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Tigers' feeble offense showing signs of faint pulse

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Detroit — When the 2015 season got under way, a month and a week ago, there were concerns about the Tigers offense.

Fourteen games in, those concerns were long gone, as the Tigers roared out of the gate with production from top to bottom. In those first 14 games, the Tigers averaged more than five runs a game.

And the Tigers started 11-3.

But the 19 games since, the offense has stalled, big-time, averaging just 3.6 runs per game. And the Tigers went 9-10 during that struggling span.

So, manager Brad Ausmus, how might you characterize your lineup?

"Anemic," he said Tuesday night, following a 2-1, 10-inning win over the Twins. "You always go through stretches where you have trouble scoring runs. You seem to even get your hits, but you have trouble scoring runs. I'm really confident in this offense in the long-term, even though it's been a struggle lately."

It sure has been.

In their last 13 games, the Tigers have scored two runs or fewer eight times. They've won two of those games. Of the five times they scored more than two runs, they've won four of those games.

It's interesting, really.

Nobody knew exactly what to expect from the Tigers offense when they broke camp. Fans just knew there was some firepower. The biggest concerns, by far, were the bullpen and the starting rotation. The bullpen and starting rotation, however, have done the job more often than not.

The same can't be said for the offense.

Here are the numbers:

* First 14 games (11-3): .304 average/.368 on-base percentage/.470 slugging/.838 OPS, 14 homers, 5.14 runs per game;

* Last 19 games (9-10): .246/.320/.366/.686, 12 homers, 3.58 runs per game;

* 10 games in May (5-5): .238/.313/.335/.648, four homers (fewest in baseball), 3.2 runs per game.

"Runs-wise, it's not good," second baseman Ian Kinsler said late Tuesday night, after he came up with one of the team's rare clutch hits lately, to beat the Twins.

There are a few reasons behind the offensive struggles.

The main one: Victor Martinez isn't yet completely recovered from offseason knee surgery, his left knee strength isn't close to 100 percent, and therefore he's been zapped of power from the left side, the side he takes the majority of his at-bats.

He's off to a similarly slow start to 2013, the year after he missed a whole season because of knee surgery. That year, Martinez got ridiculously hot in the second half. There are signs lately that he might break loose sooner than he did in 2013.

Nick Castellanos and J.D. Martinez also are struggling, a year after their breakthrough seasons. Castellanos seems to be guessing on a lot of pitches, and guessing wrong. Martinez was victimized for a week-and-a-half by breaking balls out of the zone, but the last week, he's laid off those, and as a result, he made better contact. He hit his first home run in May on Tuesday night. Alex Avila (knee) might also be out until after the All-Star break, forcing the Tigers to turn to James McCann as an every day guy sooner than they would've liked.

Victor Martinez, J.D. Martinez, Nick Castellanos and Avila are the Tigers' 4-5-7-8 hitters. And No. 6, Yoenis Cespedes, is on a long RBI drought — in part, of course, because the guys in front of him aren't getting on regularly. When they go cold together, you're going to see more offensive shutdowns than normal.

"Victor's coming around and he's getting his rhythm back," Kinsler said. "Everyone's swinging the bat well, but right now we're just not having anything to show for it. Hopefully we can start clicking."

Kinsler is right, to an extent.

There are several surprises with the Tigers offense, namely Anthony Gose and Jose Iglesias, who've kept up their solid offensive effort throughout the season.

The rest of the guys had bigger expectations, and most, outside of maybe Kinsler, haven't met them yet. But Kinsler is right, in that the swings are getting better. Tuesday night, for instance, they smashed the ball off Twins starter Kyle Gibson, but the balls were either right at a defender, or they were spread-out base hits. For instance, Miguel Cabrera hit a ball to center that might've been out of almost every other park, but at spacious Comerica Park, it was caught on the run.

That's part of the beauty of baseball. Sometimes, the hard hits end up being outs and the duck snorts are hits.

When the Tigers were rolling early in the year, they benefited from some pretty good luck, too. They hit a lot of balls soft, but many of them found holes.

The slump, perhaps, is evening things out — the baseball gods collecting a debt.

"It's just kind of the myth of baseball," said Kinsler, "that things even out.

"I don't count them or have a tally for every time I hit a ball hard at somebody for an out, or a ball that falls in that was on a bad swing or a broken-bat hit or something like that. But that's the sang (that things do, in fact, even out)."

So, how do you break a slump? What can you do? What can you change?

Kinsler said you can't.

You must just ride out the storm.

"The game's not that easy. It's not kickball," Kinsler said, with a smirk. "It's a hard game. You can't just all of a sudden decide we're gonna start getting some broken-bat hits, or maybe we should try the other side of the field. We're kind of obligated to take what the pitcher gives."

Ausmus, for his part, seems to think along the same lines, that there's no sure-fire formula for fixing the lineup woes.

He's tried a bit of tweaking, like swapping J.D. Martinez and Cespedes at 5-6, but Martinez is back batting fifth now.

He said he's considered giving Castellanos some time off to clear his head, like he did with Gose earlier in the season, and for a briefer period, J.D. Martinez.

But as far as callups and demotions, there aren't exactly any Hall of Famers in Toledo.

"We took some good swings," Ausmus said of Tuesday's game. "Sometimes when you have a good offensive team, usually when you're not scoring runs and you're not getting your hits, you're still hitting balls hard.

"At some point, this offense will bust out."

tpaul@detroitnews.com

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