May 23, 2016
Tigers show signs of escaping the
abyss, now can they keep it going?
By KEITH GAVE
About a quarter of the way through the Major League Baseball season, the Detroit Tigers are pretty much where many of us thought they would be – fighting for respectability by hovering around. And considering how they finished at the bottom of the Central Division standings last season, that could be considered decent progress.
Unless you’re among the small legion of optimists who saw the moves this team made in the off-season and believe it could contend if not for the division title then at least for a berth in the post-season again. And at 21-22 and just 3.5 games behind in the playoff chase, maybe they are.
The Tigers have been an enigmatic team through the first two months. They’re hitting is streaky – both ways. The pitching, the starting rotation and the bullpen, has been anything but consistent.
Lately, the Tigers have been hitting again, which is in large part why they’ve managed to win five of six in the latest homestand. If they are going to contend, however, the Tigers have to hit consistently, and so far good pitching has been like Kryptonite to their batting order.
Those hitters who have amassed 42 runs in this six game stretch will be sorely tested when Philadelphia – one of the surprise teams in baseball so far this season – comes to town.
The Phillies (25-19) are the polar opposite of the Tigers so far: Their hitting is anemic, but they have found the way to overcome it with great pitching. Both their starting rotation and their bullpen have been outstanding. And so far, it’s worked. If the playoffs began today, Philadelphia would be in the tournament.
The Tigers have been a different team since Cameron Maybin joined the lineup after missing most of the spring with wrist and shoulder injuries. In these last six games, he’s hitting .600 (12-20) with five RBI and five runs scored hitting in the seven hole. He looks more like a No. 2 hitter, and that is indeed where he may wind up, but manager Brad Ausmus is in no hurry so long as J.D. Martinez keeps hitting.
And Maybin’s speed is more valuable in the bottom of the lineup with so much power early in their lineup with Ian Kinsler (a team-leading 10- home runs), followed by Martinez and Miguel Cabrera. Maybe.
Cabrera, who’s back to tearing the cover off the ball and having fun, left Sunday’s game early after he was hit by a pitch just below his left knee. Expect him to get a night off Monday when the Phillies throw a gifted young righthander, Vince Velasquez (5-1) against the Tigers.
Of greater concern is Jordan Zimmerman, the Tigers’ most consistent pitcher, who left in the sixth with what was described as a groin strain. Zimmerman left with his team leading after giving up just two runs in 5 2/3 innings, and raised his season’s record to 7-2.
But the greatest concern of all, at least a week ago, has quickly become a non-issue. Last Monday, when the Tigers came limping home after losing 11 of 12 games, speculation was rampant that Ausmus was on the firing line. He got a little testy with reporters prior to Monday’s serious opener against Minnesota, then had a very public meltdown during the game in a confrontation with home plate umpire Doug Eddings.
Concerned about the parade of his players who kept returning to the dugout complaining about Eddings’ strike zone, Ausmus went out to discuss it. And snapped. Eddings is known to have a short fuse. He quickly ejected Ausmus, who ripped off his hoodie and covered the entire home plate, leaving no doubt about how he felt about Eddings feel for where the strike zone. As he returned to the dugout, Ausmus flung his baseball cap behind him in the direction of the umpire.
Call it a catharsis – Ausmus himself referred to it as a “cleansing” – but this has been a different Detroit Tigers team ever since. It seemed to burst the bubble of tension that had gripped the team for the better part of a month. Players appeared loose and smiling after their 10-8 victory. And they’ve been able to sustain it, at least for a week.
It only gets harder now against a talented Phillies pitching staff followed by a West Coast trip with stops in Oakland and Los Angeles, to face the Angels. And anybody who has followed this team for the last, oh, generation or so, knows the left coast has not been kind to the Tigers.
Bottom line, there’s still plenty of time for Ausmus and his team to prove the doubters among us wrong. After all, we have to go back just two seasons to see how a team can struggle through the first couple of months of a season and nearly reach the summit.
In 2014, the Kansas City Royals were 26-29 through the month of May, but wound up just one game behind Detroit (90-72) in the regular season before losing, 3-2, in Game 7 of the World Series to San Francisco.
This kind of performance is what all Tiger fans out there are waiting for, holding their breath as this latest winning streak continues.