Wojo: Offense is clicking but pitching must be in sync

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Detroit — The Tigers are hitting the ball everywhere now, over the fences and into the shrubs. It was bound to happen with this lineup, and it should happen more often than not.

That’s the encouraging news after a week in which the Tigers slugged merrily and mercilessly. In fact, after their 9-4 victory over the Rays Sunday, it’s tempting to declare an official turnaround, the type we expected from a team with such a loaded offense.

But then you look at the mound and see mounting issues. The Tigers have only two consistently good starting pitchers, and one of them departed Sunday with a groan and an aching groin. Jordan Zimmermann left in the sixth inning after straining his right groin while throwing a pitch, and the Tigers are awaiting an MRI result. They have some flexibility with an off day following a three-game series against the Phillies, and there’s no indication Zimmermann will be sidelined for a lengthy period.

This truly might be the one injury the Tigers could least afford. Justin Verlander has fought back to top-of-the-rotation status, but beyond that, the Tigers have holes. They also have options, but until someone takes control, they don’t have answers.

Plenty of options

They’ve rebounded to win six of seven and climb to 21-22, and it’s a notable recovery. But they still must dig up three decent starters, and it doesn’t matter who, or how. One of the struggling veterans, Anibal Sanchez (6.23 ERA) or Mike Pelfrey (5.49), would be ideal. Rookie Michael Fulmer was superb with 11 strikeouts on Saturday. Shane Greene is about to return from a rehab stint for a finger blister and has shown promise. Two other wild cards — Daniel Norris and Matt Boyd — are in Toledo, and one was just called up, Buck Farmer.

By my count, that’s seven possibilities. The Tigers like the odds of one or two emerging, but they can’t enjoy the wait.

Tigers win game, lose Zimmermann to groin strain

“It’s great when you’re hitting, but let’s face it, pitching wins,” manager Brad Ausmus said. “The chances of putting up seven runs every game over 162 are slim. I know we’ll hit, but we need to pitch.”

This is the offense most people envisioned, with Miguel Cabrera swatting the ball into the center-field greenery, along with J.D. Martinez and Victor Martinez. You knew Cabrera would regain his power (or you should have known), and after a slow start, he’s predictably up to nine home runs, 26 RBIs and a .315 batting average.

Because this is the gruesome grind of baseball, there’s always a qualifier, and Cabrera also left Sunday’s game. He was hit by a pitch below the left knee in the seventh inning and it struck a nerve and produced a contusion, but shouldn’t sideline him for long, if at all.

Even as the Tigers endured early slumps, you knew the offense would erupt.

The track records said so, and that was before Cameron Maybin arrived with an incredible flourish, driving in three more runs Sunday. That was before Ian Kinsler drilled 10 home runs and Nick Castellanos soared to the top of the AL hitting charts.

The Tigers need to dig into their May bin and find their pitching version of Maybin, an unforeseen prize. It could be Fulmer, the touted 23-year-old right-hander who shows tantalizing flashes. It could be Norris, who has pitched decently in Toledo since recovering from a back injury.

In essence, Maybin’s production is compensating for Justin Upton’s lack of production, and the Tigers are averaging seven runs per game since he arrived a week ago.

“Eight or nine days ago? I forget what that was like,” Kinsler said with a smile. “We’re playing good baseball. We’ve had a couple stretches where we’ve been a little up and down, but it’s a tough game. We wish we could roll out there and throw five or six runs up every game, but it’s not that simple.”

Consistency needed

It’s not simple or sustainable for any offense, with the possible exception of the Red Sox these days. But this has a chance to be the best Tigers lineup since they became contenders a decade ago. If Upton, James McCann and Jose Iglesias join the hitting party, look out.

The Tigers could slug their way to contention, but nobody slugs their way to consistency. That comes from starting pitching and a solid bullpen, and outside of Francisco Rodriguez, the bullpen has leakage too.

Alexander, Ravenelle cruising but Tigers will be patient

When Zimmermann or Verlander is on the mound, the Tigers can be imposing. But it can’t become like last season, when three-fifths of the rotation was in constant flux.

Tigers starters are 12th in the AL with a 4.72 ERA, and without Zimmermann (7-2, 2.52 ERA) it would be a disaster. Once they determine the severity of his injury, they have some time to decide whether a disabled-list stint is necessary. There were a lot of discussions after this game, with the clubhouse remaining closed to the media about 20 minutes longer than normal.

GM Al Avila met with Ausmus and his staff to go over options, and they have more depth to pick through. It’s too early to shriek that Avila must trade for another starter, but I suspect the shrieking will be unavoidable in July.

Maybe by then, some of the wild swings will have smoothed out. (Yeah, right).

“Baseball can be a stomach-churning rollercoaster ride,” Ausmus said.

“If you’ve experienced it enough, you realize it and it’s easier to keep a level head. It helps that this team has a lot of veteran players who have experienced it before.”

It also helps to hit the ball over the fence, which the Tigers are doing regularly now. It helps even more to throw the ball over the plate and force batters to miss it, the part of the formula they still hope to unlock.