Henning: Pitching gives Tigers their last, best shot
Detroit — On the field at Comerica Park, it is 11 p.m. Monday and the Cleveland Indians have just hugged and high-fived their way into the visitors clubhouse for an hour or two of champagne bathing.
This used to be the Tigers’ September habit. Celebrating division crowns. Splashing in bubbly. Wearing goggles to keep eyes safe from Dom Perignon spray. Lighting cigars. Dancing to Latin music.
But the Tigers lost their third game in three days Monday night to the division champion Indians, 7-4, and now are two games to the rear of the Orioles in a dash with Baltimore and the Blue Jays — and Mariners — for a wild-card playoff spot.
Which of course means the Tigers, who seem to answer every streak with an opposite run, probably will win the next three against Cleveland and who knows how many more in this weekend’s regular-season farewell at Atlanta.
These are the Tigers in 2016. They are baffling, bewildering, confounding, and — for sure — odds-defying. They win and lose in bunches that betray any sense of baseball order.
“It has been, without question, a streaky season,” said Tigers manager Brad Ausmus, whose team at noon Saturday had a 1 1/2-game wild-card lead on the Orioles and 60 hours later had seen the teams’ places flip. “With that in mind, let’s see if we have one more good streak in front of us.”
A few moments earlier Ausmus had chafed at a question about the Tigers’ dire percentages with six games to play.
“I love it when people talk about the odds,” he said, all but snorting. “We don’t really give a crap about the odds.”
Here is why the notion of the Tigers pulling another of their famous pivots is plausible.
Like a pro wrestler who crashes into the ropes and then uses them as a slingshot to fly across the canvas and conk his nemesis, the Tigers almost seem as if they need a losing streak before they find a counterpunch.
Be prepared for such possibilities this week. Because various realities suggest a turnaround is taking shape.
Justin Verlander pitches Tuesday night against the Indians, who have their division crystal displayed and who figure to be psychologically at half-mast as they privately prepare for the playoffs.
Michael Fulmer pitches against the Indians in Wednesday’s game, while Daniel Norris, who has looked about as good as any of the Tigers’ rotation gang of late, starts Thursday.
The Indians are a preposterous 14-2 against the Tigers in 2016. Percentages strongly suggest a market correction is in order, although one should be careful about mentioning mathematical probabilities to Ausmus unless wearing Kevlar.
It’s all about pitching. It always is. The Tigers let three consecutive games get away beginning Saturday when Francisco Rodriguez had a rare moment of self-immolation and lost a 4-2 lead and a vital game. His ninth-inning blow-up was followed by Matt Boyd’s catastrophic first inning Sunday, which blended with a general pitching breakdown Monday to leave the Tigers with three consecutive knots on their scalps.
But, again, these are the Tigers, this is 2016, and the minute — no, the moment — you believe this club either is headed to the playoffs or to Detroit Metro for a flight home and an October essentially free of baseball, you get the Jekyll and Hyde lesson the Tigers have dispensed time and time again in 2016.
With a chance of rain?
You can, of course, present an opposite case here and jurors will be sympathetic.
Detroit’s pitching has been an exercise in instability for too much of the season. That trait can be almost impossible to overcome, especially in the playoffs, even if the Tigers were to crack the wild-card game.
The Tigers are out of healthy and rested starters and needed Buck Farmer on Monday. He was on a par with what might have been expected from a pitcher with six career big-league starts: four runs in five innings.
Alex Wilson, who typically is reliable, had a tough night Monday, as did Justin Wilson, whose compulsion to throw home-run pitches this season is as weird as any other stat from the Tigers’ 2016 Halloween aisle.
But ignore all of what happened at this ballpark in the span of 60 hours. What we have come to understand this year is that bad times could well be a simple prologue to an opposite Indians-Braves epilogue.
That’s the way the Tigers must view it. They have no choice.
“You see crazy finishes every year,” said Ian Kinsler, who acknowledged that, yes, this year had felt like an absolute yo-yo with its ups and downs. “We’re still in the mix.”
Verlander tonight. Fulmer on Wednesday. Norris goes Thursday.
Bet against them at your own risk. Their manager, to name one clubhouse skeptic, isn’t much into odds.