Wojo: Scrappy Tigers won't be a punching bag

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
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Detroit — This is what it looks like, at the intersection of rebuilding and rejuvenating. The Tigers are smack in the middle, with young guys trying to prove themselves, and older guys trying to reprieve themselves.

Somehow, it’s new and old at the same time at Comerica Park these days, with invigorating moments and deflating moments, but not too many dull moments. It was about to get real interesting Sunday, with Francisco Liriano taking a no-hitter into the sixth inning and the Tigers seemingly churning toward another victory.

But here’s the lesson of this season — enjoy the smaller pictures, because the big picture is still far from focused. Liriano lost his no-hit bid — his pitch count was too high to make it feasible anyhow — on an 0-2 pitch that Whit Merrifield clobbered for a home run, and the Tigers fell to the Royals 8-5.

In this game, and in the 5-3 home stand, we saw reasons why the Tigers are better than we thought (9-11), which isn’t saying a lot for a team projected by many to be the worst in the majors. Frankly, that offended them, especially the veterans, and they’re doing something about it. It’s just unclear where it can lead.

For instance, Liriano now has four strong starts since the Tigers signed him to a one-year, $4-million contract. Why did a rebuilding team pick up a 34-year-old lefty? To be respectable, and he has delivered. But every time a player does well, you ask yourself — is he a piece of the future or a chip to be dealt?

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It’s a difficult dichotomy, and to the Tigers’ credit, they’re handling it well, so far. You see why they brought in an experienced manager in Ron Gardenhire, who strikes the perfect tone of tempered positivity while preaching aggressiveness on the basepaths. You see the growth in guys like right-fielder Nick Castellanos and closer Shane Greene, who have become emotional leaders.

Jovial jolters

You see the enthusiasm in Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez, eager to erase last season’s painful performances. The Tigers say they felt it the first day of spring training, when someone placed on their locker stools copies of an article bearing the headline, “The 2018 Tigers will stink.”

“Nobody likes to be told they suck at their profession,” Castellano said Saturday after the Tigers pounded the Royals 12-4. “All we’re doing is going out there to try to prove people wrong. We’re playing for each other, and we don’t have a lot of egos in the clubhouse.”

They’ve won five of their past seven as they head on the road, and yes, they’ve beaten mediocre opponents. But remember, that was supposed to be the Tigers, and after surviving the misery of the early weather, they’ve emerged with an upbeat spirit intact.

Castellanos has been scorching, his average up to .309, as he learns the intricacies of right field. But at 26, is he even guaranteed to be a piece when the Tigers are ready to go for it again? The team has all sorts of players in that age range with wide possibilities but no certainties — Dixon Machado, 26, JaCoby Jones, 25, James McCann, 27, Jose Iglesias, 28, Niko Goodrum, 26.

More: Despite no-hit bid, Tigers' Liriano unlikely to finish

Jeimer Candelario, 24, may be the guy with legitimate staying promise, along with starter Michael Fulmer, at least while the Tigers wait for their prime pitchers in the minors to develop. Candelario looks like a real player at third, hitting .277 with 10 RBIs. In the first inning Sunday, he laced a hit to left-center, saw the outfielder hesitate, and beat the throw for a double. That energy sparked a rally for a 2-0 lead that held up until the fateful sixth, when the Royals got to Liriano, and then Abraham Almonte clubbed a grand slam off Alex Wilson.

Even after falling behind 5-2, the Tigers immediately tied it with three in the sixth.

“It’s frustrating because the guys were getting after it pretty good — we got behind and came right back,” Gardenhire said. “Frankie (Liriano) did exactly what he does, he gave us an opportunity. He’s a perfect fit in this rotation. It’s frustrating because Frankie hung in there.”

The frustration is real, because no matter how many times they’re told this won’t be a sweet-smelling season, they have too many veterans to capitulate. Oh, some stark realities will sink in during the long summer, especially if the bullpen woes compound, and especially as the trade deadline approaches and GM Al Avila makes more tough decisions.

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Getting Candelario and prospect Isaac Paredes from the Cubs last summer for Justin Wilson and Alex Avila looks brilliant now, and moves like that will have to be duplicated. But in the meantime, this mix of young and old is doing its best to mesh. This is the season in between, when the rebuild hasn’t caught up to the teardown, and the top prospects haven’t yet arrived. It’s why veterans such as Liriano and Leonys Martin are here, and why Martinez got another shot to close his fine career.

Clubhouse camaraderie

There is plenty of counseling and consoling, and young guys like Candelario talk about how easy it is to fit in. In Sunday’s loss, reliever Drew VerHagen was wild, walking two batters and nearly hitting each in the head. Afterward, Castellanos and Greene sat next to him at his locker, talking and patting him on the back.

With the heavy burden of expectations lifted, the Tigers do play looser and with more energy.

“I don’t know what our record’s gonna be at the end of the year, but I tell you what, you got a bunch of people taking pride in what they’re doing,” Castellanos said. “Everybody’s a talker in the dugout, but there’s never really anything negative. We do a good job of holding everybody accountable, but in a fun way.”

The Tigers aren’t good enough, we know that. But you can’t say they don’t try enough. With two exceptions — 5-1 and 9-3 outcomes in Cleveland — every loss has been close. Entering Sunday, the Tigers scored 44 percent of their runs in the seventh inning or later, second in the AL behind Toronto.

That suggests a battling attitude, reflected in a couple of late-game rallies. It doesn’t compensate for talent, and the Tigers have subtracted a lot of their top talent the past couple years. But the weather has improved and so has the mood, and you take your encouraging moments wherever you can find them.



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