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It's simple for Tigers’ Ausmus: ‘We. Have. To. Win’

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Minneapolis — It wasn’t quite on par with Herm Edwards’ famous “You play to win the game” rant, but it’s probably as close as Tigers manager Brad Ausmus will come to it.

In his office in Cleveland last weekend, after the Tigers had lost the opener of the critical three-game series, reporters were throwing various playoff scenarios at him: If this happens, you’re going to need to do this. If that happens, you’re going to need to do that. Your remaining schedule is this, their remaining schedule is that.

Ausmus allowed it go on for a few minutes and then just waved his hand.

“You just win,” he said. “You’ve got to win. I’ve been saying that as long as I’ve been in the game. And it holds more water the deeper you get into the season. You just have to win. You can’t worry about what everyone else is doing, because if we don’t win, it doesn’t matter.

“We. Have. To. Win. It’s as simple as that.”

It is as simple as that, and yet, for the Tigers, there’s been nothing simple about it.

On Sept. 5, the Tigers beat Chris Sale and the White Sox in Chicago on a dramatic three-run home run in the 11th inning by Justin Upton. At that point, they were 4.5 games behind the Indians in the Central Division and they owned a share of the second wild-card spot.

They’ve gone 4-8 since — losing that series to the White Sox, losing a home series to the Orioles (one of the teams they are chasing in the wild-card race), split four games at home against the Twins, and lost two of three on the road to the Indians last weekend.

Upton hit another dramatic home run Sunday, a two-run shot that helped the Tigers salvage the finale against the Indians and recharge their dimming playoff hopes.

“We had to win,” Ausmus said. “We’ve really got to win every single day. That’s how we look at it. Nobody has any illusions. We’ve got to win every single day. If we win every single day, we’ll be in great shape. If not, we might need some help from somebody else.”

The division race is essentially over. The Tigers play the Indians four more times at Comerica, but Cleveland’s seven-game lead seems secure with 13 games left.

A wild card remains there for the taking. The Orioles (82-68) and Blue Jays (81-68) would be in if the season ended today. The Tigers and Mariners (79-70) are two games back. The Astros (78-71) are three back and the fading Yankees (77-72) are four back.

“It’s still the same,” closer Francisco Rodriguez said when asked where the team’s battle level was. “We are still on a mission. We are still here to compete. We are still in the fight.”

It’s hard not to view Detroit as wobbling as it heads to Minnesota for three games starting tonight. The offense, which finally broke out in the finale, was averaging three runs the previous eight games, including a 10-inning shutout by eight Indians relievers last Saturday.

In addition, there are some health questions. Ian Kinsler (head), Victor Martinez (right knee) and Miguel Cabrera (left hand) were all hit by Trevor Bauer pitches in the finale.

Kinsler was ejected in the fifth, but he likely would have been removed anyway. He was beginning to feel concussion symptoms. He was examined fully after the game and did travel with the team to Minneapolis.

Martinez, both his knees already aching, was hit twice in the right knee in the Indians series. That’s the knee he took a cortisone shot in back in June. So a bad situation got worse. Cabrera’s hand was swollen and stiff after the finale, but was optimistic he’d be ready to play tonight.

Center fielder Cameron Maybin continues to play, courageously but at diminished capacity, with a sprained left thumb.

The starting rotation remains, as it has been virtually all season, in flux. Jordan Zimmermann, who has made two ugly starts since June 30, is still not ready to rejoin the rotation. Thus, the Tigers are deciding between Mike Pelfrey, Anibal Sanchez and Buck Farmer for the Wednesday’s game.

Daniel Norris’ win in the finale was the first by a Tigers starter in 20 games, and the rotation’s ERA in the previous 10 was over 10.0.

“If you would have told me we’d have three rookies in the starting rotation in September and we’d be playing for a playoff spot, I would have been shocked,” Ausmus said.

Technically, Norris and Matt Boyd are in their second year. But those two, plus rookie Michael Fulmer, all began the season at Triple A Toledo and combined to make 51 starts.

Having to rely on three inexperienced pitchers in must-win games down the stretch is not the preferred method for a successful playoff run.

“The upside is, regardless of what happens the rest of the way, you are getting good experience for those three, which bodes well for the Tigers the next few years,” Ausmus said. “But I’d rather make the playoffs in 2016 first. Let them get postseason experience, as well.”

The schedule remains favorable for the Tigers — but it was favorable all month and they’ve yet to exploit it.

The Blue Jays, who are reeling at the moment, have the roughest road in. They are playing three road games against the Mariners beginning Monday, then host the Yankees for four, and the Orioles and Red Sox three apiece.

Seattle, the hottest team winning 11 of 16, travels to Minnesota and Houston before finishing up at home against Oakland.

“Moving forward, it’s win at all costs,” catcher James McCann said. “Find a way to win and let the chips fall as they may. If we start worrying about what other teams are going to do, we’re going to forget what we have to do as a team.

“Regardless who’s in the other dugout, we have to find a way to win ballgames. That’s the bottom line. That’s the easiest way to put it. Regardless who’s in that other dugout from here on out, we have to find a way to win.”

ON DECK: TWINS 

Series: Three games, Tuesday-Thursday, Target Field, Minneapolis

First pitch: 8:10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday

TV/radio: FSD/97.1

Probables: Tonight — LHP Matt Boyd (5-4, 4,43) vs. LHP Hector Santiago (12-8, 4.65). Wednesday — TBA vs. RHP Jose Berrios (2-7, 8.88). Thursday — RHP Justin Verlander (14-8, 3,22) vs. RHP Ervin Santana (7-10, 3,38)

Boyd: He will be looking for some payback against the Twins, who banged him up last Tuesday — seven runs and eight hits in 3.2 innings. The first three hitters in the lineup — Brian Dozier, Jorge Polanco and Robbie Grossman — were 6-for-8 with three doubles and a home run.

Santiago: He frustrated the Tigers last Thursday — they had six hits and two walks him in 5.2 innings, and one run. He’s given up five runs in three September starts, covering 18 2/3 innings.

DOWN THE STRETCH 

Wild card 1 — Baltimore (82-68)

September: 10-7

Games remaining (12): Home (6) Boston (Tuesday-Thursday), Arizona (Friday-Sunday). Away (6) — Toronto (Sept. 27-29), New York (Sept. 30, Oct. 1-2)

Their formula continues to hold true. They are getting just enough starting pitching to get the game to their lights-out bullpen. And even though home run leader Mark Trumbo has slowed since the All-Star break, Manny Machado, Adam Jones, Chris Davis and Jonathan Schoop continue slug. The Orioles have a league-high 236 home runs.

Wild card 2 — Toronto (82-68)

September: 5-11

Games remaining (12): Home (7)New York (Thursday-Sunday), Baltimore (Sept. 27-29). Away (5): Seattle (Tuesday-Wednesday), Boston (Sept. 30, Oct. 1-2)

Seems like the ship is sinking. Their mighty offense, upon which the team was built, has gone silent lately. Josh Donaldson is trying to play through a hip injury, which doesn’t help. Top of the rotation starter Marco Estrada is 1-5 his last seven starts, dealing with back soreness. They do play seven of their last 10 games at home, where they average better than five runs per game.

Detroit (79-70, -2.5 games)

September: 7-9

Games remaining (13): Home (7) — Kansas City (Friday-Sunday), Cleveland (Sept. 26-29). Away (6) — Minnesota (today-Thursday), Atlanta (Sept. 30, Oct. 1-2)

It appears the Tigers are going to sink or swim with Justin Verlander and three young arms down the stretch. That wouldn’t be as problematic if the offense wasn’t so fickle. There are recent health concerns with Ian Kinsler (head), Victor Martinez (knee) and Miguel Cabrera (hand), as well as Cameron Maybin (thumb).

Seattle (79-71, -3 games)

September: 11-6

Games remaining (12): Home (6) — Toronto (Tuesday-Wednesday), Oakland (Sept. 29-30, Oct 1-2). Away (6) — Minnesota (Friday-Sunday), Houston (Sept. 26-28)

They swept the Tigers in early August and stayed hot. They’ve won 9 of their last 11. Their pitching has been stingier (fifth in runs allowed since the break) and their offense is fourth in runs produced in the American League.

Houston (79-71, -3 games)

September: 8-9

Games remaining (12): Home (7) — Anaheim (Thursday-Sunday), Seattle (Sept. 26-28). Away (5) — Oakland (Tuesday-Wednesday), Anaheim (Sept. 30-Oct. 2)

Injuries have taken some of the wind out of their sails. Dallas Keuchel may not pitch the rest of the year because of a shoulder injury. Alex Bregman, who sparked the team when he arrived from Triple A, is done (hamstring). And Jose Altuve is trying to play with a painful oblique injury.

New York (77-72, -4.5 games)

September: 8-9

Games remaining (12): Home (6) — Boston (Sept. 27-29), Baltimore (Sept. 30, Oct. 1-2). Away (6) — Tampa Bay (Tuesday-Thursday), Toronto (Friday-Sunday)

A four-game sweep by the Red Sox considerably cooled the Yankees and they arguably have the toughest remaining schedule among the contenders. Injuries to Jacoby Ellsbury, Starlin Castro and Chase Headley won’t help. Can the bat of recent pickup Billy Butler help?