Henning: Tigers show striking passivity as season decays

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Josh Donaldson rounds the bases after hitting a solo home run off Alfredo Simon during the first inning.

Toronto – Another city and region familiar with good times knows how it feels these days in Toronto. Detroit had that same brand of baseball mania boiling at Comerica Park for much of the past decade.

But giddiness and playoff parties are no longer part of Detroit’s sports picture, not in 2015, and certainly not after the Tigers were destroyed in all of a game’s facets during their three-game maiming at Rogers Centre, which the Jays wrapped up Sunday with a 9-2 victory.

The Tigers were outscored, 29-5, in a weekend wipeout that made it nine losses in a team’s past 10 games. Detroit’s record is 60-70 ahead of a potentially thorny three-game set that begins Tuesday at Kauffman Stadium against the first-place Royals.

A manager who probably won’t be back in 2016, Brad Ausmus, is obliged along with his players to make September competitive and as gratifying as possible even as the Tigers, division winners the past four years, are the American League Central’s last-place team.

BOX SCORE: Blue Jays 9, Tigers 2

“I still love to come to the ballpark every day,” said Nick Castellanos, who stood talking in another of those customary Tigers clubhouses of late – quiet and joyless – following Sunday’s thrashing.

“I love to play the game. I hate losing and not playing well. But we’re not gonna be able to have first-place seasons every year. Our job as professionals is to stay professionals.

“Unless you’re the Red Wings – what have they made, the playoffs 30 years in a row? – it’s very tough in baseball to do that. We won this division four times and no one wanted to win a fifth time more than these guys (teammates).”

New reality

Ausmus is dealing with reality, as well. There are few fresh answers to any question targeted at understanding why a team has turned so bad so quickly.

“Three days in a row, kind of the same story,” Ausmus said after Sunday’s game, which was another fun fest for the Blue Jays revelers as 46,625 jammed Rogers Centre.

And why wouldn’t the crowds have been rocking? The Jays are 24-6 in their last 30 games. They have a machine gun for a lineup and hit four home runs Sunday against Tigers pitcher Alfredo Simon. The tattooing of Simon followed Saturday’s five-homer burst against the Tigers.

But it isn’t only bad pitching that is doing in the Tigers.

They had seven hits Sunday. They scored four earned runs in three games.

They also made themselves and Ausmus look bad with far too many blunders. And most of them would have been considered bad form even had the Tigers won a game or two, which, as Ausmus correctly pointed out Saturday, tends to overshadow gaffes that are soon forgotten.

Anthony Gose lost track of the outs in Saturday’s fourth inning and was nobly penitent in explaining Sunday that he simply messed up and felt horribly about it.

But in Sunday’s game he was left looking conspicuous when, after catching a fly ball from Ryan Goins, he threw to the middle of the diamond rather than make a throw to first that might have doubled up a panicked and retreating Kevin Pillar.

Small matters, perhaps. Explained in detail afterward in ways that can turn a baseball misdemeanor into a torn-up ticket. These things happen to all teams, as any season-long focus on one club will confirm.

Bad habits

But the Tigers are, unequivocally, dealing with another issue that falls on them and on Ausmus.
They aren’t running out enough ground balls and fly balls.

Rajai Davis stopped Saturday on a fly to right field that became a sun-in-the-eyes hit and left him at first base when he could easily have made second. Jose Iglesias was guilty of the same concession Sunday on a pop-up. He earlier got hung up between first and second base when he stopped midway on a grounder to first. Iglesias on that play had no choice but to steam for second minus stops.

Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez tend to get passes on their ground-ball trots, but a certain passivity has crept too deeply, too frequently, into too many of a team’s habits.

Ausmus was asked Sunday how tough it might be, during these waning weeks of 2015, to keep a team from looking at games as jobs more than as sport, which is the reverse of what baseball is about?

“You want them to enjoy the game,” he said, “and it’s incumbent on us as a staff to make sure the game is still enjoyable.”

That’s asking a lot from human beings. Or from anyone who objectively expects a team with an injury-destroyed rotation and too many soft spots to beat other clubs.

The job gets all the tougher when those other clubs, like the Jays and Royals, are headed to the postseason. And all because, as September arrives, they do everything the Tigers no longer can seem to do in 2015.