Detroit — Baseball 300 was in session Monday morning and professor Ron Gardenhire was presiding. The Tigers’ 0-3 start has provided several salient teaching points.
The Pirates had runners on second and third with nobody out. Josh Harrison, one of the most notoriously aggressive runners in baseball, was on second base.
Jordy Mercer hit a fly ball to medium depth left field. Rookie Victor Reyes caught it and tried to throw home and get the lead runner. The odds were long against that and the throw allowed Harrison to advance to third with one out.
Third baseman Jeimer Candelario came down the line at third to serve as the cutoff man. Shortstop Jose Iglesias hustled over to cover third. All correct. And still wrong.
“In that situation, we weren’t throwing him out at the plate,” Gardenhire said. “I’d rather have my third baseman screaming, ‘Third base, third base.’ And I’d like for Iggy to be yelling ‘Third base,’ too. We had time to look at the guy on second base. He was tagging and he’s a really good base runner. Keep him at second.”
It was on Candelario to recognize the play and move back to third base to take Reyes’ throw. As it was, Reyes correctly threw to the cutoff man. But the cutoff man was up the line.
“He did the right thing, he hit the cutoff man,” Gardenhire said. “But he still threw it toward home. Our third baseman will learn to just call for the ball at third base and go to the bag. It’s a work in progress.
“But this is how you get better. Sometimes you have these teaching points and you pay the fiddler for them at the time -- but you get better over time."
Still in that fifth inning (a pivotal five-run outburst by the Pirates). The inning ended with Reyes and Iglesias colliding on a short pop fly in left field. Reyes ended up diving to avoid colliding with Iglesias.
Both players were banged up. Reyes got an eight-stitch gash on his forearm and Iglesias rolled his left ankle.
“To me, the outfielder has the priority,” Iglesias said. “But I’m always in charge. That’s just me. I try to make every play I can.”
Reyes, who hasn’t until this year played above Double A, has never seen a shortstop who can cover as much ground going away from the plate as Iglesias can. It will take a while for them to get in sync on those plays — just as it did for veteran Justin Upton previously.
“You’ve got a young kid out there who wants to catch everything,” Gardenhire said. “Understanding Iglesias is really good at catching pop flies. Both guys are just trying to make plays. It’s understanding and learning situations.
“He’s a young kid and he’s going to have some learning experiences. That was one of them.”
The Tigers’ bullpen has given up 13 runs in three games.
Pitching coach Chris Bosio came in Monday armed with charts showing when most of the damage has been inflicted. The point wasn’t subtle.
“We are working on consistently throwing strike one and staying ahead in counts,” Gardenhire said. “But we are constantly getting into hitter’s counts. We get to 1-1 and we’ve been consistently throwing breaking balls and we miss and it’s 2-1. Now we’re in a hitter’s count all over again.
“We have to learn. If we throw that pitch, we have to command it in the strike zone in a good spot. If it’s 1-1 and they roll-over on one or swing at it, that’s fine. But it can’t be a non-competitive pitch. Now we’re in a bad situation and we’ve been in a lot of bad situations. That’s got to change.”
Gardenhire said he and Bosio were still trying to sort the bullpen roles out, but the inconsistency has made it difficult. Drew VerHagen doesn’t get an out on Opening Day then pitches two strong innings Sunday. Buck Farmer strikes out the side in the fourth, gives up five in the fifth.
“We are trying to find their spots but one day it’s good and the next it’s not the same guy,” he said. “We’re working on consistency getting it over and getting ahead in the count and we don’t do that very well yet.”
The long innings have a trickle-down impact on the hitters, as well, especially on these cold days.
“(Starter) Ryan Carpenter yesterday was constantly in 2-1 counts," Gardenhire said. "The game is dragging. He’s at 70 pitches in three innings, it’s cold and we’re standing out there. Then we come in and everybody is standing in front of the heater instead of getting ready to hit.
“It’s not good.”
The Pirates’ four-run ninth-inning rally on Opening Day started with a slicing drive to right field that banged off Nick Castellanos’ glove. Gardenhire was asked Monday if he would consider replacing Castellanos with a more accomplished outfielder late in close games.
“No,” he said. “Nick is my right fielder and I will not be subbing for him. The only way for him to get better and be confident out there is to leave him out there. I will not mess with him.
“He works very hard. I’ve watched him and I will not substitute defensively for that guy. He’s my right fielder and he’s going to be a really good one.”