Niyo: Tigers can't afford stars' silence

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Tigers' Miguel Cabrera, left, talks with Ian Kinsler and Justin Upton, headed to the clubhouse, after the 6-2 loss.

Detroit — There’s really no cutting costs, at this point.

Not with the Tigers payroll pushing $200 million, and not with so much of it feeling like a bad debt on too many nights.

So while this might have been worth something Tuesday — Anibal Sanchez pitching six strong innings, and striking out the side in the last two — it still wasn’t enough.

The Twins chased him in the seventh, while the Tigers, the only team on the field in the playoff chase, went quietly — too quietly, despite those late roars — into the night, along with the crowd of 32,030 at Comerica Park.

Sanchez, written off as a lost cause after his struggles the last season-and-a-half, tried to write a different ending Tuesday, showing better life with his fastball and more emotion than we’ve seen in months.

“I put everything together today,” said Sanchez, who was able to laugh, at least, when teammate Victor Martinez jokingly asked him after the game where he’d been all season.

But Sanchez, who finished with a season-high 10 strikeouts, put the first two runners on in the seventh, then left to an ovation before both runs scored — and three more after that, courtesy of Bruce Rondon — and the Tigers couldn’t muster anything, really, in his defense.

So the ending was the same — that’s the 10th consecutive loss for the Tigers in a Sanchez start — and the result still leaves the Tigers in a bit of a quandary.

Lobbying for a buy week

Buy or sell? It’s too early for general manager Al Avila to decide that, with 11 games left before the trade deadline. But to a man, everyone in the Tigers clubhouse insists it can’t be the latter, with the team sitting in second place in the AL Central and three games out of a wild-card spot.

“Based on recent history, I think the Tigers organization has shown that if they’re in the hunt, they’re buyers,” said Ausmus, whose decisions to extend Sanchez to 100 pitches, and then turn to Rondon when he faltered in the seventh, both proved costly even with the home team getting one-hit through eight innings by Tommy Milone.

Tigers waste vintage outing by Sanchez, fall to Twins

“But there’s been no decision right now,” Ausmus added. “I think the next 10 days probably are important when it comes to that.”

Equally important, though, is getting their money’s worth from the top of that top-heavy payroll.

Justin Verlander, who’ll take the mound to try to win another series today, has been money for most of this season at the top of the rotation. Yet Sanchez, with his $16.8 million salary this season, still might be a sunk cost, though Tuesday’s effort offers some hope and affords some flexibility, with Ausmus & Co. trying to plug holes in the rotation. Jordan Zimmermann (neck strain) is a week or two away yet, and a decision on Daniel Norris (oblique), who only threw 67 pitches in his rehab start Monday, is up in the air. Norris could make his return Sunday in Chicago, taking Sanchez’s spot in the rotation. But Sanchez said Tuesday night he expects to get another start, and he probably will.

No cover-up

Ideally, whomever does get the nod will get some more help than Sanchez did Tuesday.

Cameron Maybin lost a ball in the sun, then a grounder took a brutal hop to eat up Ian Kinsler as the Twins took a 1-0 lead in the third. An inning later, fill-in utility man Mike Aviles just waved as a hard-hit ball by Miguel Sano sailed over his head.

But for a second straight night, the bigger issue was at the plate, as the heart of the Tigers’ lineup continues to beat all too quietly.

“It’s too bad that we couldn’t get anything done for him,” said Martinez, who along with Miguel Cabrera is a combined 19-for-104 (.183) in July, a swoon made all the more glaring by the injury absence of J.D. Martinez.

“A lot of times when a couple bats are struggling, a bat like J.D. can cover for ’em,” Ausmus said Tuesday.

But there’s no covering up what’s been missing since Martinez’s two-homer, six-RBI game at Tampa on July 1. Those two big bats — $46 million worth of lumber in 2016 — have managed just three extra-base hits while driving in eight runs as the Tigers played .500 ball the last 14 games.

The eighth RBI came in a late rally in the ninth Tuesday, as Milone ran out of gas trying for his second career complete game and his first career shutout. Three consecutive singles — one each by Cabrera and Martinez — and a sacrifice fly provided some suspense. A sharp single by Justin Upton, the home-run hero of Monday night’s 1-0 win who might finally be hitting his groove, and a fortunate infield chopper by Aviles — added some more.

But in the end, it wasn’t enough, as new Twins closer Brandon Kintzler escaped the bases-loaded jam.

And though the Tigers had their share of hard hit balls in this one — Upton, for one, was screaming into his helmet after a 418-foot flyout to the deepest part of the park in the seventh — Martinez tried to put it all in perspective.

“I think we were close, but it doesn’t matter,” he said. “Good swing, bad swing, I don’t care about that. I want results. That’s all that matters.”

And as Upton was saying Tuesday, talking about his frustrating first season in Detroit, full of fits and starts, good swings and bad, big salary and all, much like this team, “It has been a funny year, man.”

But just like the postgame laughter of Tuesday’s starting pitcher, tagged with another loss this team really can't afford, it’s ironic, at best.