Detroit — On the long list of baseball improbabilities, this had to rank near the top. On a sunny mid-May day, here were the Tigers playing the Indians for a shot at first place with a lineup featuring 4-5-6-7 hitters Niko Goodrum, John Hicks, Mikie Mahtook and Grayson Greiner, and a rookie named Ryan Carpenter on the mound.
Hey, makes as much as sense as anything in this season of expected upheaval and unexpected excitement.
Whatever it is the Tigers are doing, it’s hard to figure out how they’re doing it. It’s easy to say it’s not sustainable because, well, it likely isn’t. The Indians’ Trevor Bauer dominated them 6-0 Wednesday, as you figured he would against a depleted lineup.
But at the quarter pole of the season, perhaps one lesson is emerging – rebuilding doesn’t necessarily sentence you to abject misery. It helps to have an experienced, feel-good manager in Ron Gardenhire leading a spirited group of relatively unknown players, young and old. It helps to get decent starting pitching, although Carpenter didn’t provide it in his second major-league start.
There will be more mismatches, that’s unavoidable. The revelation is the spate of uplifting comebacks and tight contests that brought the Tigers (19-23) within a game of the Indians as Wednesday began. They took two of three in the series – snapping an 11-game losing streak against their nemesis – and there was still a buzz about the previous night’s clash, when the Tigers wiped out an 8-3 deficit in the sixth inning of a 9-8 victory.
“I wore my seat belt for that one,” Gardenhire said Wednesday. “I caught myself laughing a couple times, like, is this really going on?”
It’s a frequent reaction from fans, positively and negatively. Is this really going on, this staggering turnstile of injuries that keeps spinning bodies from the minors to Detroit and back? JaCoby Jones, who has played excellent centerfield, left the game with a hip contusion. Any more mishaps, and I’m fairly certain Alan Trammell will come down from the front office and man a position.
It was going to be difficult for these Tigers, stepping gingerly into their full-fledged rebuild, and then it got more difficult as the injuries piled up. Numerous experienced players have gotten dinged. Miguel Cabrera, Jordan Zimmermann, Leonys Martin, Daniel Norris and Alex Wilson are out. So is young Jeimer Candelario. So was Nick Castellanos, briefly.
And yet, seven MLB teams are on pace to lose 100 games, a deep well of misery, and the Tigers aren’t one of them. Down five players or down five runs, they hang around. For this season, for a couple seasons, that’s enough, and fans seems to enjoy the free-spirited play, however long it lasts.
Baseball’s track records rarely lie, and weaknesses rarely stay hidden. Fangraphs charts a team’s playoff chances based on statistical projections and the Tigers still sit at 0.2 percent. The Indians, barely ahead of them in the sloppy AL Central, were at 88.2 percent.
As the schedule toughens and the bullpen remains tied together with strapping tape and Krazy glue, a sobering reality could set in. Just don’t expect the Tigers to readily accept it. They finished 4-2 on the homestand, and now head on the road to face the Mariners again.
“It was a great homestand against two pretty good teams,” said Hicks, hitting .293 while filling in for Cabrera at first. “No one thought we’d be here right now. Everybody thought we’d be losing over three quarters of our games. We’re not worried about what people think about us.”
Gardenhire gets a lot of credit for pushing the Tigers’ buoyant attitude and he deserves it. His mix of good humor and positive motivation is the appropriate tone after the Tigers spent a decade lugging huge expectations, contracts and egos.
Some players are getting their first extended opportunities and some are getting renewed opportunities, and the hunger is clear. Somehow, the Tigers are third in the majors in batting average at .263. They haven’t shown a ton of home run power, but they’re second in doubles (behind only Boston), third in triples and ninth in OPS. And that’s without Cabrera, who was hitting .323 with a .923 OPS before going on the disabled list with a hamstring injury.
Cabrera’s ailments have become persistent, and he vowed not to play through them anymore, and he shouldn’t. If he felt obligated to do it when the Tigers were contending, he should feel obligated no more.
While acknowledging 42 games is still a modest sample size, it’s notable how the Tigers have been able to pester and peck away in late-inning situations despite their checkered lineup.
“We’ve played well here, we’re a little beat up right now but we have to deal with it,” Gardenhire said. “You have to believe you can compete with other teams, and these guys in this clubhouse have no problem with that. In spring training, we said we’d keep our little bubble on us and not let anybody inside it to screw with our brains, and we go compete.”
That the Tigers are hanging tough with more journeymen than hotshot prospects doesn’t necessarily portend big things for the future. GM Al Avila still has plenty of bodies to move and deals to make. Maybe that’s why they’re enjoying it as much as they can, taking their shots while they can, knowing everything can be shuffled again at the trade deadline.
Sixteen of their 23 losses have been by three runs or less, and they own the second-most one-run victories (9-8 record) in the majors. With their patchwork roster, that isn’t sustainable, not that it matters at the moment, in the moment.
“We need to play better against the better teams, but I don’t think we’re gonna back down from anybody,” Gardenhire said. “It’s a bunch of gamers, and if you could be in the dugout, you’d understand exactly what we’re talking about. A lot of jokes, a lot of talking trash to each other. It’s really entertaining to listen to them goad each other and push each other. Most teams do that, this one’s just a little louder.”
They went quietly on this day, perhaps the last day they’ll be this close in the standings. It might be a while before they get back, but it was a welcome stop on a long road.