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Final curtain on another dismal season signals new beginning for Tigers baseball

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Seattle — Maybe more than just a season of abject misfortune and calamity came to an inglorious end Wednesday when the Tigers closed out 2022 with a 5-4 loss the Seattle Mariners.

“It definitely feels a little bit like an end of an era,” said catcher Eric Haase.

It certainly does. Since 2002, the Tigers have been led by traditional baseball executives — Dave Dombrowski and Al Avila — men who came from a deep scouting background. There’s a new sheriff in charge now, 35-year-old Scott Harris, a front office academic who comes from a background steeped in data, algorithms and technology.

“I’ve been a Tigers fan for a very long time and there’s always been those peaks and valleys and everything in between,” Haase said. “Growing up, this was not a good baseball team at all and then to see what they built in the early 2000s and then after a lull they went right back up.

“There’s never a foolproof way or process to it. But I’m glad it’s trending in the right direction, at least that’s what it looks like.”

Changes are coming. There will be changes in AJ Hinch’s coaching staff. There is likely to be a significant roster flush and retooling. But even though Wednesday literally marked the end of the 2022 season, Hinch saw it as a starting point.

“It’s more of a new beginning,” he said. “I think everybody is curious about what change means. But I also think this last month has recaptured the joy in a lot of guys. Winning does that. Being competitive does that.

“And I think the curiosity of what comes next is very front and center.”

The Tigers, as they have for more than a month, went down fighting.

"You can't define the character of the team by its record," Hinch said. "The results speak for themselves and it's not good enough yet. But the moral fiber and character of this team is really strong. Our guys care. They put in the effort. We haven't been productive, but that's not a knock on them as men. We stuck together, which I take great pride in."

Lefty starter Tyler Alexander gave up three home runs — solo shots by Julio Rodriguez and Mitch Haniger in the first inning and a two-run homer by Luis Torrens that put the Mariners up 4-3 in the sixth. But Alexander put up zeros in between and kept the Tigers in striking distance.

Tigers starting pitcher Tyler Alexander waits near the mound as Mariners' Mitch Haniger rounds the bases, behind, after hitting a solo home run during the first inning.

Javier Báez, in his last swing of the season, produced a two-out, RBI single in the fifth that put the Tigers up briefly 3-2. In the top of the seventh, Riley Greene delivered a two-out, RBI knock to tie the game.  

But, almost fittingly, the season ended with the opponents celebrating in walk-off fashion. After closer Gregory Soto gave up a walk, made a throwing error to second base, threw a wild pitch and then loaded the bases with another walk, Ty France singled in the winning run.

It was Soto's 11th loss. He is the second pitcher in the last 40 years to save 30 games and lose 11.

"It didn't end the way we'd like but guys played right to the end," Hinch said. "I applaud their effort and as I said as I walked through the clubhouse after the game, there's better days ahead."

BOX SCORE: Mariners 5, Tigers 4

It might be healthier to look ahead and not back after the season the Tigers just endured.

From an incomprehensible run of injuries, specifically to starting pitchers, to prolonged stretches of underperformance by veteran players with respected track records, to mystifying bouts of misfortune (Austin Meadow’s season-long health issues, Eduardo Rodriguez’s three-month stint on the restricted list) — it was every bit as miserable as the 66-96 record would indicate.

“To me there’s no excuse,” Hinch said. “It’s part of the game and everybody goes through it. We were hit pretty hard (with injuries) but we also underperformed.”

Early in the season, four-fifths of the Tigers’ starting rotation went down. Casey Mize ended up needing Tommy John surgery. Tarik Skubal, who stayed healthy long enough to make 21 starts, had season-ending flexor tendon surgery. Matt Manning missed three months with shoulder inflammation. Alexander missed a month with a forearm issue.

Michael Pineda only made 11 starts. Rookie Beau Brieske made 15 starts before he was shelved with a forearm strain. Alex Faedo lasted 12 starts before having hip surgery. Rony Garcia lasted just eight starts.

When the dust settled, the Tigers used 17 different starting pitchers, one shy of the major league record. Fifty-three different players wore the Old English D this season.

“Starting pitching is a premium position for a reason,” Haase said. “We just didn’t have any starting pitching and it wasn’t any of those guys’ fault. Those guys had legit, season-ending injuries. It wasn’t like a blister or a tweaked hamstring. We had a lot of legit injuries and it had us scrambling and moving guys around.”

But as Hinch pointed out, injuries had nothing to do with the Tigers being the worst offensive team in baseball.

“We’ve got to find a way to get inside the strike zone and do better,” he said. “We have to be able to retain a game plan and create more momentum with games and more run-scoring opportunities.

“I think we should look at it, take it personal and get to work.”

To put the Tigers’ offensive impotence in perspective, they were shut out 22 times, equaling the major league record since 1973 (designated hitter era). They had three scoreless streaks of 21 or more innings.

On Tuesday night they were beaten by a catcher (Torrens) who pitched the 10th inning and allowed only an infield single.

The Tigers scored the fewest runs (557) and hit the fewest home runs (110) in baseball this season. They have the highest strikeout rate in American League and the fourth highest in baseball (24.1%), coupled with the second lowest walk rate in baseball (6.5%).

They also had the lowest extra-base hit percentage (6.4%) and home run percentage in baseball (1.9%) in baseball.

“When you go into the All-Star break and you are 15-20 games back already, that’s a lot of ground to make up,” Haase said. “You start to put more pressure on yourself and then you are asking three or four guys who are rookies to step in here and be game-changing players and they are still trying to find their way in the big leagues.

“It just wasn’t a good situation.”

Eventually, younger players like Haase (in just his second full season in Detroit), Greene, Spencer Torkelson, Kerry Carpenter, Ryan Kreidler and Akil Baddoo began to provide a spark. And that, along with a late-season resurgence by Báez, led to the Tigers finishing 16-16 in September-October.

“I can’t really put my finger on why we struggled the way we did to score runs,” catcher Tucker Barnhart said. “It seemed to me we struggled to get the big hit in situations at times. But as a team we finished strong. We won a lot of games in September and I think that is a positive moving forward for this organization going into next season.”

There is a good chance Barnhart, a pending free agent, won’t be back next season. Arbitration-eligible veteran Tigers like Jeimer Candelario, Harold Castro, Victor Reyes and Jose Cisnero might be playing elsewhere next season, as well.  

As Hinch said, the curiosity about what’s next is real. But change is coming.

“I don’t love losing,” Hinch said. “I don’t respond all that well to it. But I am the leader and I have to stand up and defend what we’ve done right and challenge some of the things we’ve done wrong. We’re all looking forward to the weekend and the start of the postseason. But in my stomach, I hate it that we’re not one of those teams.

“We had aspirations to make the playoffs and be more of a factor this year. Bottom line is we haven’t done it because we didn’t play well and I take that personally. I don’t take it lightly. We did a lot of things right and we did a lot of things wrong. I’m strong enough to stand up for both and do my part to make it better.”


Twitter: @cmccosky