth, if you can excuse a leadoff walk.
But a couple of bloop hits and a botched grounder by the eternally impeccable Ian Kinsler was all it took for the A’s to score three times and turn a 2-0 Tigers lead and potential series conquest into a loss and a lost chance at Oakland.
Hits and misses
“We had a chance to take a series and we didn’t,” Tigers manager Brad Ausmus said. “They (A’s) didn’t knock the hell out of the ball. But they found a way to put the ball in places where our people weren’t standing.”
Where a tough — bad, if you prefer — defeat gets more complicated and becomes more of a commentary on a team’s 2016 season is when other reasons for Sunday’s loss are carved open.
Consider the top of a batting order.
Kinsler, J.D. Martinez, and Miguel Cabrera were a combined 0-for-10 against A’s starter Rich Hill and three A’s relievers. Each player had been hitting so well ahead of the West Coast swing that indictments aren’t about to be served for a tough day Sunday.
Rather, it’s an example of how confounding it can be for the Tigers in 2016 to pair enough quality skills in a single game to make this particular club look like a genuine playoff team.
The Tigers got five hits Sunday. Credit the amazing Hill, who has an 8-3 record and a 2.25 ERA on a last-place team, for pitching with such luster.
Hill, though, has beaten the Tigers twice, and won his latest on a day when Pelfrey was essentially matching him.
It was one more example of how a team, nearly two months into a season, can sit a game beneath break-even. A team with individual talent and a payroll to match still has difficulty playing past its soft spots. Baseball, at least on the big-league level, is bound to exploit weak links.
And the Tigers have so many: Starters who are in and out, relievers who can have issues when the starters are bringing them into a game too early or too frequently, and hitters throughout a lineup who can run into mystifying brownouts at the worst of times.
It was a somber, and yet almost noble, scene in the Tigers clubhouse afterward.
The lost series bordered on unnecessary for players and a manager and staff that knew the A’s were ripe to be beaten at least twice. A team knows when it has essentially donated games to an opponent. And there was enough consciousness on that front to have put a knot in 25 players’ stomachs as they headed for the airport and their charter trek to Anaheim.
The professional grace Sunday stemmed from how two people handled their roles in a bad defeat: Pelfrey and Kinsler.
Pelfrey hasn’t won a game for the Tigers and hadn’t deserved to win one — until Sunday. He set himself up for trouble with a leadoff walk in the sixth, and another after Kinsler’s error led to three unearned runs.
But he had pitched fairly elegantly and had all but earned a victory.
He wasn’t blaming anyone but himself afterward. And certainly not an infielder who had a human moment.
“In my opinion, he’s probably the best second baseman in the game,” Pelfrey said when he did an anatomy of a sixth-inning meltdown, which has been his, and his team’s undoing so many times in 2016.
"That stuff happens. I wanted Semien (Marcus, the next batter) to hit it to him again. Kinsler always makes those plays.”
Kinsler was cool also. No excuses, no apologies, no contrition for having done what we all do — drop things once in a while.
“It was a play that should have been made,” said Kinsler, who was more bothered that Pelfrey — and a team from Detroit — hadn’t gotten a victory that seemed within reach. “Stuff like that happens.”
And it does.
The difference is that teams destined for a playoff run so often play past the normal pratfalls that are part of any big-league game.
This team hasn’t yet shown it can do it. It’s something to think about as a team, and a season, are further defined.