Kinsler bent on chasing the butterflies, bad taste from 2015

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
Ian Kinsler takes a grounder Tuesday in Lakeland.

Lakeland, Fla. – Ian Kinsler has been in professional baseball since 2003. Every February he packs up, says good-bye to the family and heads off to spring training. No big deal. All part of the routine.

So why, then, on his flight into Tampa Monday did he feel so darn nervous?

“I had butterflies in my stomach,” he said Tuesday before the first official workout of the spring. “I don’t know why. I couldn’t get rid of them. I didn’t know what was going on. I could not put my finger on why I was so nervous.

“Maybe it was because of the way the season went last year.”

Yeah, that was probably it.

“I still have a bad a taste in my mouth from last year,” he said. “There are a bunch of particular reasons for it that I am going to keep to myself.”

Some are easy to figure out. After winning four straight American League Central titles, the Tigers finished last. The organization pulled the plug on the season at the trade deadline and a veteran team used to being in contention was left to angrily play out the string.

The clubhouse, filled with players who were injured, underperforming or both, became a very dour place. It was Kinsler, according to several players, who kept things from completely unraveling.

“No question he stepped up,” manager Brad Ausmus said. “But even though he spoke up more last year than he had in the past, I think he still leads by the way he plays. Miggy (Miguel Cabrera) led more last year, vocally, than he has in the past, too.”

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Kinsler has never wanted or pretended to be a vocal leader. But he saw the necessity last season and took charge. He hopes he won’t have to do that this year.

“One-hundred percent,” he said. “You never want to be in that position. That’s not something we prepare for. It’s not something we want to be a part of, a clubhouse where you are either constantly helping guys or trying to motivate yourself or whatever it may be.

“Those are the added things that come with losing. It was difficult.”

Thus the butterflies. As Kinsler said, once you go through a season like that, you know that it can happen again.

“I hadn’t played a season like that in my whole career,” he said. “Coming into this year, you expect so much of yourself, you expect so much from the team that you get nervous. There’s always that doubt that sets in.”

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Kinsler had another good season. He hit .296 with a .342 on-base percentage and .770 OPS. He won the Fielding Bible Award for second basemen, posting 19 defensive runs saves. But, like the team, he had his share of struggles, too. He battled through a batting slump early in the season and had several uncharacteristic base running lapses. He even hit into a triple play, something he’d never done before.

And even though Father Time hasn’t caught up to him, he may be in his rearview. Kinsler will turn 34 in June.

“No matter how much preparation you put in, you always think, ‘Have I prepared well enough,’” he said. “It’s always in the back of your mind. You can work out three and four times a day all offseason and still think, ‘Did I work hard enough?’

“And after last season, that creeps in more. You want to be prepared. You want to be successful. You don’t want to be the weak link.”

Ian Kinsler gets loose at spring training on Tuesday. "No matter how much preparation you put in, you always think, 'Have I prepared well enough,'" he said.

When told of Kinsler’s anxiety, Ausmus nodded his head.

“If veterans are nervous and excited about the season, that means we are in a good spot,” he said. “And I will say this, if there is a guy who was here last year and isn’t motivated, he shouldn’t be here.”

Getting back on the field with his teammates Tuesday was good tonic for Kinsler’s anxiety. Instead of worrying about righting the ship, he can actively participate in righting the ship.

“This is not another spring training,” he said. “This is an important spring training after last year. With all the players we have acquired, we have to come together and we have a month and a half to do it.”

Still, he was puzzled by the butterflies.

“I texted my wife while I was on the plane and I said, ‘I have butterflies. I can’t get rid of them. I don’t know what’s going on,’” Kinsler said. “She goes, ‘Well, that means you still love the game. That’s good.’”

Exactly right.

Twitter @cmccosky