Wojo: Streaky Tigers deliver another baffling outing

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
Tigers' James McCann reacts after striking out in the seventh inning on Sunday.

Detroit — It was a nonsensical weekend, capped by a dreary shutout. In many ways, it was an encapsulation of the Tigers’ season so far, which hasn’t made much sense at all.

Even for a team with mystifying swings, this was perplexing. And every time the Tigers unload a ghastly effort like this — Sunday’s 5-0 loss to the last-place Angels — it’s tougher to see the turbulence smoothing out. The Tigers sometimes are the hottest team in baseball, except for those times when they’re the coldest team in baseball.

The numbers make little sense, but we’re about to hit September, so they’re not anomalies anymore. The Tigers just lost two straight to the Angels (56-74), whose pitching staff has surrendered the second-most runs in the league. Tyler Skaggs had allowed 15 earned runs his last three outings but strummed the Tigers as if he were Boz Scaggs, giving up two hits in six innings.

Before the Angels popped them, the Tigers (69-61) had won five straight and creeped ever closer in the wild card and division races. Luckily for them, the Indians have declined to pull away and still lead by 4 1/2 games.

The Tigers remain contenders in theory and in fact, it’s just hard to quantify. The more you crunch the numbers, the fuzzier they get. This is a lineup that scored at least eight runs in four straight games, then scored two runs the last two games against the Angels. It’s an offense that has tallied double-digit run totals 13 times, and been shut out nine times. It’s a team loaded with powerful right-handed batters, yet can’t consistently beat ordinary left-handed starters such as Skaggs.

“Overall, we’ve struggled against lefties as a group,” Brad Ausmus said. “You can ask me any number of ways, I don’t know why.”

Ups and downs

The extremes are extreme, and they’re difficult to figure. The Tigers are 1-11 against the Indians, yet are the only team to pull off a sweep in Boston. They’ve lost 23 of their past 29 to the Angels, yet have the second-best record in the league against losing teams.

Hey, don’t take my word for it. The numbers factory known as Fangraphs.com did a semi-fascinating statistical analysis that confirmed what we pretty much knew — the Tigers are the streakiest team in the majors.

They’ve posted eight winning streaks of four games or more, second to the Rangers. They have five losing streaks of four-plus games, the most of any contender. Aside from the losing-happy Braves, the Tigers have recorded a higher percentage of their overall wins and losses during streaks than any other team, according to Fangraphs. Kind of geeky and confusing, I know, but it does fit the pattern.

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The Tigers have a thumping lineup — fourth in the AL in home runs and slugging percentage — without much speed. When they feast, they feast, as evidenced by Justin Upton’s recent three-run homer binge. And when they face less-imposing pitchers who rely on guile, their aggressiveness can hurt them.

Skaggs whiffed six, all on swinging third strikes, as the Tigers fell to 19-20 against left-handed starters. He was masterful but the Tigers were miserable, and the crowd of 28,220 had little to cheer.

“It’s frustrating, one of those things where we feel like we didn’t take care of business the way we should have,” catcher James McCann said. “We know how important every game is, we understand where we are in the standings. Just because all of a sudden we hit the five-week mark, doesn’t mean there’s any more sense of urgency than there already is.”

Losing their cool

In other words, the Tigers aren’t pressing, although at times you wonder. The previous night’s game was a debacle, in multiple ways. Home-plate umpire Mike Everitt ejected four Tigers — Victor Martinez, J.D. Martinez, Ausmus and hitting coach Wally Joyner — for arguing his strike zone, which was approximately the size of a walk-in refrigerator door.

Everitt did a poor job and made it worse by putting on a classic ump show, flinging his ejection arm like a maestro. It was a silly, thin-skinned display, but you have to add this: The Tigers did a poor job of handling the situation.

Victor Martinez spent an inordinate amount of time debating a strike before his third-inning ejection. He didn’t get overly animated until he was tossed, and neither did J.D. Martinez. But two prime sluggers absolutely have to stay in a game the Angels eventually won 3-2. If that means shaking off frustration, or Ausmus jumping out of the dugout quicker to protect his players, it has to happen.

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Victor Martinez wouldn’t comment Sunday about the incident, but spoke about the day’s struggles.

“They beat us, that was it, bottom line,” he said. “We didn’t do anything to produce any runs.”

Because he threw his helmet onto the field after the ejection, there’s a decent chance he’ll draw a short suspension, and that would hurt. As the lineup slowly gets injured pieces back, the Tigers can’t afford to lose anyone else.

They certainly can’t afford to get beat by a weak pitcher on a weak team in a weak manner. The White Sox come in next, another non-contender that won’t necessarily be easy to dispatch. Outside of beating up on the Twins, the Tigers can’t take anything for granted these days.

They can be maddeningly inconsistent, unstoppable and stoppable all in the same week, or the same game.

There’s no sense trying to make sense of it, because as the Tigers have shown, whichever direction they’re headed, it can change suddenly and inexplicably.