Minneapolis — Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire had the perfect angle on it. Looking from the Tigers dugout at Target Field Tuesday night, he had a direct view of James McCann’s shortened swing at a fastball on the outer edge of the plate and at the trajectory of the ball as it sliced into the right field corner, plating what proved to be the winning runs.
“He stayed on the ball,” Gardenhire said. “He shortened his swing and was just trying to put the ball in play — which he will tell you he tries to do a lot. But last night, he got a ball up and out over the plate and he played a little tennis: They served it to him and he served it down the line.
“It was a perfect swing.”
It came on the seventh pitch of the at-bat, after he’d fought off two off-speed pitches in a 2-2 count. Gardenhire would be right to wonder why he hasn’t seen that swing from McCann more often this season.
McCann was in a 1-for-22 skid before that at-bat. In the month of September, he was 8 for 53 with 17 strikeouts and four RBIs. He went into Wednesday's game hitting .214 on the year with a .261 on-base average and slugging .310 — career lows across the board.
“Sometimes you just get into a funk,” Gardenhire said. “You catch as many games as he does and take the beating that he does and play through injuries like he has, sometimes it’s just going to happen like this for a catcher.
“He’s a tough guy and he’s not going to talk about how his body feels. He’s never going to come in and say, ‘I’m beat up, I could use a day off.’ He’s always ready to play and he’s our starting catcher because of that. He’s a tough guy, he does a great job with our pitching staff and he cares about hitting. He’s just had a rough year.”
McCann said after the game that he doesn’t feel like he’s scuffled as much as the numbers show.
“Honestly, I don’t feel like I am swinging the bat that poorly,” he said. “Look at the balls I’ve hit right at guys or that were run down in the gaps. It’s just kind of been my luck.”
He has hit his fair share of hard outs, to be sure. But, according to FanGraphs, his line-drive rate (22 percent) and hard-hit rate (35.9 percent) are down six and three points, respectively, from last season. His percentage of balls barreled up, according to StatCast data, is a career-low 5.3.
He’s also struck out a career-high 114 times.
Gardenhire has a theory. Launch angle might not be McCann’s friend.
“The lift and all that stuff,” he said. “Maybe you are trying to do something to put up numbers. This game has become so numbers-oriented, you can get out of whack and it can be hard to find your way back to doing what you did.”
There is data to back that up. In 2015, McCann hit .264, slugging .387 and a .683 OPS. His launch angle that year was 8.0 degrees.
His launch angle the last three years has been over 15 degrees, maxing out at 15.8 degrees this season. He hit 12 home runs in 2016, 13 last year. He’s hit eight home runs this season.
“You can see that he tries to lift the ball,” Gardenhire said. “That’s a little bit of an uppercut he’s got going. That’s just part of the way baseball is these days. Maybe that’s it, I don’t know. Lloyd (McClendon, hitting coach) and them work with him all the time.
“He’s a hard-working guy. He’s just had a little bit of a rough time.”
Maybe more of those two-strike approach swings like he had Tuesday night will help get him back to being the hitter he was coming up through the Tigers system — a line drive, gap-to-gap hitter.
At 64 wins
Gardenhire didn’t feel right talking about this, since he wasn’t with the Tigers last season.
Still, it’s a bit of a marvel that this Tigers team, featuring 11 players who made their big-league debuts, has managed to win one more game than the team from 2017 which featured Justin Verlander, Justin Upton, Ian Kinsler and J.D. Martinez for a more than half the year.
“Once you get into situations where expectations aren’t met, it sounds to me like there were a lot of frustrated guys,” he said. “I wasn’t here, so it’s hard for me to comment on anything like that, but I’ve been there.”
After his Twins team won 94 games and the Central Division title in 2010, they came back in 2011 and went 63-99.
“It was really frustrating in 2011,” he said. “It was a different atmosphere. A lot of different people. The clubhouse was different. It all starts with the clubhouse. You can have good players, but if they aren’t happy coming here, then it isn’t going to work.”
Gardenhire said he fretted about his clubhouse going sour this season, with all the losing. But to his great satisfaction, it did not.
“If there was ever a team that could’ve gone a lot of different ways, it would be this team,” he said. “We had the 11-game losing streak and the whole package. It got quiet at times, but they were still playing. It’s just a fine line of creating an atmosphere in the clubhouse.
“It can happen to the best of teams. When it goes into a funk, it’s hard to get out of it.”
When the clubhouse opened before Wednesday's game Victor Martinez was holding court with a group of young players — Ronny Rodriguez, Harold Castro and Dawel Lugo were in the scrum.
“He’s coaching now,” Gardenhire said, half-jokingly. “He sits in there with the coaches and watches video. He comes up in here during the games. Honestly, I am trying not to pay attention to him. Some things I don’t want to know.”
The last was said with a chuckle. Martinez, who played the final game of his career on Saturday, is spending the final week of the season being available to any player, young or old, who needs to pick his brain. All topics are on the table.
“I keep asking him, ‘When are you going to manage a game?’” Gardenhire said. “He said he would come out there with me one of these games. I said come help me in Milwaukee (National League rules), you can help me with all those double switches.”
Around the horn
Tigers rookie reliever Victor Alcantara earned his first big-league win Tuesday, throwing a clean seventh inning. He hasn’t allowed a run in his last eight outings. In fact, he’s only allowed runs in three of his 26 big-league appearances.
… Niko Goodrum, who put the Tigers ahead 2-1 with an eighth-inning single Tuesday, is hitting .295 with five doubles, five homers and 12 RBIs in 14 games against the Twins, his former team.
Tigers at Twins
First pitch: 8:10 p.m., Thursday
TV/radio: FSD, 97.1
TBA, Twins: The Twins are likely again to deploy a one-inning opener to start this game. Left-hander Gabriel Moya has made five one-inning starts for the Twins, including Tuesday. The primary pitcher may be left-hander Stephen Gonsalves, who shut the Tigers out on one hit over six innings at Comerica Park last Wednesday.
LHP Francisco Liriano (5-11, 4.40), Tigers: Last start of the season and likely his last start in a Tigers uniform. Liriano, 34, will be a free agent again this offseason. His last three starts have been solid, going six innings in two and seven in the other, allowing just four runs with 18 strikeouts.