Detroit — In the third inning in Kansas City Tuesday, Tigers starter Jordan Zimmermann, frustrated, stood between home and the mound after giving up a two-out single to Salvador Perez.
That was his first mistake.
The second one, the one that chapped manager Ron Gardenhire, was standing in the middle of the diamond while the runner from second, Rosell Herrera, sped around third and scored. Zimmermann needed to be backing up home plate because the throw from right field wasn’t cut off.
Perez, if he wanted to, could have eased into second base.
“When you manage, you pay attention to the details,” Gardenhire said. “Like a simple thing like that, Zimm not backing up home. My job is not to scream at him or yell. Just make sure we touch on all those things.”
Gardenhire didn’t make a spectacle of it. The television cameras would have seen only a manager and his veteran pitcher having a conversation. It didn’t matter that it was Zimmermann’s 238th career start or that he’s making $24 million this season.
Everybody has to play the game correctly.
“It’s a constant,” Gardenhire said. “It’s running balls out, all those little things that we shouldn’t have to tell them to do. But those are the things we need to do. That’s how we’ll get better in this organization. You can’t let little things go. A guy shows up late, you’ve got to talk to him about it.
“Being a manager, your biggest job is to stay on top of all those little things and make sure everybody is accountable.”
It doesn’t matter to Gardenhire if you are the highest-paid player on the team or the lowest, a grizzled veteran or a fresh-faced rookie, if you don’t respect the game, you are going to hear about it.
“Earlier in my career, I was one of those guys who got in your face,” Gardenhire said. “I like to have conversations with them now, more than anything else. Once they understand that they embarrassed the game a little bit, and maybe themselves and the team, that’s better than screaming and yelling.”
Zimmermann, being the pro that he is, owned his mistake immediately.
“He said, ‘I thought (first baseman Jim) Adduci was going to cut it, but I know what you mean. My bad,’” Gardenhire said.
Message delivered, message received. No bad feelings. It’s a window into how Gardenhire has operated this season, in what could be, for a lesser-experienced skipper, a difficult environment.
He’s essentially serving two masters — the product on the field and the mission of the front office. He is tasked with keeping his players motivated and playing a competitive brand of baseball, while at the same time maintaining an emphasis on developing young players in the first year of a rebuild.
Sometimes the two masters work at cross-purposes.
Sometimes you are asked to groom a Rule 5 draftee who hadn’t played above Double-A, so there are nights you feel you are playing shorthanded. But somehow, Gardenhire has managed to turn that into a positive.
With more regular playing time, Victor Reyes has contributed, hitting .250 since June 13 and playing solid defense in the outfield.
“For me, he’s had the biggest impact on this team,” veteran designated hitter Victor Martinez said of Gardenhire. “That’s why this team is playing pretty good, it’s because of him. He’s a great manager. He knows what he’s doing, man.
“He treats everybody with a lot of respect and makes them comfortable.”
Here’s an example: Nick Castellanos went 0-for-4 in the Tigers’ comeback win in Kansas City on Monday. As Gardenhire walked through the clubhouse afterward, Castellanos apologized to him.
“What for?” Gardenhire said.
“Because I didn’t do anything today,” Castellanos said.
“You got the last out,” Gardenhire said, referencing that Castellanos made a long running catch in foul territory to end the game. You caught the last out, it doesn’t get any better than that.”
“That’s him, right there, that’s what he does,” Castellanos said. “He keeps everything positive. If we have a bad night, he says, ‘Crack a beer, whatever you have to do to wash it away and let go get 'em tomorrow.’”
It’s not all pats on the back, though. Gardenhire said he’s only had to scream and yell a couple of times this season to make his point. But there was a meeting back in Lakeland, early in spring training, in which he lambasted the pitching staff in front of the entire team. He wanted everybody to get the message.
At issue was a spring game in which pitchers Alex Wilson and Warwick Saupold, on separate occasions, stood in the middle of the diamond in frustration after giving up a bunch of hits, instead of backing up third base or home — same lapse that Zimmermann was reminded about Tuesday.
“I just can’t take those things,” Gardenhire said. “That’s not respecting the game. And I felt at that time, the tone needed to be set. I wasn’t going to put up with that. You have a place to be, get your butt there.”
If it sounds like an old-school approach — it is. It is also an approach that has been proven effective, generation after generation. But if you think Gardenhire is too set in old methods, you haven’t been watching the Tigers play, particularly in terms of defensive alignments.
Did you ever think Gardenhire-managed fielders would pull cheat-sheets out of their back pocket before each batter stepped in to see where they are supposed to be positioned?
The Tigers still rank near the bottom (24th) in percentage of shifts applied (11.7), but it’s been an effective tool. Look at what they did to Royals slugger Mike Moustakas. Every time he hit the ball on the ground in the three-game series, he was out.
On Tuesday, he hit a line drive, exit velocity over 100 mph, right into what normally is the hole between shortstop and third base. It’s where Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn hit a high percentage of his 3,141 hits. He had to be shocked when he saw Tigers third baseman Jeimer Candelario standing right there, snaring the liner.
He made six outs into the shift in the series.
“(Quality control coach) Joe Vavra and Santy (infielders coach Ramon Santiago) do a lot of work with our analytics team getting our infielders in the right position,” Gardenhire said. “It’s a mixture of both. You have to have coaches willing to get involved with it, like we have.
“And you have to have a good team up there (analytics department) setting forth the program so we can get them in the right place. We are making a lot of plays. Teams are hitting the ball on the nose and we’re standing right there. It’s what’s happening against us, so it’s nice to be able to use it for us.”
Gardenhire fought the analytics data a little bit regarding Royals shortstop Alcides Escobar. For years Gardenhire watched Escobar, a right-handed batter, shoot balls through the right side of the infield almost at will. So initially, he was dismayed that the data suggested the Tigers play him more to pull.
“Just from my history, Escobar loves to shoot that ball the other way,” Gardenhire said. “We knew that was part of the game. He loved hitting the ball that way. The same with Perez. This guy can hit a ball wherever he wants.”
But Gardenhire relented. He trusted the data and played Escobar more to pull. Escobar was 2 for 12, with three ground-ball outs to the pull field.
“The numbers were there,” Gardenhire said. “We put them where they said, and we caught the ball. They got a few hits because they are good hitters. But if we pitch it the way we talk about in the game plan and we play them where they’re supposed to, it’s proven to work.
“We’re going to stay with it. I love it.”
The Tigers are 44-60 as they brace for a weekend home series against the division-leading Indians. It might not look like a fair fight at times. The Indians represent where the Tigers are trying to get to. But they won’t get there any time soon, if at all, without a foundation.
If nothing else this season, Gardenhire is setting a firm, fundamentally-sound foundation.
“The players expect the clubhouse to be a certain way,” he said. “You are putting on a uniform and playing baseball for a living, and you’re a grown man. They want it to be like it was when they were kids. They want to come to the ballpark and have fun. And my job is to set the tone for that.
“I want them to enjoy baseball, not hate it, not dread coming to work. I will respect them and hopefully they will respect me and my coaches and we’ll create a good atmosphere.”
ON DECK: INDIANS
Series: Three games, Friday-Sunday at Comerica Park
First pitch: Friday — 7:10 p.m.; Saturday — 6:10 p.m.; Sunday — 1:10 p.m.
TV/radio: All three games FSD/97.1.
Friday — RHP Carlos Carrasco (12-5, 4.03) vs. RHP Mike Fiers (7-6, 3.49); Saturday — RHP Mike Clevinger (7-6, 3.43) vs. LHP Francisco Liriano (3-5, 4.73); Sunday — RHP Corey Kluber (12-6, 2.88) vs. RHP Jordan Zimmermann (4-2, 3.97).
Carrasco, Indians: This will be his second start since the All-Star break. He missed nearly a month after being struck in the elbow with a line drive. He is 1-1 against the Tigers this season. He pitched a complete-game, three-hitter in April and was victimized by Niko Goodrum’s two-homer day in May.
Fiers, Tigers: He is coming off a brilliant 6 1/3 shutout innings against the Red Sox, and he has pitched well against the Indians this year — 1-1 in three starts, allowing 6 runs in 18 innings with 17 strikeouts. He’s also been good at Comerica (5-2, 2.69).