Henning: Tigers will stay in race if pitching holds up

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Detroit — Sometimes a team wins and knows, deep down, it really didn’t win.

There’s a badly pitched game in which one club throws slightly less pathetically than another. There’s a sloppy victory gained mostly because the other team decided defense was entitled to a nine-inning vacation.

And then, on occasion, you lose even when you’ve done things right, beginning with the guy on the pitching mound, which was the case Sunday when the Tigers lost — use the term advisedly — to the New York Mets, 3-1, at Comerica Park.

Anibal Sanchez pitched eight innings of radiant baseball for the Tigers. He struck out 10, allowed only four hits and not a single walk, and exited with the score tied, 1-1, all before Francisco Rodriguez, who was entitled to a slip-up, had one in the ninth inning as he hit a batter and served a long home run to Neil Walker that landed in the right-center field bleachers.

Ballgame. Defeat for the Tigers, only their second in the past 12 games.

And why is a team that for four months treated the .500 mark as if it was its permanent address now 61-50 and heading to Seattle two games out of first place in the American League Central?

Because of games such as Sunday’s.

Brad Ausmus knew it as he sat in the Tigers manager’s office. And so did his players. They dressed for a long plane ride to Seattle and showed some maturity by tacitly acknowledging Jacob deGrom and New York’s bullpen flat-out whipped them.

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Whipped them, in fact, the way the Tigers have been conking teams of late. With good pitching and a big hit.

Ausmus made an essential point afterward.

“We’ve faced some good pitching this homestand,” he said, mentioning the Astros and their starters, who had been hot before the Tigers swept them. He talked about Carlos Quintana and Chris Sale of the White Sox, against whom the Tigers split. He spoke of the Mets’ hotshots, which include deGrom, and Noah Syndergaard, another ace the Tigers beat Friday.

Pitching revival

It doesn’t mean for a moment there was satisfaction Sunday. It was a loss, and one loss could be the difference in seven weeks between a playoff spot and going home. And the Tigers knew it.

But, oh, pitching. Even with Ausmus’ lineup crunching the ball on so many nights the past two weeks, pitching has been the difference.

The Tigers deep into July had pitching among the league’s worst one-third. Uneven starters and a hit-and-miss bullpen made Ausmus’ crew a pogo stick of a team.

But since the All-Star break the Tigers have the fifth-best ERA in baseball (3.25) and, more tellingly, the fourth-best WHIP (1.14). In the American League Tigers starters have the best ERA of any team except Tampa Bay.

Keep spinning digits anywhere close to those and you’ll have a playoff club, and probably a division-winner.

Pitching is the constant. Pitching dictates a game’s flow and, normally, its outcome. The Tigers can score enough runs to win a playoff ticket, even with Nick Castellanos gone for a month or so with a fractured hand, and even with Justin Upton and James McCann all but confirming they’re lost and hoping for a 2017 turnaround.

But what will certify the Tigers’ stock as a playoff contender is the degree to which they pitch down the stretch.

The guys throwing must stick close to the performance level shown since their All-Star breather.

Even with Jordan Zimmermann on the shelf because of his rash of freaky injuries, the Tigers are cobbling together a decent rotation.

Bullpen renaissance

At 33, Justin Verlander remains one of the game’s royal pitchers. Michael Fulmer probably should win American League Rookie of the Year. Sanchez is 32 and showed Sunday he still can flash the fastball (93 much of the time Sunday) and location, together with his bagful of multi-grip secondary pitches. He could yet be the difference, either way.

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Mike Pelfrey gives up too many hits to make him overly trustworthy. But he has been better of late and isn’t the risk he was earlier this season.

Matt Boyd? His forte is he throws four pitches and tends to get the most from his repertoire. He’s not going to shut down many teams. But neither is he likely to get massacred. He remains a critical pitcher on a team still waiting for Zimmermann to heal.

The rotation is big on a team that finally seems to have figured out a bullpen cast.

K-Rod proved Sunday he was mortal. But he’s otherwise gold. Shane Greene loves relief and has been the big prize.

Bruce Rondon looks as if he has figured out life, and pitching, and what a happy melding of elements for the Tigers and for Rondon if he and his 100-mph fastball, and merciless slider, are on track.

You can forget about all the other items in the Tigers’ playoff blueprint. Because none of it matters as much.

The lineup will get its runs. It’s stopping opposing teams that will decide if the Tigers can turn that hodgepodge of an early year into a playoff run. If the arms hold up, Detroit’s pitchers just might make Mike Ilitch happy he spent heavily for one more season.