August 10, 2016
With smoke, mirrors and duct tape,
Ausmus overcomes pitching, injury woes
By KEITH GAVE
Quick, somebody get Brad Ausmus more duct tape.
At the rate injuries are piling up and depleting his roster, he’ll need cases of it to hold together a competitive lineup just as his team enters the most crucial juncture of the season.
As the Tigers begin a difficult six-game road swing through Seattle and Texas this week, they’ll be absent two starting pitchers, right-handers Jordan Zimmerman and Mike Pelfrey, and third baseman Nick Castellanos, who was enjoying a breakout season before he was hit by a pitch and suffered a broken bone in his left hand. He will miss four to seven weeks, according to the club.
The good news is that these injuries feel even more critical because the Tigers have clawed their way into a pennant race after a roller-coaster first half. They’ve won nine of their last 11 games, 12 of their last 16 after an impressive 7-2 home-stand.
And they’ve done it on the strength of a pitching staff largely held together with baling wire all season long. Since June, the team has had just two consistently good starters – veteran Justin Verlander and rookie Michael Fulmer. After a solid first two months, Zimmermann’s season began to unravel when he went on the disabled list for the first of three times, initially with a groin injury.
After three months of struggles, some of which can be blamed on a woeful lack of hitting support, Pelfrey seemed to be rounding into reliable form. Then he went down with a bad back.
Shane Greene started the season as a starter but was also the among the first casualties when he was felled by a blister that kept him out for several weeks. He returned to a spot in the bullpen, which may have been Ausmus’s best move of the season, to date.
Meanwhile, young lefthander Matt Boyd has come in to provide several solid, though unspectacular starts. That was to have been the role for Daniel Norris, but he started the season on the DL with a bad back and has been out more than he’s been in, preparing for another opportunity in Toledo. He returns to Detroit’s rotation Tuesday night in Seattle.
But hold the phone. If there’s a wild card in this scenario, Anibel Sanchez played it Sunday in a tough loss that came with a beautiful silver lining: Easily the most disappointing pitcher on Detroit’s staff this season, Sanchez threw eight sparkling innings in which he allowed just one run on four hits, walking none and striking out 10. This is more of a trend from him than an anomaly. And if he can keep it going it will be an enormous boost to a starting staff that could really use it.
Castellanos leaves for an extended period just a few days after J.D. Martinez made a triumphant return after a six-week absence. So still, Ausmus is unable to field a full complement of hitters – a season-long issue. At least the Tigers ought to get center fielder Cameron Maybin back after he’s missed nearly a week with a hand injury. They need him back in the two-hole in the order.
And they also need to find ways to get some of their veterans like Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez some R&R through the mind-numbing heat of August in these dog days of a major league baseball season.
Now that the Tigers have Cleveland in their sights, however, just two games back of the Central Division leaders heading into tonight’s opener at Seattle, it’ll be tempting for Ausmus to go to the whip as long as they can keep the pressure on. In myriad ways, this final stretch drive represents the most challenging and important time of his three-year managerial career.
For now, Ausmus deserves more than a little credit for getting this team this far – considering where it was in the middle of May when it lost 11 of 13 games and in danger of joining Minnesota at the bottom of the division.
“Keep looking through the windshield,” he said, “not the rear-view mirror.”
And don’t even bother to mention injuries.
“Next man up. No looking back,” Boyed to the Detroit News. “We trust everyone.”
The rest of us should, too. All things considered, they’ve given us no reason not to.