April pains could give way to May gains as Tigers look to get on a run

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
Ron Gardenhire has helmed the Tigers to a decent record through a chilly first month of the season.

Detroit — April was a beast. Between the brutal weather — two games were snowed out, for crying out loud — the road trips, the injuries, the impotent offense, it’s a wonder the Tigers aren’t already toes up in the Central Division.

But they are not.

Somehow, despite being worst or second-worst in every major offensive category, having three starting pitchers on the injured list, with two out for the season, the prolonged absences of left fielder Christin Stewart, shortstop Jordy Mercer and now second baseman Josh Harrison, playing more games on the road than all but three teams in the American League, the Tigers are two games under .500 (13-15).

But for two bullpen collapses — in Chicago Friday and in Philadelphia Wednesday — that record would be flipped and they could be starting a new month with a winning record and just 2 1/2 games out of the division lead.

“I like the way we’re playing and I like what we’re trying to do here,” manager Ron Gardenhire said after Wednesday's loss. “I think we’re moving forward. We just need to score more runs.”

May could be significantly kinder to the Tigers. Starting with this weekend series with the Royals, they play 16 of 26 at home and all but seven are against teams with .500 records or worse. There is also four off-days built into this month, including Thursday.

So, even with another make-up, road doubleheader in Minnesota on May 11, the most arduous stretch in the month is 14 games in 13 days, with just the one four-game trip to Minnesota. Manageable, especially if, finally, there is a stretch of warm, dry weather.

The Tigers, too, expect to get Harrison and Stewart back relatively soon. Harrison would be eligible to come off the injured list before the doubleheader against the Twins, barring any setback.

Stewart’s situation is less clear. He’s been out since April 18 with a quad strain, just above his right knee. The healing has been slow. He’s been in Lakeland for a week and as of Wednesday hadn’t played in any games.   

Reliever Blaine Hardy, out with a forearm strain since April 22, threw a bullpen in Philadelphia Wednesday and is expected to throw again on Friday. There’s a good chance he could start a rehab assignment early next week.

The Tigers, though, will still need to patch together the back end of the starting rotation. Jordan Zimmermann (elbow) isn’t going to be back for at least a month. Presumably, left-hander Ryan Carpenter will get the first shot at filling his spot in the rotation.

He was penciled in to start Saturday against the Royals, but Tyson Ross is expected back from paternity leave Friday. Gardenhire said he and Rick Anderson need to talk to Ross and determine if he can start on Saturday.

He’d be on 10 days rest. If Ross does pitch Saturday, Carpenter wouldn’t come aboard until the Minnesota trip May 10-12.  

Christin Stewart

About the offense, though. There aren’t any easy fixes here, though having Stewart back and a healthy and productive Harrison will certainly help lengthen the lineup. But the cold reality is, there are but two proven run-producers on this roster — Miguel Cabrera and Nick Castellanos.

The Tigers have had 274 plate appearances with runners in scoring position. Only 47 of those were Cabrera (31) and Castellanos (16).

The four-five-six hitters in the Philadelphia series were Niko Goodrum, Ronny Rodriguez and either Grayson Greiner or John Hicks. Not exactly Murderer’s Row, though you can’t really ask much more out of Goodrum.

Playing five positions, his 118 OPS-plus leads the team and he’s slugging .447 with a .369 on-base percentage. His three home runs lead the team and his 11 RBIs are second. In a more stacked lineup, he’d be better positioned in the sixth or seventh hole.

Gardenhire’s options off the bench were Brandon Dixon, Harold Castro, Gordon Beckham and Victor Reyes. Reyes has been sent back to Toledo and it’s uncertain how much longer Dixon or Castro will remain on the 25-man roster.

Since moving to the leadoff spot, Jeimer Candelario has perked up, hitting .286 with a .429 on-base percentage. Still, he’s hitting .233 overall with the second-highest strikeout total on the team (32).

The No. 9 hitter, JaCoby Jones, broke a 3-for-35 skid with an RBI single Wednesday, but he’s at .145 with two walks in 60 plate appearances.

Other than getting Stewart and Harrison back, though, there’s not much the Tigers can do from a personnel standpoint, other than bring Dustin Peterson back up from Toledo — which could happen before too long.

The plan was to get him some more playing time at first base, so he could slide into the first base/DH rotation with Cabrera, Hicks and Goodrum.

The point being, the Tigers are who they are offensively. There will be some correction to the norm as the weather heats up — Harrison isn’t going to hit .156 all year, nor is Jones going to stay below .150.

Cabrera isn’t going to slug below .400 for much longer, judging by the way he’s swinging the bat recently.

Still, they aren’t built to outslug teams like they used to be. The improvement has to come from striking out less, getting on base more and being in a position to use their improved speed and athleticism.

“The one thing I know about this group is, they care,” Gardenhire said. “They’re trying. They are working at it every day. I said coming out of spring that I thought if we could throw the ball over the plate and catch it, we will hit enough to win baseball games.

“We just have to find a way to score more runs.”

Twitter.com: @cmccosky

On deck: Royals

Series: Three games, Friday-Sunday, Comerica Park, Detroit

First pitch: Friday — 7:10 p.m.; Saturday — 4:10 p.m.; Sunday — 1:10 p.m.

TV/radio: All games on FSD/97.1

Probables: Friday — RHP Jorge Lopez (0-2, 5.08) vs. LHP Matthew Boyd (2-2, 3.13); Saturday — RHP Homer Bailey (2-3, 5.70) vs. TBA; Sunday — RHP Brad Keller (2-3, 4.07) vs. RHP Spencer Turnbull (2-2, 2.53).

Scouting report:

Lopez, Royals: He threw an array of fastballs at the Tigers when he faced them on April 6 — four-seamers and two-seamers between 92 and 95 mph — a lot of them up in the strike zone. He also had an effective curveball that day. He allowed just one earned run in six innings.

Boyd, Tigers: His 48 strikeouts are fifth-most in the American League. He’s made one fewer start than Justin Verlander and has just five fewer punch-outs. Boyd’s slider is underappreciated. Opponents are hitting .185 against it, swinging and missing 44 percent of the time. He has a 43 percent strikeout rate with the pitch.