Detroit — James McCann went back into the Tigers’ clubhouse between innings Sunday to find a dry towel on a sweltering afternoon. The White Sox broadcast of the game was booming on the big-screen television.
“I heard the announcer say they were shocked that we were in second place,” McCann said. “That we were just a bunch of no-names. That’s fine that everyone thinks that. But at the end of the day, go look at the standings.”
The Tigers woke up Monday 36-37 and 2.5 games behind the Indians in the American League Central, and after a two-game interleague set with the Reds Tuesday and Wednesday, they go to Cleveland for three games.
But, as McCann quickly pointed out, while that is fun and all, it’s not the team’s focus.
“We have to keep the same mindset,” he said after the Tigers swept the White Sox and extended their winning streak to five. “If you are standings-watching in June, you won’t be standings-watching in September. You can’t get caught up in that.
“We have to keep taking care of our business. There are a lot more ups and downs we’re going to go through before the season is all said and done. Right now we are on an upswing and the goal is to extend those, and get rid of the downswings as quick as possible.”
The team needs to keep it in perspective; fans should, too. But fans can celebrate the brand of baseball this team has played through 73 games.
Think about this:
From May 25 to June 10, the Tigers played 18 games in 17 days, including four series against playoff hopefuls (Angels, Yankees, Red Sox and Indians) and went 10-8. Then, in the first game after a day off, they lost Miguel Cabrera, the face of the franchise, out for the season with a torn biceps tendon.
Did they pout? Wallow in self-pity? No. They won five straight since then and now sit a game under .500.
“We got guys that can do it and we believe it,” said left-handed starter Matthew Boyd after a win against the Twins last week. “This is a testament to how we play. It’s a testament to how we’re going to fight every game, right to the end.
“It’s a testament to Gardy (manager Ron Gardenhire), too. He instilled this culture in us.”
Gardenhire is asked after nearly every win about getting to .500, challenging the Indians, about changing the conversation from rebuilding to staying in the division race. And without fail, he downplays it.
“Nothing changes,” he said. “We’re just going out and playing the game every night. I’m not even looking at the standings or any of that. This team is having a lot of fun, they are game-on, so let’s just go out every night and try to win a game.
“That’s all we can do.”
He sticking to the program in terms of player development, too. He’s made sure Rule 5 rookie Victor Reyes continues to get some starts in the outfield, not just as a pinch-runner. Niko Goodrum is playing regularly, mostly at second base.
He’s not wavering from his commitment to JaCoby Jones in left field, riding his offensive ups and downs, and his base-running gambits, like an amusement park ride. He has been steadfast about not over-using set-up man Joe Jimenez – no four-out outings, regardless of the game situation.
“I know what the plan is here,” Gardenhire said. “I knew what it was when I took the job.”
This has been a dream scenario for the Tigers’ front office. To be playing this brand of baseball, rekindling the excitement of the fan base, if not recapturing their hearts, in the first year of a full rebuild – it’s like playing with house money.
“It shows that we have some young players here with talent,” general manager Al Avila said Sunday in Chicago. “We’ve put together a team of good, young players and you would hope they rise to the occasion and play to their capabilities. Some will and some won’t.
“But Gardy has done a great job, Chris Bosio has done a great job and the coaching staff. We are on a good path and there isn’t anything bad about that.”
Avila echoes what several players have said throughout the first two-plus months: This isn’t a complete surprise to those on the inside. Avila talked about a meeting he had about a week before the season with Alan Trammell, Jim Leyland and Gardenhire.
“They all said, ‘We like this team. We think we can be pretty good,’” Avila said. “Nobody was predicting playoffs or World Series, OK? But we felt going in, this is a good team. We like this team.
“Those comments were made by experienced guys, and they weren’t just saying that to make a comment. There were serious after watching these guys play through spring training. We came in with hopes of playing good baseball.”
But Avila isn’t going to deviate from the long-term plan. The club has already put off the inevitable rebuild – chasing the fool’s gold of 85-90 wins -- two years longer than it should have. If he can flip Francisco Liriano, Mike Fiers, Jose Iglesias, Leonys Martin, Shane Greene or any other veteran for a desirable package of prospects, he will.
If somebody comes in with a can’t-refuse offer for Michael Fulmer or Nick Castellanos – and it would have to at least be equal to the huge get-back he got from Houston for Justin Verlander -- he’s going to pull the trigger.
As he should.
The Tigers have vastly, impressively and entertainingly over-achieved to be a game under .500. That they could go into Cleveland this weekend within striking distance is commentary about the Indians’ season more than the Tigers’.
But, so what? It’s been fun not standings-watching, hasn’t it? It’s been a blast just watching this team fight and compete nightly, oblivious to their record or place in the standings.
“We just go out there and try get every single win we can,” Martin said Sunday. “That’s it. We got close (to .500) a couple of weeks ago and then we’re here again. We only care about getting the next game that we play. That’s all.”
That’s enough, isn’t it?
ON DECK: REDS
Series: Two-game series at Great American Ball Park
First pitch: Tuesday 7:10 p.m.; Wednesday 12:35 p.m.
TV/radio: FSD/97.1 FM both games
Probables: Tuesday – RHP Sal Romano (3-7, 5.67) vs. LHP Matthew Boyd (4-4, 3.23); Wednesday – RHP Tyler Mahle (5-6, 3.96) vs. Michael Fulmer (3-5, 4.13).
Romano, Reds: A power pitcher, he’s coming off his best start of the season, holding the Royals to a run and four hits over eight innings. He threw almost exclusively sinkers (95 mph) and sliders (87 mph). Opponents have hit over .300 against both his four-seam (95) and sinker.
Boyd, Tigers: He has been a model of consistency, allowing three runs or less in 10 of his 13 starts. Over his last 17 starts, his ERA is 3.03 and among American League pitchers with at least 100 innings over that span, opponents are hitting .199 – fourth best. His .202 opponents’ batting average this season ranks seventh.