Tigers fighting to stay afloat as midpoint of shortened season nears

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Detroit – And yet.

Not much has gone right for the Tigers in the first half of this 60-game season, and why would it? Shoot, nothing much has gone right in this world since COVID-19 struck in March.

Veteran starting pitchers Jordan Zimmermann and Ivan Nova are injured. Ace Matthew Boyd posted a 9.64 ERA in his first five starts. The rotation for a stretch featured three starters who were limited to three innings per game.

Through 28 games, the starting pitchers were averaging less than four innings per start. Even with several extra relievers, having to cover nearly five innings a night over 28 games would tax any bullpen.

Jonathan Schoop and Isaac Paredes head to the dugout after Schoop's grand slam in the sixth inning of the Tigers' win on Tuesday night.

Slugging first baseman C.J. Cron, expected to be the anchor of an improved offense, was lost after just 13 games – season-ending knee surgery.

Cron’s injury precipitated an agonizing nine-game losing streak.

Miguel Cabrera, who looked like he was back to his run-producing self in Lakeland, was hitting under .200 and slugging under .400, though he went into the game Wednesday with three hits and three RBIs in his last 10 at-bats.

Jemier Candelario, who was playing tremendous defense at third base, had to move to first base – weakening the infield defensively in both the spot he left and the spot he went to. Veteran outfielder Cameron Maybin and utility man Harold Castro landed on the injured list, which weakened an already thin bench considerably.

“We had a lot going on,” Gardenhire said.

And yet.

The Tigers went into Game 29 Wednesday four games under .500 and looking to win their second straight series against a playoff-contending team. With the playoff format expanded to eight teams per league, a .500 record keeps you in the hunt.

And yet.

The bullpen, long a liability in this organization, emerged as a strength. Bryan Garcia, Jose Cisnero, Gregory Soto and Buck Farmer have built a sturdy bridge to closer Joe Jimenez. Though Jimenez, after a strong start, has had a hard time shaking off the rust, having worked just 1.2 innings in 16 days before Wednesday.

More: Tigers decide to play, hang on to beat Cubs, win second straight series

On top of that, Daniel Norris and Tyler Alexander, dropped from the rotation, have emerged as invaluable long relievers.

And yet.

Three prospects have made their big-league debuts and will play integral roles in the second half – third baseman Isaac Paredes and starting pitchers Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal. They will be getting an extended big-league baptism they might not have gotten in a normal season.

And yet.

Veteran Jonathan Schoop has done his level best to fill the offensive void from Cron’s absence. He leads the team with seven home runs and 16 RBIs. Over the last 12 games, he’s slashed .348/.388/.652. And he’s been a rock defensively at second base.  

And yet.

Candelario, after a 0-for-17 July, was slashing .338/.363/.571 with a .934 OPS and 44 total bases in August before Wednesday.

Gardenhire was right, there was a lot going on. But, when you consider the nature of this bizarre, outlier of a season and where the Tigers are in their rebuilding process, not all of it was bad.

“Only the strong survive in this game,” Gardenhire said. “You’ve got to figure out a way to get through it. The coaching staff, we tried to stay as positive as we possibly could and not change the routine too much or panic.

“Eventually, we got out of it.”

The Tigers had the misfortune of playing seven games against a smoking-hot White Sox team and another seven against their nemesis, the Indians.

“We got beat up a little bit,” Gardenhire said. “We had a bad streak and we’re just trying to dig out of that hole we made for ourselves. You can only do that one game at a time – all the clichés you want to throw at it – but that’s what we’ve got to do.”

Maybin, Cabrera and Austin Romine convened a players’ only meeting in Chicago as the losing streak was hitting nine. They won three out of five since before Wednesday.

“We feel good right now,” Schoop said. “We went through a bad stretch, but we’re still in it. That’s what we told the guys. Everybody is going to go through a bad stretch. We had ours. Now good things are going to happen.”

The road isn’t going to smooth out much over the next 30 games. In the next two weeks, virus permitting, the Tigers will play eight games against the Central Division-leading Twins, four against the Brewers and three more against the White Sox in Chicago, with a double-header at St. Louis mixed in.

“We are trending upwards toward getting back into this thing,” Gardenhire said. “But it’s not going to get easier from here on out. We will play a lot of really good teams. We have to step up or we’ll get knocked out.”  

Twitter @cmccosky

On deck: Twins 

Series: Four-game series at Comerica Park

First pitch: Thursday-Friday – 7:10 p.m.; Saturday – 6:10 p.m.; Sunday – 1:10 p.m.

TV/radio: Thursday-Sunday – FSD, 97.1.

Probables: Thursday – RHP Randy Dobnak (5-1, 1.78) vs. LHP Matthew Boyd (0-4, 8.48); Friday – TBA vs. LHP Tarik Skubal (0-1, 10.38); Saturday – RHP Kenta Maeda (4-0, 2.21) vs. RHP Casey Mize (0-1, 7.04); Sunday – LHP Rich Hill (1-1, 3.55) vs. RHP Spencer Turnbull (3-2, 2.97).

Dobnak, Twins: It was just 2017 when Dobnak was pitching for the Utica (Michigan) Unicorns in Independent USPBL. He has had impeccable command with his sinker, slider, change-up mix all years and hasn’t allowed more than two runs in any start this season.

Boyd, Tigers: He looked much more like himself in his last start. His fastball command was vastly improved over his first five starts and he was able to effectively mix in his change-up, slider and curveball. He struck out six and allowed two runs in 5.1 innings.