Detroit — When the Tigers are evaluating players for next season, one of the boxes that needs to be checked is competitiveness.
Mikie Mahtook — check. Check-plus.
After slapping the winning single Friday night, Mahtook engaged White Sox right-hander Reynaldo Lopez in an epic, 14-pitch at-bat in the fourth inning, the highlight of the Tigers 10-4 loss Saturday.
Don’t try to tell the Tigers players that those little pockets of competitiveness don’t matter, even in yet another blowout loss.
“You don’t draw it up like that, but you have to find a way to grind through it and battle it out,” said James McCann, another pocket of competitiveness with three hits. “The big thing is, you’ve got to find a way to have some fun; to smile through it all.
“The amount of failure that’s in this game, it’s very easy to be negative and let it affect who you are as a person, let it affect your game. So what we talk about is, you have to find a way to take positives out of every game.”
Mahtook’s at-bat qualifies.
Jeimer Candelario, who was on base three times, was on first with two outs. The Tigers trailed 7-3 at that point and Mahtook fell quickly into an 0-2 hole. He pushed his helmet tighter on his head, kicked dirt off his spikes and dug back in. His fight was just beginning.
He took a fastball for ball one, then fouled off a change-up at 85 mph and a fastball at 97. He barely got a piece of a curveball at 78 mph, fouled off a fastball at 95 and another change-up at 85.
The ninth pitch of the at-bat, another change-up, he took for ball two. He fought off two 96-mph fastballs and took another one just off the plate for ball three. Lopez took several steps toward umpire Brian Gorman — he thought he’d won the battle.
Mahtook, though, was still alive. After fouling off a change-up — his eighth foul ball with two strikes — he barreled up the 14th pitch, a 95-mph fastball, and lined it in the right-center field gap for an RBI triple.
“Great at-bat,” Tigers manager Brad Ausmus said. “If we could’ve pushed Mahtook across and made it a two-run game, I think it would have made a big difference. But that didn’t happen.”
The crowd was on its feet as Mahtook dove Superman-style into third base. It was a thrilling at-bat and after the inning Mahtook got atta-boy high-fives from Ausmus and hitting coach Lloyd McClendon.
“A lot of people say the season is over; no it’s not,” McCann said. “We’re trying to create a new culture here. This is a new team. This is a completely different team than we had when we left spring training.
“You are trying to build relationships and carry over what we can build this year into next year. Why wait until spring training to create a new culture? Why not start now?”
Beyond that, though, there wasn’t a whole lot else to build off of.
Miguel Cabrera, who looked stiff from the start, was pulled from the game after the fourth inning with lower back tightness. He will be evaluated again Sunday.
“You have to tip your cap to Miggy,” McCann said. “This is something he’s been battling. I mean, he’s a guy I’ve admired since I was a kid and being around him, just his grit and tenacity — he wants to go out and perform, even if he’s not 100 percent.
“He’d say that God has blessed him with the ability to play this game and he’s going to do everything he can until he’s just not physically capable of performing. It’s tough to see, one of your main guys going through something like this.”
Tough also to see a young pitching staff take a pounding night after night. The White Sox banged out eight runs and 11 hits in the first five innings. They finished with 17 hits and 23 baserunners.
This was the sixth time this month Tigers pitching has allowed at least 10 runs, the 12th time since the trade deadline.
Starter Myles Jaye gave up six runs (five earned) and got only four outs. All the runs were scored after two were out in the first two innings.
It marked the 28th time a Tigers starter has failed to finish four innings (fourth-most in baseball), and the 12th time since the trade deadline.
The Tigers contributed some gnarly defense to the four-run second inning. With one run already in and runners at first and second, Yoan Moncada singled to right field.
Castellanos threw home far too late to catch Allen Hanson, who scored from second. The throw was errant and up the line. Jaye backed up the play, but unwisely decided to throw the ball to second base to nab a hustling Moncada.
Not only was Moncada safe, but Jaye’s throw allowed Yolmer Sanchez — who went from first to third on the single — to score.
“It is incumbent on Jaye to make sure that run doesn’t score,” Ausmus said. “I think he kind of put his head down and assumed the runner at first wasn’t going and the runner at first took advantage of it.”
Left-hander Daniel Norris pitched three relatively strong innings, but gave up two runs in the seventh inning on an infield single, walk, three stolen bases and a sacrifice fly.
With speedy Hanson on third and one out, the Tigers brought their infield in. Moncada hit a hard ground ball right at Jose Iglesias at short. He didn’t throw home. He took the out at first and conceded the run.
“The ball was off to his right and it knocked him back a little bit,” Ausmus explained. “He didn’t have his feet set to throw home. That was the problem. He didn’t have his feet set to throw home so he just took the out.”