Henning: Time is now for Tigers to show their stripes

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Detroit — Sorting through the numbers from Saturday night's Tigers pitching display at Comerica Park was, on a relative scale, like sifting through the slop and debris in all those basements that last month flooded in Metro Detroit.

Analyzing the Tigers' half-mast hitting against a pitcher with a 5.47 ERA, one Ricky Nolasco, is a chore that seems like a waste of time, all because we've done it so many times in 2014. Tigers batters are no more consistent than their pitching brothers.

Doing a postmortem on the Twins' six-run fifth inning, initiated by some shabby Tigers defense, isn't productive, either. Detroit's defense is bad enough to have cost any number of games in 2014. Normally it's an outfield ailment, but a couple of corner infielders had issues in that six-run fifth that sent the Twins on their merry way to a 12-3 annihilation of a Tigers team that needed only to beat a last-place club to sew up an American League Central Division championship.

It's best to ignore Saturday night's travesty in the same way August's basement cleaning crews had to forget about five inches of summer rain that flooded Detroit on a Monday night from hell.

All the Tigers can do is consider the honor or failure that stands to be their fate following today's game at Comerica Park. It is so simple, so very simple, their responsibility.

Either this is a valid playoff team or it isn't. Either this is a team that deserves to win the Central Division, or it has no business bemoaning its Monday or Tuesday qualifier, which will arrive in the form of a tie-settling game with the Royals, or in a wild-card play-in game, either of which could happen if the Tigers play as somberly as they performed the last two nights against Minnesota.

But a few words about those awful back-to-back losses to the Twins by a collective score of 23-7. Nothing that happened Friday, or Saturday, was out of character for a team as scripted to win and as inclined to stumble as the 2014 Tigers.

It at least offers an opportunity today for a team to amend some bad habits. It's an invitation based on past history.

The last day of the regular season in 2006 should have been a champagne tsunami at Comerica Park. The Tigers had been in first place since April. They had only to beat the Royals (get this irony) to keep their Central Division lead over the Twins and sew up a division title.

The Tigers, by the way, had a 6-0 lead in that last-day game that Jeremy Bonderman couldn't manage to corral. They lost, 10-8, in 12 innings.

Champagne that had been iced and was minutes from splashing had to be rushed into a store room. Plastic that had been draped across lockers, protecting uniforms and clothes from the bubble bath, had to be pulled down.

It was a sick, psychologically crushed crew of Tigers baseball players that dragged itself into a mortuary masquerading as a clubhouse late on a Sunday afternoon in Detroit. It was a normally even-keel manager, Jim Leyland, who sat slouched in a chair behind his desk and whose voice was low and broken as he and his players dealt with an ugly truth:

They were now a wild-card team destined to play the mightiest team in the American League, the Yankees — at New York — in a best-of-five series so one-sided smart alecks were picking "the Yankees in two (games)."

A week later, a moribund team and town had, astonishingly, pulled a reverse.

The Tigers lost their playoff opener and then bopped the Yankees in three consecutive games to leap into the American League Championship Series. Four games later, after sweeping the A's, they had a ticket to the World Series.

2014 club is not 2006's

The historical comparisons aren't terribly accurate or relevant as the Tigers stare at a similar circumstance today at Comerica Park. The 2006 team was much better than this 2014 club. It had real balance, beginning with an excellent up-the-middle drive train (Pudge Rodriguez, Carlos Guillen, Placido Polanco, Curtis Granderson).

That cast puts into perspective how diminished is the 2014 gang when this team's middle men are Alex Avila, Andrew Romine, Ian Kinsler, and either Rajai Davis, Ezequiel Carrera, or Don Kelly, whose defense would make him my pick for center field after Davis strained his pelvic area in Saturday's game.

The Tigers also had starting pitching that, while no match for the Hollywood names the Tigers now brandish, was strong enough to avoid the kind of blow-ups that so often haunt this staff.

They also had a bullpen in 2006. Joel Zumaya, Jamie Walker, Todd Jones, Fernando Rodney, Jason Grilli — the Tigers weren't terribly worried when they got to the late innings.

But here's where you can make a case for the Tigers finally — finally — behaving like a team that should not have undergone this much self-inflicted grief in 2014.

It begins with David Price, who today will pitch for Detroit. The Tigers paid a dangerously expensive bounty for him in July when they pried him from Tampa Bay. But they got him for games as big as they today face, and for the kind of center-stage games that, should they beat the Twins, they will play later this week in the division series.

They got him for these very moments. And if he delivers today, and is able to pitch on the same level against the Orioles, or whichever team the Tigers meet in October, he can join with Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander in giving the Tigers a shot — as long as the big hitters hit and the bullpen and defense behave.

Long but strong shot

It seems like a long shot. It truly does. This team was in a certain degree of peril the moment it flew to Detroit from Florida's spring camp. It had an uneven lineup and a bullpen that was frighteningly thin. If there has been a surprise, it has been in the outfield, on defense, which has been far beneath sea level and no longer has Austin Jackson as its mooring in center.

Outfield defense isn't going to improve no matter what happens today or in a playoff game or series. The Tigers' up-the-middle feebleness is a permanent structure, as well.

What the Tigers have are top-gun starters who must pitch like the Cy Young Award winners they've been. They have mid-order bangers in Cabrera and Victor Martinez who will need to hit like the superstar batters they are and who will need to coax at least a couple of lineup mates to join them in the bashing.

That is, if the Tigers want to win, beginning today, in a game they realistically have no excuse not to win, and in a postseason they have long believed they deserved.

We'll see. It's up to them to show they're an authentic playoff team. No one today, quite frankly, can pretend to know.