Tigers' Ron Gardenhire showing empathy, patience with struggling Mikie Mahtook

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
Tigers outfielder Mikie Mahtook is hitless in his first 23 at-bats, with 11 strikeouts, so far this season.


Detroit — If ever there was a manager who understands how cruel and unforgiving the game of baseball can be, it’s Ron Gardenhire.

“Why do you think I was a coach at age 27,” he said with a laugh before the game Wednesday. “It’s not because I really, really wanted to coach.”

Gardenhire hit .232 over his five-year big-league playing career with the Mets.

“Buddy Harrelson (Mets coach) tried to make me a switch-hitter in one of my last years up in New York,” he said. “He wanted to make me a switch-hitter in the big leagues. So, I’m in the cage every day swinging, feeling really good left-handed and Buddy’s going, ‘I really like this.’

“I’m feeling really good and then Jim Frey (the hitting coach) walks in and says, ‘What the (bleep) is going on?’ He said, ‘Son, you definitely don’t need to worry about two sides of the plate.’ I was feeling really good about myself, right until then.”

The moral of the story: Baseball is a hard game. You go up and you come crashing down. Sometimes in the same game.  

So, if there’s anybody who can empathize with what Tigers’ outfielder Mikie Mahtook is going through right now, it’s Gardenhire. Hitting slumps, failed expectations, negative media coverage, cascading boos in your home park — Gardenhire’s been there.

“We’ve all been there,” he said. “This is the big leagues and you’re going to take some bumps and bruises. You are going to take a little heat. He missed a ball yesterday and he hasn’t got a hit — you know what, you’ve got to deal with it.

“You’ve got to be mentally tough up here. This is a tough league. Mikie’s going to be fine.”

Mahtook picked up his head and let a ground single get past him for a three-base error Tuesday. And after a hot spring, he’s hitless in 23 at-bats with 11 strikeouts. It’s like he’s reliving the same nightmare he went through in April last year when he ended up being sent back to Triple-A Toledo.

“I told him yesterday, ‘You are hitting a lot of balls in the air,’” Gardenhire said. “The one thing I want you to do is try to cover the ball a little better in batting practice. Work on hitting line drives and hard ground balls because everything is going up in the air and they’re outs.’

“And I told him, ‘If you don’t do this in batting practice, and I stand here and watch you pop it up, I will take you out of the lineup.’ He smiled and said, OK. And he actually had a good round of BP.”

He also hit a couple balls on the ground in his 0-for-4 performance on Tuesday. He wasn’t in the lineup Wednesday, but that was because Gardenhire wanted to get Dustin Peterson some at-bats.

“When you are facing Corey Kluber, it’s not that easy to get out of a slump, and the guy out there today (Trevor Bauer), he’s not a lot easier,” Gardenhire said. “But when you are struggling, you just have to ride it out. He’s not the only one.”

He certainly is not. Jeimer Candelario is hitless in his last 16 at-bats and he’s 0-for-11 with seven strikeouts against Bauer. He was not in the lineup Wednesday, either.

The Tigers catchers — Grayson Greiner (4-for-31) and John Hicks (2-for-16) — are struggling. Middle infielders Josh Harrison and Jordy Mercer, though they are starting to heat up, are 12-for-74 (.162) combined.

Gardenhire said Mahtook’s error Tuesday was just an isolated mistake and unrelated to his early struggles at the plate.

“He’s catching the ball and he’s throwing it to the cut-off man,” he said. “He just missed one yesterday and it compounded everything because his swing’s not good right now. I don’t want to pile on the kid. He’s working his butt off. He works hard every day out there. He’s trying, believe me.”

Mahtook is out of minor-league options, so he would have to clear waivers before the Tigers could re-assign him to Toledo.

“Mikie has been around, he’s got experience,” Gardenhire said. “We’ve put him in a situation where he’s not in his normal position. He’s a corner guy, but he’s doing the best he can. Until JaCoby (Jones) gets back, we’re just going to keep going with it the way we’ve been going.

“Hopefully, he will get some hits here and feel better about himself. I just want to see him feeling better about himself.”

Clutch confrontation

Tigers starter Matthew Boyd and catcher John Hicks have been in near-perfect harmony this season in terms of pitch selection. But they had a rare disagreement in a pivotal moment Wednesday.

Boyd had just surrendered a two-out, RBI double to Hanley Ramirez, cutting the lead to 2-1. There were still runners at second and third and left-handed hitting Jake Bauers was at the plate.

With the count 2-2, Boyd shook off Hicks call. Hicks asked for it again. Boyd shook him off again, forcing Bauers to step out. Hicks was calling for a slider. Boyd wanted to throw a fastball.

"But the fastball was his second choice," Boyd said. "That's usually how it is. We both have a few pitches in mind. It's a give-and-take. It's a dance. I didn't shake him much, but it showed that we were on the same page when the next pitch he called is what I wanted."

Boyd threw a 91-mph fastball and Bauers whiffed on it.

"I didn't disagree with the pitch he called," Boyd said. "We could've thrown that one, too. But I had my heart set on that one and it was good."

Around the horn

Tigers closer Shane Greene one-upped his own piece of history with his eighth save on Wednesday. He's now earned eight saves faster than any pitcher in MLB history. He pitched a clean inning for the fifth time and has allowed only four base runners all year.

Said Gardenhire: "He's always had the pitches, but he's got really good life on the ball. He's fresh right now. But if we keep pitching him every game, he won't be fresh anymore. I am still worried about that."

...The Tigers have transferred JaCoby Jones' rehab assignment north, from High-A Lakeland to Triple-A Toledo. He is expected to stay there at least through the weekend. Jones is on the injured list with a left shoulder sprain.


Twitter: @cmccosky

Indians at Tigers

First pitch: 1:10 p.m. Thursday, Comerica Park, Detroit

TV/radio: FSD/97.1 FM

Scouting report

► RHP Shane Bieber, Indians: In his first start (he’s also pitched two innings of relief), he allowed two runs and two hits with nine strikeouts over six innings against Toronto. He features a four-seam fastball (93-94 mph), slider (84-85) and curveball (83-84) mix.

► RHP Spencer Turnbull, Tigers: He’s coming off a 10-strikeout performance in six innings against the Royals. He made his big-league debut against the Indians, pitching a scoreless inning of relief last September