Detroit — The focus these days for the Tigers is individual player development and progress.
That they were clobbered, 13-2, by the Royals Wednesday — as ugly as it got, giving up 11 unanswered runs after the sixth inning — was of secondary importance.
For the record, Salvador Perez hit a pair of home runs, Whit Merrifield had three straight doubles and the two of them combined drove in six runs. Alcides Escobar was a home run shy of the cycle and the Royals pounded out 18 hits.
But again, the Tigers this month are more focused on development and progress than wins and losses.
They saw significant progress with starter Matthew Boyd, who was in firm control through six innings. They are still waiting to see it from reliever Joe Jimenez, who faced six batters in the eighth inning and five of them got hits and scored.
Might as well start with the negative and finish on a positive.
Jimenez’s calling card while dominating every level of the minor leagues was his upper-90s fastball. His average fastball Wednesday was clocked at 94 mph. He touched his maximum velocity of 95 once.
“The velocity is the last thing that I am worried about right now,” said Jimenez, who gave up four singles and a double.
He said there were no health issues. He said he was not distracted by Hurricane Irma, which was close to hitting on his native Puerto Rico. His problem, he said, was location — not executing his pitches.
“There is no excuse,” he said. “I have to do my job and I didn’t do it…I am just trying to go out and do my job. Obviously, the results aren’t going my way.”
He was a little unlucky. The first two hits were an end-of-the-bat dunker and a hit-and-run single through the vacated side of the infield. But, still, for a power pitcher, one who could be in line to be a late-inning reliever or closer, he hasn’t missed many bats.
“For me, he’s been a closer his whole life so he works off adrenaline,” said Ian Kinsler, who had a firm, one-sided discussion with Jimenez during the inning. “You see him pitch in situations where we are in a jam and need to get outs — a little higher-intensity situation — and he throws the ball well.
“I’m not worried about Joe. He’s going to work through this.”
That was manager Brad Ausmus’ feeling, as well, though he is perplexed by the decreased velocity.
“I’m not sure I can explain it,” he said. “If it’s not a medical issue, it could just be a phase. Players sometimes keep (health) issues to themselves so they can continue getting on the field. Which is an admirable trait, quite frankly.”
Jimenez repeatedly said his health was fine. The question for the organization is how much rope do they give Jimenez to work through it. At what point does it become counter-productive in terms of ruining his confidence?
“You don’t want his confidence to be broken, but there are a number of guys that applies to,” Ausmus said. “You can’t protect everyone. At some point, you do have to make an adjustment. If there is a health issue that we don’t know about, then that is a different story.
“Joe is a pretty confident kid. My gut tells me he’s going to be fine. It doesn’t look so good so far, but he’s going to be fine.”
As for Boyd, his line will look pedestrian: six innings (plus two batters), seven hits and four runs. But it marks another step in his steady progression back to form since he simplified his delivery three starts ago.
“It was good in that sense, the delivery sense,” he said. “But the goal is let in fewer runs that we score. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case today. I could have been a few pitches better.”
He took many of the moving parts out of his windup, and that has enabled him to repeat his delivery more consistently. It’s also enabled him to speed up his pace on the mound.
“It’s definitely crisper, cleaner with a lot less moving parts which makes it a lot easier to repeat, throw strikes and be more consistent around the strike zone,” Ausmus said. “In the long term, it’s going to be good for him.”
His first start with the new delivery was against the White Sox on Aug. 27 and he made one tragically bad pitch in a five-run inning — a three-run homer to Matt Davidson.
His next start was against the Indians and he allowed only one run in five innings.
On Wednesday, he was in firm control of his game through six innings. His only trouble came in the second inning. Perez jumped on a 1-2 fastball and hit it on a line over the left-field fence. Then with two outs, he fell behind Escobar and a 3-1 fastball was laced to the gap in left center for an RBI triple.
In the other five innings, Boyd gave up just two hits and two walks.
The Royals only threat came with two outs in the fifth when Merrifield doubled and Lorenzo Cain walked. But Boyd responded by striking out Melky Cabrera on three pitches — curveball at 74 mph, fastball at 93 (called strike), then another fastball at 93 (swinging).
He allowed himself a fist pump as he walked off the mound.
It was a 2-2 game and Boyd was at 87 pitches when he took the mound in the seventh, facing the bottom of the Royals order. But he fell behind Escobar, who blasted a 2-2 two-seamer off the wall in right. He fell behind Alex Gordon, too, but threw him a nasty, 3-2 change-up.
Gordon was way out front of the pitch, but was able to poke it softly down the line in left field.
Tough way to end an otherwise encouraging night.
“It was a building block, for sure,” Boyd said. “I felt good out there. But it can be better. We had a chance to win a series today and the other guy (Royals Jason Hammel) was a few pitches better than me.”
The only offensive highlight for the Tigers was Kinsler’s 15th home run of the year in the fifth. All 15 of his homers this year have been solo shots. He is the first to manage that feat since 1987 when Reds' Kal Daniels started the year with 16 solo homers.