Wojo: Tigers' Ausmus definitely in the 'crosshairs'

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
Tigers manager Brad Ausmus is back on the hot seat.

Detroit — It’s deep and getting deeper, with no easy way out. The Tigers are losing every way possible now, six straight, and something drastic must change soon.

Brad Ausmus’ job has to be in jeopardy, even if he’s not the one serving up eighth-inning meatballs and blowing leads. Mike Ilitch is known to be impatient, even impulsive, and although there are plenty to blame, the manager feels the heat first.

After an 8-3 loss to the Rangers, the Tigers are 14-16, and every facet of the team has taken a turn flailing. I wouldn’t fire Ausmus yet because it’s still early and I don’t know who could make an immediate difference on a team with obvious flaws. But it’d be hard to argue if GM Al Avila does it, at Ilitch’s behest. It’s not all Ausmus’ fault, but the sloppy, uneven play has gone on for more than a year.

When I asked Ausmus about his job status after Sunday’s loss, he didn’t get defensive or irritated. He knows he was nearly fired following last season’s last-place finish and is in the final year of his contract. And he knows how frustrating the situation is right now.

“I understand that when you have a payroll like ours, the manager’s the guy that’s in the crosshairs,” Ausmus said. “That’s fine. I knew when I took this job that I probably was going to end up getting fired before I walked away from it. Not this job in particular, but managing in general. How many managers walk away from a job?”

I give Ausmus credit for this — he’s not making excuses or hunting for alibis. He’s not singling out players for blame, although it must be tempting. He’s also realistic about baseball fate.

For instance, Justin Verlander was excellent, shutting out the Rangers on three hits through seven innings, with nine strikeouts. He came out after throwing 111 pitches, obviously the right move. The bullpen, which has been mostly decent, was set up perfectly to close out the 2-0 game.

But this is how inexplicable it’s been. Catcher Bobby Wilson, whom the Tigers just traded to the Rangers to make room for James McCann’s return, clubbed a grand slam with two outs off Mark Lowe. Delino DeShields followed with another home run — after the Rangers hit five the day before — and in the flash of cracking lumber, Texas was up 7-2.

“It just seems like everyday, it’s one part of our game that’s not clicking,” Ausmus said. “Today it was the bullpen, sometimes it’s the hitting, sometimes it’s the starting pitching. But the first thing you gotta do is stay positive.”

Ausmus on job security: 'I'm in the crosshairs'

Pitching is problem

Here’s the crux of the problem when assessing Ausmus’ performance: Gripes about strategy and lineup moves are fair, but they’re rendered inconsequential when the starting pitching is so poor, 13th in the AL in ERA. There isn’t one easily fixable issue, although if Verlander gets rolling, along with starter Jordan Zimmermann and what should be a potent lineup, the Tigers could get on a streak like the previous week, when they won six of seven.

The fact is, it’s only 30 games and we’re just guessing. Firing Ausmus would qualify as a dramatic shakeup, but would the Tigers suddenly get a spark replacing him with, say, former Twins manager Ron Gardenhire, Tigers first-base coach Omar Vizquel, or Alan Trammell, or Lloyd McClendon at Toledo? I don’t know. Would it make Mike Pelfrey suddenly competent? Would Anibal Sanchez suddenly rebound? Would the bullpen prove it’s adequate, or is the latest meltdown a more accurate measure?

An early May day usually is no time for a Mayday distress call, but here the Tigers tread, wondering if it’s time to get desperate. It’s about to get real difficult, with the next seven games on the road against first-place Washington and Baltimore, including matchups against the Nationals’ Stephen Strasburg and Max Scherzer.

The Tigers’ 14-16 mark actually isn’t much different than the records of the Blue Jays, Royals and Yankees. But the back-to-back sweeps by the Indians and Rangers were particularly disturbing, with all six losses by four runs or more.

Massive meltdown: Tiger bullpen blows Verlander gem

Players have his back

Maintaining a clubhouse devoid of finger-pointing is part of a manager’s job, and indications are, Ausmus has the backing of his players.

“He’s been good, he’s not the one who goes out there and plays,” Victor Martinez said. “It’s easy to blame the manager, but we’re the ones that have been (bleep). I don’t think it has nothing to do with the manager. It’s on us.”

That was the prevailing sentiment, which is what you’d expect from an experienced team with 132 games still to play. This loss was the season’s biggest gut-punch, especially for Verlander, who had vowed in a Tweet earlier in the week to be “dominant soon,” and he was.

“That was a tough one to swallow,” Verlander said. “Everything that could go wrong did go wrong this last week. And next week, everything that could go right could go right. That’s the game. It’s funny.”

I asked Verlander if some sort of shakeup was needed and he answered tersely: “No.”

Ausmus has tried different things, although he doesn’t tout them. He swapped J.D. Martinez and Justin Upton in the batting order, and both have struggled. He has canceled batting practice, conducted extra batting practice, and yes, gotten angry in the clubhouse. His calm demeanor in the dugout seldom changes, but he’s not interested in putting on a public show.

“I understand I’m in the crosshairs, but it’s not gonna change the way I do anything,” Ausmus said. “I have to prepare the same way, still be positive. I’m not gonna make decisions based on whether I’m gonna get fired or not.

“I’ve played baseball a long time, so I’m very comfortable with that.”

It can get uncomfortable when a team is forced to debate how much it can change, and how soon it has to happen. Firing the manager isn’t always the right answer, but if the Tigers don’t show a sustained spark, there won’t be many other options.

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @bobwojnowski