Tigers put brutal May in rear-view; June looks brighter

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Detroit — Manager Brad Ausmus didn’t like the sound of it.

He was asked if, despite going 4-7 on the sleep-starved three-city trip, he felt the Tigers still somehow survived. After all, they did take two of three from the Royals. The bats, though iced in the middle game by Eric Skoglund, scored 16 runs in the first and last games of the series.

And they woke up Thursday, in their own beds for a change, just three games behind the leaders in the American League Central.

So, survived it seems about right. But to Ausmus, it sounded too much like an excuse for their club’s poor showing in Houston and Chicago.

“It was a tough road trip, but we’ve got to win games,” he said. “It’s as simple as that. We’re not the only team to go through a tough road trip.”

In May, the Tigers played 20 road games in six cities — spanning three time zones — in 19 days. They’ve come through three, three-city road trips in seven weeks. Their 31 road games ties Seattle for the most in baseball.

Minnesota, which shares the division lead with Cleveland, has played 19 road games.

Nick Castellanos, in his typical matter-of-fact way summed it up: “We had two night get-away games, into a doubleheader, which became a canceled doubl-header into a late game followed by a doubleheader, followed by a day game.”

Piece of cake. When they started the trip, Ian Kinsler was playing second base, James McCann was catching and Tyler Collins was playing center field. By the time they got to Chicago, Kinlser (hamstring) and McCann (hand laceration) were on the disabled list, and by the time they got to Kansas City, Collins had been designated for assignment and Alex Presley was the left-handed-hitting outfield option.

When they started the trip, Anibal Sanchez was adjusting poorly to a bullpen role. Before they left Houston, he agreed to be optioned to Toledo so he could be stretched back out as a starter. He and Chad Bell were the long men in the Tigers bullpen when the trip started.

Warwick Saupold and Arcenio Leon have taken their spots.

As for the rotation, the names are the same, but the order is changing.

With a day off Thursday and another Monday, Ausmus and pitching coach Rich Dubee took the opportunity to rearrange the furniture.

Michael Fulmer, who allowed four earned runs in two starts and lost both games on the trip, will open the series against the White Sox on Friday and Jordan Zimmermann will pitch Saturday. That is a continuation of the previous rotation.

But Justin Verlander, who posted one of his best starts of the year Tuesday in a 1-0 loss, will be moved up to start Sunday and pitch on regular rest. Otherwise, with the off-day Monday, he would have had two extra days of rest.

Ausmus also took the opportunity to push struggling left-hander Matthew Boyd back a few days to give him time to work some things out.

Daniel Norris will pitch the first game of the Angels series on Tuesday and Fulmer will move up into Boyd’s spot and pitch Wednesday. Boyd will pitch the finale.

“We’re not concerned long-term,” Ausmus said of Boyd. “But we obviously want him to pitch better, no question about that. He wants to pitch better, too.”

Boyd has allowed 18 runs and 36 hits in 16 innings in his last four starts.

“It’s just he’s not getting the depth on his pitches,” catcher Alex Avila said. “He’s got a good four-seamer (fastball) going right now. But sometimes he gets too low with his arm slot and his off-speed stuff flattens out.

“He’s still learning his mechanics. He’s still tweaking things, trying to figure out what allows him to have the most consistent release point and depth on his pitches.”

To simplify an issue that isn’t nearly this simple: Boyd is at his best when he stays taller through his delivery. His tendency is to squat and stick his backside out, which causes his arm to drop so he can’t stay on top of his curveball and change-up, which are two of his big weapons.

“He’s still learning that part of his mechanics, where it’s like, ‘OK, if I am off on these types of pitches, what do I need to do to get back? How do I make the adjustment,’ ” Avila said. “He’s learning that. He’s been working his butt off trying to figure it out and that’s why he’s been struggling little bit.

“But he’s also capable of going on a run for a couple of months where he’s lights out. He just has to continue to work at it.”

Ausmus may not like the implication, but the Tigers did survive these past couple of weeks. Kinsler should be back on Tuesday. McCann likely will follow soon after that.

Justin Upton, though, left the game Wednesday with a mild quad strain. He will get re-evaluated Friday, but both Ausmus and Upton felt confident it wasn’t anything major.

Verlander and Norris seem to have ironed out some of their issues and the Tigers come home with three of the five starters in good form. Zimmermann and Boyd are still trying to get right.

The bullpen has calmed down nicely, with Shane Greene, Alex Wilson and Justin Wilson anchoring the back end.

And the schedule, at last, turns more favorable. The Tigers will play 22 of the next 32 at Comerica Park.

The Tigers start June three games under .500; just as they did last season. They went 18-11 last June and fought their way back into the playoff race by July 1.

It’s set up for a similar run.

On deck: White Sox

Series: Three-game series at Comerica Park, Detroit

First pitch: 7:10 p.m. Friday; 4:10 p.m. Saturday; 1:10 p.m. Sunday

TV/radio: Friday-Sunday, FSD, 97.1

Probables: Friday – LHP Derek Holland (4-4, 2.37) vs. RHP Michael Fulmer (5-3, 2.65); Saturday – RHP Miguel Gonzalez (4-5, 4.43) vs. RHP Jordan Zimmermann (4-4, 6.47); Sunday – LHP David Holmberg (0-0, 2.51) vs. LHP Daniel Norris (2-3, 4.47).

Scouting report

Holland, White Sox: The Tigers managed to put a lot of traffic on the bases against him last week in Chicago (seven hits, four walks in six innings), but they managed only one run – on a home run by John Hicks. It will be his third start at Comerica (1-0, three runs allowed in 13.1 innings).

Fulmer, Tigers: He continues to dominate his starts with no tangible reward. He was beaten 1-0 and 3-0 in his last two starts. He ranks sixth among American League starters in ERA (2.65) and seventh in WHIP (1.1)