Niyo: Tigers’ inconsistency discourages positivity

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Detroit — It’s not as easy as it looks. It’s never as simple as it sounds.

But, man, the Tigers do make it hard to stay positive, don’t they, Detroit?

That was the parting message from Miguel Cabrera on Wednesday night after a sorely needed comeback victory over the Twins at Comerica Park.

“Detroit, stay positive,” he said, playfully pleading with the gathered media as well as the frustrated fan base.

But on Thursday afternoon, there was Cabrera in the bottom of the fifth inning, rounding first base with his arms outstretched, a portrait of disbelief and disgust. And this was the lingering image from Detroit as it let a getaway game get out of hand early, then headed to Cleveland off a lackluster 5-1 loss and a series split with the worst team in baseball.

With his team trailing 4-0 in the fifth, Cabrera crushed a towering fly ball to deep center field with two runners on and two outs, only to watch Twins center fielder Byron Buxton haul it in at the warning track — an estimated 417 feet from home plate.

A night earlier, Cabrera had bounced one off the top of the wall in left-center and into the bullpen as the crowd roared. This time, he just stared in silence as the fans groaned.

The view wasn’t much better in the bottom of the ninth, either, as Cabrera headed for the on-deck circle, looking blankly into the seats behind the Tigers dugout after Ian Kinsler’s hot shot to second base turned into a game-ending double play. And a home stand the Tigers couldn’t afford to lose turned into exactly that.

“At a time when we've gotta win, we lose four out of seven,” said manager Brad Ausmus, whose team had dropped two of three to Baltimore last weekend. “That's not a good home stand. But we can't do anything about it now. So we'll move forward.”

Missed opportunity

That’s the problem, though. This playoff push keeps getting sidetracked by their own stumbles, and while Thursday’s loss was hardly a last gasp or a final straw, it was anything but a positive sign. You can’t split a four-game series with a team that seems destined to lose 100 games and spin it as anything but a negative.

“We’re in a situation where we really need to just try and win every single game,” Ausmus said. “So whether it’s the Twins or the ’27 Yankees, we’ve gotta try and win. And if you lose, it’s a missed opportunity because you didn’t win.”

But on days like this, that feels more like a concession speech than a rallying cry, especially considering the circumstances. For Ausmus, the opportunity cost of setting the top of rotation to face the Indians this weekend was what we saw Thursday.

A rotation that was arguably the best in the American League in July and August has gone 18 games without collecting a win. And while that’s an indictment of the entire club — Detroit has scored two runs or fewer in seven of its nine losses during that span — the Tigers offseason moves are looking more and more suspect, just like their manager’s in-game decisions (the starters allowed a whopping 17 runs in 9 1/3 innings the last three games).

Yet, that’s no surprise, is it? Not with two of those starts coming from Mike Pelfrey and Anibal Sanchez. The Tigers are now 13 games under .500 (17-30) in games started by those two and 23 over (61-38) with the rest of the staff.

Ausmus was hoping to get four or five innings Thursday out of Pelfrey, whose last major league start came July 31. Still working his way back from a back strain, Pelfrey wasn’t going to throw more than 60 pitches or so.

But after a solid 14-pitch first inning, he quickly came undone. Three bullets and a bunt — with a Cabrera error on a pickoff attempt thrown in for good measure — put the Twins up 2-0 with nobody out in the second inning.

By then, Ausmus already had reliever Blaine Hardy up and warming. And when Pelfrey finally retired his first batter in the inning — on a sacrifice bunt — the matinee crowd cheered derisively. One out later, Brian Dozier came to the plate with two runners on and first base open. And rather than intentionally walking Dozier — the guy with 11 homers in his last 15 games and 41 overall — Ausmus let Pelfrey pitch to him.

The results were about what you’d expect, as Dozier slapped a splitter into left field to score two more runs and chase Pelfrey from the game after 10 batters.

“I didn’t think that split was necessarily a bad pitch, but he’s maybe the hottest hitter on the planet,” Pelfrey said. “Obviously, he made me pay for it. … Maybe I should’ve been a little smarter.”

Better yet, maybe his manager should’ve made sure of that, though Ausmus certainly wasn’t second-guessing himself afterward.

‘Not what you want’

Either way, smart money says the Tigers aren’t out of it, even after a sub-.500 start (6-7) to September. They began the day six games behind the Indians in the AL Central and one game behind the Blue Jays for the final wild-card berth — and they ended it in worse position as far as the wild card (11/2 behind).

But, Ausmus has his Justin Verlander, Michael Fulmer and Daniel Norris lined up for the three-game series starting tonight in Cleveland. And of all the teams in the chase, the Tigers still might have the easiest remaining path to the postseason.

They just can’t get there by doing what they did here.

“It’s not what you want,” Ausmus acknowledged.

But just like all that negativity, you get what you deserve.