Henning: Pitching still holds the key to Ausmus’ fate

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Detroit — You can never be sure with the Tigers, and with Detroit. Are fans more interested in a team’s playoff chances, or in Brad Ausmus’ fate?

Dicey, separating these two issues, when they’re so intertwined. If the Tigers put together a second-half run and win a playoff ticket, the manager probably sticks. If they don’t, he likely will be gone, which, one suspects, is how Ausmus also sees it.

Ausmus pitched his usual round of batting practice before Friday’s game against the Royals at Comerica Park, which the Tigers won, 4-2. He stepped from the field, into the Tigers dugout, and answered media questions, one of which had to do with something he had said a couple of months ago. That the season was a marathon, not a sprint, and there were still a lot of games left.

“A lot of games,” Ausmus repeated.

“Still?” he was asked.

“Not as many as there were then,” Ausmus quipped, dryly, which drew a few chuckles.

Ausmus is in the third year of a three-year contract. Those who aren’t ardent Ausmus supporters believe this is a death knell for a man weakened in the eyes of players who surely view him as a lame-duck skipper.

In fact, Tigers players are more concerned about where they and their wife have lunch ahead of tomorrow’s commute to Comerica Park than they’re obsessed with Ausmus’ contract.

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But it’s a big job, a high-profile job, and reality governs any coach, or manager, who works in professional sports.

Tigers need Indians’ recipe

Ausmus knows what baseball students understand about the Tigers and 2016. If his pitching staff heals, and throws well, throughout a starting rotation and extending into a bullpen’s back end, his team has the offense and just enough defense to win a ton of games.

But Tigers pitching will determine fates there just as Tigers pitching was the story Friday, with Justin Verlander waving his maestro’s wand in a seven-inning stint that got the Tigers a victory and moved them to 47-43 after 90 games.

The Tigers, on Friday, were 25th among 30 teams in pitching. That won’t win any playoff tickets. And, contrary to what some crowd hecklers scream, it’s not because of Ausmus that their starters were sitting 17th in all of baseball, and their bullpen was 26th.

Arms always loomed as the sore spot on this 2016 team. It was as true when the Tigers broke camp in Florida as it was this week when they headed for Comerica Park following a four-day All-Star break.

Pitching determines success or lack thereof in the big-league arena. Pitching is why the Indians were safely in first place Friday in the American League Central.Cleveland is using the same recipe the Tigers used during their string of playoff runs, when Verlander, Max Scherzer, Anibal Sanchez, and Rick Porcello were making it tough on opposing teams who hoped to take series victories from Detroit.

Another manager will change this? Not unless he were to arrive with a phalanx of healthy starters and a stream of back-end bullpen parts — apart from the amazing Francisco Rodriguez — who can be relied upon.

Evaluation will be different

It doesn’t mean the Tigers, beginning with general manager Al Avila, will view Ausmus as blameless if a team misses October for a second consecutive year.

Avila could easily decide he simply needs a new man in charge after allowing Ausmus to stick last September when the general manager rightly decided pitching, and not a manager, explained last year’s last-place finish.

This time the evaluation process will be different. Avila will have been on the job for a year-plus. He may conclude some things he wanted to see improved, such as baserunning, didn’t measure up. He could determine, also with validity, that there is an element of realpolitik in this business and that fans simply are ready for a new face in the dugout and during the postgame interviews.

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That’s reality any manager accepts when he steps onto the big league skipper’s stage. Not often are job evaluations based on a comprehensive system of justice. They’re wired to wins, losses, and how pleasing was the product. And, with all of that comes, at least on a low level, a degree of politics having to do with audience appeal.

You hear the fan complaints and most are hollow: The team in too many games is “lifeless.” Sure, when the Indians and other clubs’ top-tier starters are doing to the Tigers what good pitching often does to good-hitting teams: blanks them. No one in Detroit complained when Verlander and Scherzer were making quality hitters look like batting-box corpses.

Another grievance, of course, is that Ausmus makes the wrong bullpen choices. When your bullpen is 26th among 30 clubs, wrong choices are waiting to be made. What typically happens is this: A fan can’t figure out why so-and-so wasn’t used. The skipper’s reliever gets pummeled. The fan concludes, probably forever and ever, amen, that the manager is a moron.

Of course, when the manager’s bullpen option does the job, everyone’s happy and the earlier second-guess is discarded, privately and silently, like a broken bat.

This is how it shakes out for Ausmus and the Tigers in these closing weeks. If they can stitch together a steady pitching staff, they’ve got a chance to reach the playoffs with at least a wild-card ticket. If not — and the belief here is their arms will be a tad shy — the Tigers will head home on Oct. 3 as a general manager decides his next move. Which, even today, probably can be guessed.