Wojo: Tigers are a team that thrills and confounds

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Detroit — Sometimes they look awfully good. And sometimes they look awful. That's the cheap synopsis of the Tigers right now, and for a symbol of that synopsis, just look at the mound.

On a team of boggling extremes, Anibal Sanchez takes it to the extreme. If the Tigers hope to smooth out their ride, they first have to smooth out Sanchez and their starting pitching. This was a bizarre outing in a season of many, a 10-8 loss to the Astros that closed out a 3-4 homestand.

It went from sloppy to scintillating and back to sloppy, and at the key juncture, Sanchez's problems resurfaced. On this day, it became a problem for Brad Ausmus, who couldn't figure out which pitcher was on the mound at the fateful moment — good Sanchez or bad Sanchez — and guessed wrong.

Ausmus left Sanchez in for one more batter, trying to get through the sixth inning with a 7-4 lead. After allowing three runs in the first, Sanchez was brilliant, striking out 11, but he was tiring, giving up a home run and two singles in the sixth. And then, on his 115th pitch, he surrendered the tying three-run homer to pinch-hitter Preston Tucker, the slugging rookie who did the same thing to Joakim Soria in the series opener.

There was an audible gasp from the crowd of 36,449, followed by boos as Ausmus removed Sanchez. The lead was gone and the Astros pulled away against the Tigers bullpen. But this is not about one pitch or one decision. This is about a confusing team that alternately thrills and confounds.

All-or-nothing with Sanchez

It's hard to know which starter, or which bullpen guy, is trustworthy at any given moment. That's probably why Ausmus' frustration briefly flared as he defended his decision to leave Sanchez in.

"This is where we are in this day and age," Ausmus said. "If it doesn't work then it was the wrong move. If it does work, then it was the right move. Quite frankly, Sanchie against lefties with his change-up is very effective."

To be fair, the last eight outs Sanchez recorded were strikeouts, and he can be lethal against left-handers, who hit .234 against him. It was the right call if this was the Sanchez of previous seasons. It became the wrong call when Sanchez threw a changeup that didn't drop enough, and Tucker launched it.

It was another all-or-nothing outing for Sanchez, now 3-5 with a 6.12 ERA. Five days earlier, he allowed back-to-back-to-back home runs in an 8-1 loss to the Brewers. Before that, he was brilliant in a victory over the Twins. Before that, well, you get the point.

On an up-and-down team, nobody gets upper and downer more than Sanchez. He has given up a staggering 11 home runs, compared to four all of last season. He said he's healthy and he mostly liked the way he threw Sunday, but looked concerned and perplexed afterward.

"It's a hard situation, I never got in this situation before," Sanchez said. "But I'm not special. I'm a normal baseball player, I'm human. It's baseball, everything can change with one pitch, everything can change with one play, everything can change with just a little thing. I need to turn it around at some point. I need everybody to trust me."

Sanchez is a cool, savvy pro, so if there's a remedy, he'll find it. The problem is, he's not the only one prone to wild fluctuations. The starting pitching and offense take turns, and it's fairly remarkable the Tigers are 26-19 considering Alfredo Simon has been their most-dependable starter.

Trying to get whole again

This road trip to Oakland and Anaheim could be daunting, and also telling. Justin Verlander is scheduled to pitch in a simulated game Tuesday. Shortstop Jose Iglesias could miss time with a knee contusion and Victor Martinez is still out with knee soreness. The Tigers are trying to hold steady until they get whole again but it's getting more difficult, with the Royals scorching, and the Twins, White Sox and Indians heating up.

"I don't know if it's the most-disappointing loss, but this one bothered me," Ausmus said. "I know it's a good team. I don't like the way we played (Sunday) but I know it's a good team. You hope over 162 games, the fact that it's a good team bubbles to the surface."

It has bubbled up a few times, like during the 11-2 start, but it's fleeting. Yes it's baseball, and anomalies tend to fade over a long season, but the Tigers have posted some crazy numbers. For instance, their team batting average (.281) is 50 points higher than the Astros' .231. Yet Houston has scored more runs (202-200) mainly because it has slugged many more home runs (64-38).

There are other odd contradictions. Despite having speed and leading the AL in stolen bases, the Tigers lead the majors by a wide margin in hitting into double plays (48). Part of that is explainable — their slower runners hit the ball hard, and they generally have lots of guys on base. But how do you explain the Tigers scoring two or fewer runs in 20 games, most in the majors, and scoring eight or more runs 10 times, second-most in the majors?

How can they be explosive, and also anemic? Ausmus suggests it's the quirks of the game and that's generally correct, but it doesn't make it easier to endure. J.D. Martinez went through an 0-for-25 slump, but busted out with a thump. Ian Kinsler has been good all year, but is in an 0-for-16 stretch and hasn't hit a home run yet.

And then there's Sanchez, perhaps the most-concerning puzzle of all.

"His stuff is electric at times, his strikeouts indicate that," Ausmus said. "Then he gets some balls up and they land in the seats. Other than the results, I can't really put my finger on one particular thing."

It's not easy figuring this team out. It gets easier if Sanchez can figure things out.