Henning: Death of Fernandez puts game in perspective

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Royals catcher Salvador Perez has 'RIP J.F.16' written on his chest protector, in memory of Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez who died in a boating accident.

Detroit — Be careful about leaning against that old baseball bromide: It’s only a game.

Sometimes it isn’t.

It wasn’t only a game Sunday when the Tigers arrived at Comerica Park and learned one of the most brilliant pitchers in the big leagues, Jose Fernandez, a man they had played against five months ago, had been killed hours earlier when a 32-foot boat crashed against rocks in Miami.

Baseball, the game, became a world in which life and cruel death slammed fraternity brothers from another big league town and team. Tigers shortstop Jose Iglesias, a fellow Cuban countryman and offseason friend in Miami, was so ravaged he sat out the start of Sunday’s game.

He composed himself and later slammed a pinch-hit double in the ninth inning of a crushing, 12-9 loss to the Kansas City Royals at Comerica Park.

This defeat came during the nine-inning version of baseball, the competitive game, which earlier in a long season might have been something the Tigers could have brushed aside.

But not when there is a week to play in the regular season. Losses and victories are heavy and dense.

The Tigers at mid-afternoon Saturday had a half-game lead on the Orioles for a final American League wild-card ticket.

But after closer Francisco Rodriguez came apart and turned a 4-2 Tigers lead into a 7-4 loss, and after Sunday’s pitching disaster, which saw the Royals get 19 hits to Detroit’s 17, the Tigers had dropped back-to-back killers and sunk 1.5 games behind the Orioles with seven days to play.

Ebbs and flows

Separate from events Sunday’s horrific Fernandez news and an afternoon at Comerica Park would have been something of a microcosm from the Tigers’ 2016 ways.

They so often score enough to win but a pitcher blows up. They pitch well and hitters get shut down. This isn’t unique to the Tigers — it’s every team’s story during a 162-game season.

But this personality split has been extreme in 2016 and has made Detroit’s baseball team excruciating for fans to follow.

Winning streak. Losing streak. Well-pitched game. Badly pitched game. Nine runs. Or maybe one or none.

It has made rugged any bid to get a lasting handle on the 2016 club. The team was hard to peg during spring training and has been tough to label since. What is this club, anyway, with all its instant ascents and descents?

Brad Ausmus sat in his office following Sunday’s game and might have wondered why he had signed onto this job. He showed up Sunday morning and had to deal with a shocked cast of players whose grief levels varied, with none more affected than Iglesias.

He talked with his shortstop. He gauged the pain. Iglesias was scratched.

Iglesias, Tigers grief-stricken over death of Jose Fernandez

He then watched as a rookie pitcher, Matt Boyd, a left-hander who has been such a pleasing surprise, pitched Sunday like a rookie: five batters in the first got a home run, triple, double, and two singles. Four runs.

The Tigers sweated their way to 17 hits and nine runs. Ausmus was thrilled.

“The fight from our offense was outstanding,” he said, and he had reason to be proud.

Mound misery

But baseball, the pennant-race version, is merciless. The Tigers were 19th among 30 big-league teams Sunday in team ERA. They were 13th in WHIP. In other words, the skill that best defines playoff clubs — pitching — is no more than mid-range compared with other teams.

It seems as if pitching breakdowns, as much as too many months on the disabled list for too many players, will be the Tigers’ 2016 epitaph. Unless a winning streak that always seems to follow the tough moments begins today against the Indians at Comerica Park.

Ausmus allowed himself one of the few upbeat thoughts he might have experienced Sunday.

“I would discourage people from jumping off the bandwagon too early,” he said, reminding that seven games remain.

It was a manager’s way of saying that with this team, this year, when so little has made sense, assuming the dark scenario could be a mistake.

He was right.

He knew also, as a man who had experienced grief on Iglesias’ level, that Sunday’s experience would not be defined solely by a scoreboard. When he played for the Astros in 2002, Ausmus’ teammate and friend Darryl Kile died at 33 of coronary disease.

Ausmus’ manager, Jimy Williams, took one look at a crushed Ausmus, had one brief conversation, and allowed his catcher to miss that day’s game.

It wasn’t, after all, just a game. Not then. Not Sunday.

Death and a pennant race. Each must be addressed. Each has its context. Each made for a tough Sunday at Comerica Park.

Twitter: @lynn_henning