Detroit — There was a memory-jog walking into Comerica Park late Friday afternoon.
The air was damp and an autumn-chilly 50 degrees. Detroit’s downtown sky was gray.
It felt like one of those late-afternoon days from 2006, or 2011, ’12, ’13, or ’14.
When the Tigers were playing October playoff games.
It seems, a bit strangely, as if all of that happened long ago. As if those teams were from a different era, of a different construct, with expectations and possibilities far superior to the 2017 team.
And it can make a baseball follower in Detroit feel a tad melancholy — that other teams and towns are enjoying the everyday, community-wide kick a region gets from its big-league baseball team when it’s a true playoff-grade force.
The feeling didn’t flee Friday night as the Tigers got into an early hole against the Texas Rangers and lost, 5-3, even as they rallied in the ninth and revved-up a nice crowd of 33,122.
Daniel Norris was good when he was good, but out of kilter in just enough stretches to have handed the Rangers five runs before he left in the sixth.
His early erraticism is something of a parallel to his team’s ways.
“At some point, I think Daniel will rein it in,” said Tigers manager Brad Ausmus, who made important points Friday night about young pitchers and the process, often a long one, before those pitchers take control of a game.
Patience. Faith. Encouragement. Resolve.
The same care Ausmus is showing for a 24-year-old starting pitcher is being reserved for his overall team. He understands injuries have made it tough for his club to play at peak, or even-near peak, levels this spring.
And so it’s no indictment to be a .500 club (20-20) on May 20. Not when the Tigers are one-quarter into a new season.
But the early pattern is fulfilling early thoughts about this 2017 group. There is quality, in all facets of general manager Al Avila’s roster. But the daily, eight-cylinder horsepower you need to win a division and be a serious October presence simply isn’t there.
Not yet. And you wonder if it can, or will, evolve. There are so many soft spots, so many ins-and-outs, when sturdier, more consistent excellence is the trademark of a certified contender.
The happy surprise for fans is that this 2017 Tigers team is one of the more colorful clubs in memory. There are superstars. There are billboard performers just shy of superstardom. There are charismatic role players. There is appealing youth.
It’s an entertaining team. And it’s a truly interesting team. With a splendid cast of clubhouse personalities whose scrappiness has been a season-long trait, as folks saw during some of the past week’s late-game rallies.
It’s simply not a convincing, championship-grade club. Not today.
The difficulty is that things could get nastier in coming days and weeks.
Clearing up the picture
The Rangers arrived Friday toting a nine-game winning streak that now sits at 10. They swing bats like blacksmiths, they get good starting pitching, and only because their bullpen has been a bit of a blip — the Tigers, of course, can’t relate — have they been stumbling and bungling.
That isn’t ideal behavior when you’re in a division with a certain team from Houston that looks as if it intends to win this year’s World Series. And maybe a few thereafter.
Which begets the Tigers’ next Excedrin headache. Ausmus’ gang leaves on a charter Sunday night for Houston and for a four-game set against those menacing, unmerciful Astros.
From there, the Tigers head for Chicago, which might or might not be a break, and from there to Kansas City for their first session with the Royals.
This isn’t a make-it-or-break-it interlude, this 10-game road swing. But it will move the Tigers closer to the season’s one-third mark and, more poignantly, should manifest further a team’s pluses and minuses.
It isn’t at this May date a team that leaves you expecting a sudden surge. A storming of the beach. A furious takeover of an American League Central Division that, at the moment, could accommodate a heavyweight contender.
So, the spring will give way to summer. And the first weeks of summer will determine whether this Tigers club is selling off any and all pieces of expensive inventory at the July trade deadline, or, should fortunes change, perhaps steeling itself for another of those old-fashioned Motown playoff runs.
It would be nice to revisit those days, to feel again that crisp air, to sense a crackle as it built at a ballpark for those theatrical evenings of playoff baseball.
We knew it as something of a habit here for a while. It’s a tough habit to forgo.