Wojo: Tigers win but limp home with change in the air

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

If Brad Ausmus still has a chance to save his job, this is the only way to do it — with the Tigers somehow turning heat into a sudden spark. It looked over, and the reality is, it still might be over for the manager. One game doesn’t completely alter fates, especially one game early in a long season.

But just when it seemingly couldn’t get worse, the Tigers gasped for air and grasped for something they hadn’t shown — clutch hitting, clutch pitching and big blows from the big boys. The Tigers edged the Orioles 6-5 Sunday to avert a completely disastrous road trip. They certainly didn’t end the speculation and we have no idea if they started something, but perhaps the debate isn’t over.

Like many people, I thought it was over and Ausmus should be fired, with the Tigers having lost 11 of 12. And very soon, the team still might have no choice but to fire him. That doesn’t make him a scapegoat or an easy target. It makes him the manager of a team with a $200-million payroll that has played poorly for more than a year.

But they got a break Sunday, when first-base umpire Mark Wegner questionably ruled J. D. Martinez checked his swing on an apparent third strike that would have ended the eighth inning. Then they got a blast from Martinez, the tying home run, and another blast on the next pitch from Miguel Cabrera, the winning home run. It was easy to forget amid the misery the Tigers are still capable of having a blast.

Now, back to reality for a moment. They’ve lost 11 of 13 and are 16-21, after finishing in last place a year ago. This is a team with serious flaws — notably on the mound — and there’s a chance it’s simply not good enough. But that’s an insufficient answer when you have the fourth-highest payroll in baseball and Mike Ilitch just committed a couple more $100-million-plus contracts to Jordan Zimmermann and Justin Upton. There’s a price for doing pricey business — everything gets inflated, including expectations.

There are 125 games left, too many to just toss away the season or wile away the time. A week ago, Ausmus admitted he was “in the crosshairs,” and he absolutely should be. There’s been no word from ownership or GM Al Avila, probably because they were embarrassed by reports last year Ausmus would be fired, and he wasn’t.

There’s no instant fix, but turning an experienced team over to a rookie manager hasn’t worked.

In the short term, the next guy must bring managerial heft. The Ilitches could stay inside the organization with Lloyd McClendon in Toledo, or go outside with former Twins manager Ron Gardenhire or someone else.

Home stand beckons

Or maybe, after a last-gasp, stress-lifting victory, they could wait a little longer. Players have defended Ausmus, so you’d think his tenuous situation would provide inspiration, if there was any left. Maybe that’s what we saw Sunday, after Francisco Rodriguez closed it out against the first-place Orioles and the players leapt joyously from the dugout.

The Tigers return for a nine-game home stand starting tonight, and theoretically could ride with Ausmus to see if the favorable schedule — Minnesota, Tampa Bay, Philadelphia — turns their fortunes. The hard part is, so many fortunes need turning, from starters Anibal Sanchez and Mike Pelfrey to a suddenly shaky bullpen to Upton’s nasty struggles in an inconsistent lineup. The Tigers are 5-9 at Comerica Park, and have played as if saddled with pressure.

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After his home run to beat Baltimore, Martinez said it best on the Fox Sports Detroit broadcast: “The whole team has kind of been on edge, everyone has the anxiety and that stress on them. Hopefully we were able to break that and now maybe we can just have a little fun and start enjoying playing baseball again.”

As always, beware the illusion with this team and this unpredictable sport. But it’s important to note Justin Verlander is pitching very well again, and Zimmermann has been great.

And Cabrera, with two home runs and four RBIs in his last two games, is starting to show familiar power. The Tigers were 0-19 when trailing after seven innings before the rally in Baltimore.

Risk not rewarded

It’s impossible to parcel out slices of blame with a team that has underperformed in so many places, at bafflingly different times. But repercussions almost always start with the manager, although in this case, they actually started with the general manager, Dave Dombrowski, who was fired last August.

Mike Ilitch made that move, and foreshadowed what could (should) happen next. Whether it’s Ilitch or his son Chris — the succession plan officially announced last week — there’s not a ton of incentive letting Ausmus continue the final year of a three-year contract. It was risky hiring a guy with no managing experience to replace Jim Leyland, and that was Dombrowski’s mistake. It was passive to stick it out after last year’s debacle, and that could be Avila’s mistake.

When there’s not much left to see, or to say, it’s time to do something. That time has drawn near as the Tigers have been numbingly redundant the past two weeks. For one game, they showed a spark, which might yet precede a firing, unless in some way it ignites a fire.