Tigers defense decent, still needs tinkering

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Detroit – He was asked ahead of Friday’s game about the Tigers’ defense, which, after two tough weeks might have been a happier topic for Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire and for a team that had lost four consecutive games.

But that was before the losing streak stretched to five Friday with an 8-6 loss to the Yankees at Comerica Park, with defense a definite culprit, particularly in the outfield.

“Couple of mistakes,” Gardenhire said after Friday’s loss, which featured assorted tough moments for right fielder Nick Castellanos and center fielder Leonys Martin.

There were no real indictments of either player. There have, however, Gardenhire explained earlier Friday, been some adjustments.  

They center on how the right side’s infield cutoff men will be deployed after Castellanos heaved a relay over the heads of both Dixon Machado and Miguel Cabrera in the second inning of Thursday night’s ugly 9-3 loss at Cleveland.

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“I want Machado to be my cutoff man, and Nick to hit him,” Gardenhire explained. “I don’t think you have to have two guys out there.”

The tactical switch has its roots in how the Tigers arranged right-side cutoffs when manager Brad Ausmus and defensive coordinator Matt Martin were at the helm from 2014-17.

Cabrera often retreated from first base to shallow right field and acted as an extreme right-side cutoff option for the right fielder’s throws home. The second baseman, then Ian Kinsler and now Machado, set up in right-center and worked as a cutoff corridor on a right-fielder’s throws anywhere from second base to home.

Gardenhire has decided two men aren’t necessarily better than one. In fact, he finds it inefficient.

He wants Cabrera to stick closer to the bag and forgo those forays into right field.

Why was the two-man arrangement initially a habit?

Mostly because of Comerica Park.

“Deep field,” said Gardenhire, who knows angles and throwing lanes can change dramatically when there’s as much acreage as exists at Comerica.

One target should help Castellanos more easily sort through a split-second decision, he said, and reduce chances of confusion or overthrows, as occurred Thursday night at Cleveland.

Francisco Lindor had doubled to right, Castellanos was quick on the throw and air-mailed everyone as Roberto Perez and Tyler Naquin each scored.

Machado needs to be the lone point man on those relays, Gardenhire said.

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“I trust Nick’s gonna pick up the ball and hit the cutoff man,” the Tigers skipper said, adding that “the goal also is to keep Cabrera near the bag.”

The Tigers no doubt had also gotten accustomed in previous years to the two-cutoff options because of who then was playing right field.

J.D. Martinez did not have a powerful arm, and neither did the man who tended to replace him there, Alex Presley.

Castellanos by no means brandishes a Winchester in right, but he has enough zip to get it to a single relay outpost, no matter where Machado is positioned.

It’s one way in which Gardenhire believes he can tighten up a defense that, on balance, has handled business tidily.

“With the exception of last night,” he said, speaking of the Cleveland series finale when Detroit had three errors. “We kind of threw it around then.”

The Tigers otherwise have been behaving, and even had a few shining moments Thursday as JaCoby Jones, now Gardenhire’s regular left-fielder, dived into the stands to make a catch. Machado also made a splendid play at second base that was perhaps more noteworthy when he is a natural shortstop and not a right-side infielder.

The fine-tuning and tinkering will continue. Gardenhire is a one-time big-league infielder, invested in defense long before the managerial gig arrived.