Detroit — For one tense night, capped by one familiar big swing, the good times and old times were back. Justin Verlander bulldogged his way through a lineup and Miguel Cabrera ended it with a walk-off blast.
The Tigers beat the Tampa Bay Rays 5-3 Thursday night amid positive signs and subdued sounds. More than exultation for the Tigers, it looked like a relief, or a reprieve. Ironically — not coincidentally — Verlander nearly recorded his first victory since May 20 (he settled for a no-decision), and it was Cabrera’s first home run since the same date. It was clutch baseball from the big fellas, and yet afterward, it was notably low-key in the clubhouse.
Cabrera quietly admitted he hurts in all sorts of places — “My back, my hip flexor, my groin” — but added, “I don’t want to say, I don’t hit, so I got something. I don’t want an excuse.”
Victor Martinez, still batting cleanup despite a power slump, knocked in the first run and finished with two hits, but removed himself from the game for dizziness and a racing heart. Brad Ausmus said doctors didn’t think it was serious.
Justin Wilson got the win with a scoreless ninth, yet much of the focus was on a rough inning by Francisco Rodriguez. K-Rod, who recently vented to The Detroit News that he was tired of mop-up duty and was ready to pitch in a pressure situation again, gave up the tying home run in the eighth to Steven Souza Jr., and surrendered a double before escaping. He was booed lustily as he walked off the mound.
It was a smallish but edgy crowd (24,056) at Comerica Park, as the Tigers had lost two in a row at home, six of eight overall, and contention possibilities were diminishing. This is where expectations and reality collide, and it would help if the players and fans understood each other’s situations a bit better.
Not vintage Verlander
The players are frustrated by their own struggles, and the fans are understandably frustrated by the 31-34 record. The team is feeling the heat and the fans have started applying the heat, and neither is especially productive.
Cabrera repeatedly said he was making no excuses, and whatever ailments he has, he’s capable of playing through. But does the back strain, first suffered in the ill-fated World Baseball Classic in the spring, affect the power of his swing? Of course it does. He has only six home runs and 31 RBIs, although his batting average has crept up to .280.
Verlander admitted he was puzzled by his own flaws — 4-4, 4.50 ERA — and has to be better. He pitched seven strong innings but struggled with command, walking five. When asked if he has felt at any point like he was approaching his second-half dominance of last season, Verlander didn’t fake it.
“Not yet,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s just a funky run or what, it’s just been a tick off here and there. And that probably leads to a little bit of the grinding feeling in a ballgame.”
Verlander wanted to be as positive as possible, but also explain how a negative vibe can affect a team. He wasn’t defiant and didn’t plead for calm from the fans, but it was clear the uneasy mood in the ballpark was noticed.
The booing of Rodriguez was nothing new for a wayward closer in this town, and a 35-year-old veteran like him probably can handle it. Rodriguez didn’t talk afterward but Ausmus brushed it off, and while the players couldn’t have liked it, they probably get it. They don’t completely understand how it can get so volatile with nearly 100 games left in the season.
“(The fans) do get feisty,” Verlander said. “I heard a guy boo Miguel when he came off the field and that was kind of disheartening. He was rather boisterous about it too. That’s ridiculous, that’s disappointing to hear, what that guy’s done for this city and this franchise. You’re talking a stretch of a couple months, when what he’s done over the last 10 years has been nothing short of extraordinary. I think everybody could be a little more positive. There are a lot of things that you could look at and say the tide will turn, there is a bright side. Some guys aren’t performing like we expected them to, but it’s always easier to look at the negative.”
‘Good frame of mind’
Verlander said he heard only one fan heckling Cabrera, and he joked it might have been a Rays fan. But it was bothersome on a night when plenty could be heard in the crowd. Again, Verlander wasn’t riled up, but wanted to offer the players’ perspective.
“In this clubhouse, I think we’re in a good frame of mind,” he said. “We’ve been through this before -- we’ve had seasons where we didn’t start off very well and looked like (expletive) and ended up making the playoffs with a lot of the same cast. … I think we’re a good team, we just got a bunch of guys that are having fluky years, not performing up to their capabilities, and I put myself in that category. It’ll all even out hopefully.”
Perhaps that’s why Cabrera opened up a bit about his physical limitations right now, admitting flaws without excusing performance. He’s already been on the disabled list with the oblique strain, and he said the aches are something he’ll have to deal with, something 34-year-old sluggers encounter.
There’s that intersection of expectation and reality again. Frustration has hit hard and hit home lately, although it was lifted for a night by the stalwart stars. For it to keep lifting, Verlander and Cabrera are two huge keys.
“Miggy’s played through injuries that normal people can’t play through and still perform at a very high level,” catcher Alex Avila said. “He’s also a human being, and that’s just part of the whole deal. He’s been so good for so long, that when he’s hitting .275, he’s struggling. But he’ll continue to battle, and you still always feel good when he’s at the plate.”
The familiar good feeling was back as Cabrera’s home run cleared the right-field fence. It capped a weird-vibe night of conflicting emotions and contrasting results, when the warhorses showed their pain, and also showed they’re still capable of delivering.