Henning: Tigers' vexing season left for JV to salvage
Atlanta — Have you seen anything like this 2016 baseball season in Detroit?
This isn’t a trite question meant to acknowledge a town’s general exasperation with the Tigers and with a season that has, at its worst moments, endangered a fan base’s mental health.
This is asked simply because nothing like 2016 exists in memory banks that are deep and extensive.
Consider as but one graham of evidence a 24-hour interlude extending Friday night through Saturday evening at Turner Field in Atlanta as the Tigers and Braves met with Detroit’s playoff future resting on every inning and pitch.
The Tigers won brilliantly, 6-2, Friday and were on a three-game winning streak with three regular-season games to play. You could all but feel the crisp chill of past playoff nights at Comerica Park.
The Tigers were revved, too. Properly so. They seemed, at last, to be healthy and clicking and they knew Braves pitcher Aaron Blair was to start Saturday night’s game and that Blair’s season ERA was so bad (8.01) he was trying to convince friends it was a typographical error.
But again: Have you ever seen anything like 2016? And a team’s gravitational pull to the coin’s flip side?
Blair pitched a career game — he threw a masterly mix of shoe-top junk that tied up the Tigers — with 10 strikeouts in six innings. He allowed four hits and two runs, one of which came on Justin Upton’s customary home run, his 31st of the year and 18th since Aug. 20.
But the Tigers missed in the eighth inning when Miguel Cabrera struck out with the bases loaded and none out and when J.D. Martinez followed with a scorching ground ball that the Braves’ kid shortstop Dansby Swanson turned into a double play.
Three runs. Not often does three runs get it done in a big-league game.
This would explain why a Tigers postgame clubhouse Saturday night had all the audio energy of a confessional.
Everyone knew how badly this game hurt. How close it had come to turning around.
J.D. Martinez’s grounder was seared. An eyelash to the left and it’s a two-run single. An inning earlier, the Braves got a two-run single on a ground ball past Tigers shortstop Jose Iglesias, who was pulled shallow in the infield with one out and runners at third and second and the Tigers trying to keep tight to a 3-2 Braves lead.
Martinez’s grounder was blistered. Adonis Garcia’s was slapped through a hole Iglesias in a normal defensive deployment would have covered.
That close and a game, and perhaps the Tigers’ playoff opportunity for 2016, may have vanished.
What a night to have gotten seven hits and scored three runs. And the Tigers knew it, which was source for a clubhouse’s silence and, just maybe, its collective disgust.
Speaking from the heart
“I’m just gonna say we’re better than we showed,” Upton said, with clear irritation, as he headed for the shower after a long, soulful chat with Cameron Maybin. “We’re better than that.
“I’ll leave it at that.”
In his office minutes earlier, Brad Ausmus had taken a softer view as he talked about a loss that, because of the stakes, seemed like more than a single defeat. He spoke while keeping one eye on his office’s television screen, which was carrying the Blue Jays-Red Sox game that Toronto won in the ninth.
“I still like the way the team fought,” said Ausmus, who knew if he came unglued Saturday so might his team with two days and two games to go.
But the pattern has been tortured in 2016 and Ausmus understands that, as well. Winning streak. Losing streak. Winning spurt. Losing spurt. Win big game. Lose big game.
His consolation is the Tigers’ inspiration heading into Sunday's series crescendo and farewell to Turner Field, which the Braves are leaving for new digs in 2017.
Their hope comes in the person of Justin Verlander.
“Either way,” Ausmus said, “we must win (today) and there’s no other pitcher in this game I’d more want on the mound than Justin Verlander.”
His teammates will raise a glass to the skipper’s toast. They know Verlander. They know their ace. How he loves October.
How he lives for the stage. And for that knowing wink from his teammates at the most serious of moments that says, unmistakably, “It’s all on you, big guy.”
And it is.
Win today and the American League’s most confounding team will have at least bought a few hours more of hope, of thoughts this torture-rack of a 2016 season might yet make sense.