Detroit — The offense bounces from adept to inept to adept so regularly, we've given up trying to figure it out. But here was another example, nicely packaged on a sunny midseason day, why it's way too early to give up on the Tigers' chances.
It wasn't just that they wiped out a 4-0 deficit in the eighth inning against Jeff Samardzija, who was cruising. It wasn't just that rookie James McCann slugged the walk-off home run to stagger the White Sox 5-4 Sunday.
It was that Victor Martinez delivered, in one dramatic stroke, several of the ingredients the Tigers had been missing — clutch hitting, gap power, decisiveness. Martinez's three-run double in the eighth tied it, and came moments after Miguel Cabrera had struck out. That's the quintessential example of taking the heat off the big man, and for a day at least, taking the heat off the team.
Can such a stirring spark lead to more than a brushfire?
"We hope," Martinez said. "We're just trying to feed off anything."
Still in the hunt
Sometimes when the Tigers (39-36) are muddling along with their boom-or-bust lineup, playoff contention seems like yesterday's news. The starting pitching can be erratic and the bullpen can be (unmentionable). The Tigers look listless at times, even unfocused, such as when David Price thought he was out of the game after the sixth inning, but Brad Ausmus thought he was still in.
Similar miscommunication has happened before, especially with missed signs, and it can't continue. The Tigers have the talent to overcome some of their odd lapses, but they can't let the division race get too far away from them. They're 6½ games behind the scorching Royals, although only 1½ behind the Yankees for a wild-card spot. Is a one-game playoff showdown worth the fight? Absolutely. The AL isn't loaded, and two wild-card teams — the Giants and Royals — met in the World Series last year.
As the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline approaches, there could be a debate whether to sell prime pieces or go buy more. Frankly, I don't think it'll be much of an argument. Of course the Tigers will remain buyers, unless something drastic happens. GM Dave Dombrowski, at the urging of Mike Ilitch, can't surrender the pursuit, not while still possessing firepower.
The Tigers would have to be at least 10 games out of a playoff spot before they could reasonably capitulate. This is a franchise that has been all-in for nearly a decade, with two World Series losses and four division titles to show for it, and it'd be a mistake to change course now.
On the buyer-seller question, one thing is certain: The Tigers can't be neither. They can't bump along at .500 without getting help, and they can't give up any of their top pending free-agents — Price, Yoenis Cespedes, Joakim Soria — for a fresh infusion.
To some, it might make sense, fiscally and philosophically, to retreat and retrench. But then you see the middle of a lineup — Cabrera, Victor Martinez, Cespedes, J.D. Martinez — that can be fearsome, and you see Victor Martinez with more and more healthy left-handed swings. And you see vague signs that Justin Verlander might revive himself, and reliever Bruce Rondon can unleash his 100-mph heat again, and catcher Alex Avila is close to returning, possibly to settle the pitching staff.
Or go back to the most recent, small sample. You see the Tigers trailing the White Sox 4-0 with two feeble hits through seven innings, then Jose Iglesias wins a 10-pitch battle to draw a walk, and later, Victor Martinez does what he did all last season, when he was second in the MVP voting.
"That's the Victor we saw in 2014, and we've seen it since he's come back from the rehab assignment," Ausmus said. "I feel like there's somebody back there that's really protecting Miggy."
Cabrera leads the AL in hitting with a .350 average, and J.D. Martinez is second with 19 home runs. The Tigers top the league in batting average and on-base percentage, but have been short-circuited by a near-record pace of double plays.
That's why, when Dombrowski and his staff start considering options, it's hard to demand they fix the offense. It doesn't run as smoothly as it should, but with all those pieces, it's not irreparably broken. More likely, the Tigers will have to make a push for a starting pitcher, such as the Reds' Johnny Cueto or the Phillies' Cole Hamels, or a reliever, such as the Reds' Aroldis Chapman.
The resurgence of one Martinez (J.D.) and the return of another (Victor) should help shorten the dry stretches in a long season.
"Victor adds another dimension to the lineup, a big bat that we were missing for awhile," said McCann, who has three career home runs, and two were walk-offs. "He's our cleanup hitter, and he's a tough out. We got Victor back, Verlander back, Alex (Avila) coming back, the team's starting to mold."
The Tigers are getting closer to being whole again, and that's when realistic judgments can be made and bold moves mulled. The distance between listlessness and light can be as short as one explosive inning, or one explosive bat.