Sunday’s victory, Al Avila believes, might have been the start of a Tigers revival.
It also lessened for at least a day the fire scorching manager Brad Ausmus.
“I can understand everyone’s passion,” Avila, the Tigers general manager, said Monday, speaking of loud calls for Ausmus to be replaced, “but I have to look at things in more of a calm fashion.”
It means Avila will focus on reasons he considers more relevant for why the Tigers were 2-11 in their last 13 games heading into a nine-game home stand that began Monday night with a 10-8 victory over the Twins at Comerica Park.
Avila isn’t laying at Ausmus’ feet any of May’s troubles, which see the Tigers in fourth place in the American League Central, with a 17-21 record, seven games behind the White Sox.
Trouble began, he believes, with shaky starting pitching that wore out a previously steady bullpen. Life got more complicated for the Tigers as some key hitters had chilly stretches, including Justin Upton, the team’s new left fielder who has been a strikeout machine.
“He’s shown a bit more with some of his at-bats the last couple of days,” Avila said of Upton, a blue-chip free agent the Tigers added in January, thanks to a potential six-year deal for $132 million.
Upton has struck out 60 times, the most of any big-league batter, and is batting .216 even after swatting a double and single Sunday. Avila said there were zero physical reasons for Upton’s sour start and that a 28-year-old outfielder’s skills and track record would take charge. In turn, Avila said, that would likely purge any mental demons that are always part of an extreme slump.
Avila also appreciated two home runs by Miguel Cabrera during the weekend — one a titanic, 460-foot blast to center Saturday at Camden Yards, which was followed Sunday by a Cabrera line drive into the left-field seats.
But it is pitching, Avila believes, that has been at the heart of April’s and May’s extremes, which has included winning streaks, as well as losing skids that became critical and likely threatened Ausmus during last week’s trip to Washington and Baltimore.
A general manager who last year refused to blame bad pitching and a last-place finish on his manager doesn’t yet see Ausmus as directly responsible for May’s miseries.
He says, instead, pitching has been the root issue, as it tends to be in the big leagues.
Starting pitching was so scattered in the season’s first month that Avila believes relievers who had been putting away innings, with reliability, in the first month began to tucker out in May.
“A lot of games we’ve lost in the last few weeks should have turned out like yesterday’s,” he said of Sunday’s victory, which saw the Tigers rally and take a lead on back-to-back homers in the eighth inning from J.D. Martinez and Cabrera, which paired with 42/3 innings of put-away work from relievers Warwick Saupold, Alex Wilson, and Francisco Rodriguez, gave Detroit a triumph.
“At the beginning of the season, we were going pretty well, even when our starters weren’t,” Avila said. “But that overtaxed the bullpen, which was doing marvelously. And we hadn’t even gotten Alex Wilson back yet (disabled list in early April).
“So, we haven’t been able to get our starting pitchers and bullpen quite in sync, which would keep them from over-working each other, but I think we’re getting close to that.
“Justin Wilson is on three days of rest, and we’re trying to rest (Mark) Lowe a little bit. Alex Wilson and K-Rod (Rodriguez) have been doing well. So, if we can get those guys back in sync, and the starters can get us some quality starts, maybe we can put it all together.”
Avila was happy with Justin Verlander’s start Friday when Verlander threw a complete game in a 1-0 loss.
He also appreciated how Fulmer pitched Sunday, even if a rookie a few weeks into his big-league life was excused in the fifth inning.
Fulmer, 23, struck out six batters and showed why he entered 2016 as Detroit’s hottest minor-league player.
“He reminds me a lot of Verlander when we first got him up here,” Avila said. “Great stuff. Sometimes in those early starts (2005), Justin would struggle getting through five innings, but within a couple of years you had one of the great pitchers in all of baseball.”
Another plus, Avila acknowledged, was the boost Ausmus’ lineup has gotten from rookie Steven Moya, the left-handed hitting giant who is batting .400 after he was summoned last week from Triple A Toledo.
Cameron Maybin, who has missed the early season because of a wrist fracture and shoulder bruise, has rejoined the Tigers, as well, and offers Ausmus an option in center field that, coupled with Moya’s stint, has changed the complexion of Detroit’s outfield.
“We’re trying to put some pieces together and hopefully get things going in the right direction,” Avila said. “In baseball, there’s always a matter of timing, and some good luck.”