Detroit — The pitching woes might be hard to accept, but they're easy to understand. Stars departed, stars got hurt, relievers stumbled. No big mystery there.
The autopsy of this Tigers season will confirm "sudden pitching failure" as the primary cause, but not the primary puzzle. Somehow, they have the best offense in baseball, by several measures, and yet often lose as they did Sunday, 4-2 to the Rangers.
The postseason flicker is pretty much extinguished and now frustration is bubbling, partly because the Tigers know they enter most games shorthanded and short-armed. If it's possible, this is one of the best seasons of Miguel Cabrera's career, and also among the most taxing and vexing.
The Tigers aren't 59-64 because of their offense, but there's nothing wrong with trying to unravel the mystery of the inconsistencies. One popular theory: It's baseball, and it's not supposed to make sense.
"If you look at the numbers, we're tops in the league in offense in a lot of categories," Ian Kinsler said. "So we're supposed to produce six runs every game, is that how baseball works?"
There was an edge to Kinsler's voice, and a dismissive head shake. There was an edge to Cabrera as well, who stood two lockers away and angrily disagreed with my line of questioning.
I get it, that pitching dominates, that offensive production comes and goes. When negativity seeps into a clubhouse, players try diligently to stamp it out, and that's what Cabrera was doing, in his own raw way. He accused me of "always talking (stuff)," which is rarely my intent, and he declined to answer questions.
Cabrera has been on an incredible splurge since returning from a six-week stint on the disabled list, hitting .500 (17-for-34) in nine games. His average is up to .367, which should easily land him his fourth batting title when he has enough plate appearances to qualify.
Cabrera, 32, never has been concerned about individual accolades. When he says he only cares about winning, he's not faking it. Just try to ask him about the batting title and see how far that goes. He returned on the early end of his expected absence because the Tigers were still sniffing around the wild card until the pitching fell apart, and that's the source of the irritation.
Matt Boyd threw pretty well Sunday and fellow rookie Daniel Norris showed promise before he went on the disabled list. Even 39-year-old nomad Randy Wolf gave the Tigers a chance. But you get the point.
In his final acts as Tigers GM, Dave Dombrowski sold David Price, Yoenis Cespedes and Joakim Soria at the deadline knowing he didn't have enough pitching to contend, but also acknowledging he didn't have Cabrera back yet. Who knows how differently Dombrowski's fate would have played out if Cabrera didn't suffer the calf strain July 3.
It's all part of the crazy riddle. Kinsler and J.D. Martinez are having marvelous seasons, and Jose Iglesias and James McCann have kept hitting. The Tigers lead the majors in batting average (.275) and on-base percentage (.331), yet are eighth in runs.
Theoretically, when a team is atop several categories, run-scoring isn't an issue. But as Kinsler and Cabrera explicitly noted, this isn't a game of theory.
"Theoretically?" Kinsler said in retort. "Oh, OK. … You can't just be an offensive team. I don't know how long y'all been covering baseball or sports, but you have to be able to perform all aspects of the game."
The Tigers have done a decent job not pointing fingers, because truly, how do you explain the pitching situation? Anibal Sanchez joined Norris on the disabled list. Shane Greene was ineffective, then injured. Justin Verlander missed two-and-a-half months and now looks good again.
The Tigers are wasting away, filling up the disabled list faster than they fill up a scorecard. Do the hitters press because of the pitching problems? Sure. Do they try to push it on the base paths to generate offense? Sure. The Tigers lead the league in hitting into double plays, and are near the top in runners picked off and runners thrown out at the plate.
That'll take the shine off glossy statistics.
"You look at the numbers, and if everything stands on its own, they look good," manager Brad Ausmus said. "But for whatever reason, we can't seem to get that fly ball with a runner on third at times, or that double with runners on first and second. Other than the occasional double play, or inopportune strikeout, I couldn't tell you exactly why it's happened."
Good seasons wasted
Ausmus' task will be to calm the turbulence the final 39 games. The Tigers have wasted chances — nine more runners left on base Sunday — and fan support, with another big announced crowd of 39,317. But of all the reasons this season has to be an aberration, a bizarre confluence of injuries and inexplicable twists, this is among the biggest: They're wasting terrific individual offensive performances, led by Cabrera.
Kinsler is hitting .304 and has an AL-best 48 multi-hit games. J.D. Martinez leads the team with 32 home runs and 81 RBIs. Nick Castellanos has been on a run-producing binge and Iglesias is hitting .306.
There are significant pieces in place here, outside of that whole pitching conundrum. That's why when Mike Ilitch sits down with new GM Al Avila to discuss plans for next season, reining in the spending shouldn't be an option. Certainly, when the owner is 86, immediacy is important. It's increasingly important to veterans such as Cabrera, Kinsler, Verlander and Victor Martinez, who aren't interested in a gradual makeover.
The Tigers have a lot to figure out in the long term. In the short term, fighting through frustration and foes (real or imagined) will be the major challenge.