Listless bats threaten to sink Tigers’ season

Bob Wojnowski

Detroit — This happens in baseball, but the Tigers are letting it happen way too often. For nearly a month, they’ve caved in — to frustration, to pressure, to weariness, to whatever. They’ve swung at bad pitches and suffered bad losses, and if they’re really the championship-caliber team we thought, something has to change quickly.

They’re no longer in first, no longer even in a wild-card playoff spot, no longer the self-assured team we saw early in the season. The Tigers slogged through another loss Sunday, 8-1 to the Mariners, and it was as dreary as any.

Their offense urgently needs a spark, and as they head back on the road, they’re doing some serious introspection. One of the puzzling pieces is the biggest piece, Miguel Cabrera, who hasn’t been his normal, fun-loving, MVP-type self. He hasn’t talked much about his issues, including recovery from off-season, core-muscle surgery that seemingly has affected his power, but he opened up a bit Sunday, and you could hear the concern.

“You guys know me for seven years, I don’t like to talk about my issues, or whatever I got in my body right now,” Cabrera said politely. “But I’m gonna be out there every day and try to play hard. It doesn’t matter about my health, I’m gonna try to play my best.

“I’ve tried to expand my zone and make something happen, and that’s a big mistake in hitting. I have to feel more confident at the plate and try to swing at strikes. We’re in the big leagues, we need to do a better job adjusting, and we need to play better.”

No panic, no excuse-making. Judged by himself, Cabrera is not the problem, with a .309 average and 86 RBIs. Judged against his tremendous history, the power drop (17 home runs) is notable, and the Tigers haven’t overcome it.

Trouble at home

If you’re baffled by how a team can lead the league in batting average, slugging percentage and other categories and still frequently get manhandled, you’re not the only one. Less than 24 hours after they roughed up the great Felix Hernandez, they returned to impatient flailing against Chris Young.

The Tigers can’t just wait for David Price, Max Scherzer or Rick Porcello to make things right, while three key pitchers — Anibal Sanchez, Justin Verlander, Joakim Soria — get healthy. The offense has to be consistently threatening, and less reliant on Cabrera and Victor Martinez.

As the clubhouse cleared out before the team headed to Tampa, Cabrera tried to explain what’s amiss, and why he won’t belabor any health issues. In his mind, to concede a physical weakness is to ignore basic hitting principals. No, the ball isn’t flying over the fence, but he also has swung at more bad pitches than he ever has, and his teammates often do the same.

“You want to get good at-bats, get deep in the count,” Cabrera said. “We gotta battle better. When you’re losing and you got men in scoring position, you expand yourself and swing at bad pitches. Yeah, it’s a lot of pressure, because two or three weeks ago, we led the division by six or seven games. But you know what? If we’re a good team, we’re gonna come from behind and get the lead again.”

Maybe it’s a good thing they’re on the road for 15 of their next 18 games. They’re 13-18 since the All-Star break, trail the Royals by a game-and-a-half, and are a mediocre 33-29 at home.

Rumbles of discontent

Besides the understandable fixation on Joe Nathan and the messy bullpen, there’s a subtler reason for the fan unrest. The Comerica Park crowd of 41,181 Sunday was the seventh straight sellout and 22nd of the year, and they’ve witnessed some of the worst efforts. The Tigers have lost 23 games by four runs or more, and 15 have been at home.

What is that, a statistical anomaly? A function of the win-or-bust pressure? Just another weird number in a weird season?

The Tigers have openly wondered why the fans have grumbled, and have been bothered by some of the targeted booing. But deep down, they know the reason and how to correct it.

“We understand (the fans’ reaction),” Cabrera said. “Detroit is a sports city, and they come every day to support us. When we don’t do our job, they express it, they boo us. But we gotta control that, gotta play better, and if we win games, they’re gonna be happy.”

The divide is simple. The fans deserve more because their emotional and financial investment is deep. The players want to deliver more, but may feel the pressure to do so.

There’s still no excuse for not making the playoffs, and if I’m Dave Dombrowski, I remove all excuse temptations. If that means going all-out for touted Cuban defector Rusney Castillo, who reportedly will make a decision this week, do it. The 27-year-old center fielder is exactly what the Tigers need, someone with speed and power who could help a mix-and-match outfield.

If not Castillo, maybe they could pry Daniel Nava away from the Red Sox. While waiting for their ailing pitchers to get back, the Tigers can’t sit idly as their offense gets shut down.

“We’re a better offensive team than we’ve seen since the All-Star game,” Brad Ausmus said. “I think some guys are getting frustrated with how the offense has been purring along — not purring along, I should say — recently. But if the numbers return to their norms, there should be some type of offensive explosion.”

They need sustained, not periodic, offensive explosion. The plan to lean heavily on great starting pitching has taken a hit, and the Tigers need to show there are other ways to hit back.