Detroit — Lose two, win two, lose two, repeat until dizzy. Every time it appears the Tigers might break their maddening cycle of recycling, they veer into another ditch.
This could be the deep ditch, the inescapable one. When the starting pitchers show improvement, they get outdueled. Or then they get slammed. And now it gets dire. It was Buck Farmer’s turn for the stand-in role Sunday and he get pounded by the Rays, a 9-1 loss that ranked among the Tigers’ most lethargic efforts of the year.
When it was over, the Father’s Day crowd of 36,442 filed out with little reaction. If the Tigers keep playing like this at home, they won’t have to deal with many more big crowds. With a chance to make a move, they finished the home stand at 2-4, and now open a seven-game road trip in Seattle.
“It was a crappy homestand, quite frankly,” Brad Ausmus said. “We gotta play better. I gotta manage better, we gotta coach better, we gotta hit better, we gotta pitch better. It’s simple. We’re not gonna make any strides if we keep playing like this.”
Indians heat up
Frustration can flare up in various ways, as the Tigers enter the most-precarious stretch of their season. This is a team that still must pick a direction by the July 31 trade deadline, when virtually every veteran, from J.D. Martinez to Ian Kinsler to Justin Wilson, could be on the block. GM Al Avila has said the course would reveal itself at some point, and perhaps it is now. A sell-off isn’t yet inevitable, but it’s trending that way.
It’s not just that the Tigers can’t get consistent traction with their starters or their offense or their bullpen. It’s not just that they’re so desperate, they’re throwing Anibal Sanchez back on the mound tonight in Seattle, while Farmer returns to Toledo. It’s not just that the hitters look uninspired at times, and Ausmus has few options.
It’s also that time is running out, and Cleveland is heating up. The Indians just swept a four-game series in Minnesota, blasting past the Twins into first place in the Central. The Tigers (32-36) are 41/2 games behind and have shown no ability — not the slightest — to get on a roll. Their longest winning streak is four, and they’ve done that only once.
If this looks hauntingly familiar, the inconsistencies are at least a three-year story. Ausmus said he doesn’t detect an energy drop, and again — to a fault — defended his players. But a closer peek at one number is troubling. The Tigers are a staggering 0-9 in “getaway” games, when they’re leaving a city (home or away) and playing the next day.
A lot of teams might have lousy records in those circumstances, but this awful? The Tigers have lost those nine games by an average margin of 5.7 runs. That’s not grinding to the end of a series, or a homestand, or a road trip. If it’s an anomaly, as always, they’re allowed to prove it.
“Frustration is an understatement,” catcher James McCann said. “It’s hard to put words to the feeling. But at the end of the day, I gotta look in the mirror, and everybody in this clubhouse has to look in the mirror.”
Time for urgency
The Tigers are loaded with experienced pros, solid citizens, so overt acts of finger-pointing are rare. What Ausmus lacks in feisty motivational ability, he partly compensates with a level-headedness that keeps the clubhouse calm. But at some point soon, urgency has to trump all, unless these Tigers just aren’t equipped to pull it off.
Justin Verlander opted the other night to speak positively about the team’s issues and wondered if others could too, and he took offense to a fan’s booing of Miguel Cabrera. Francisco Rodriguez has been booed loudly, but for the most part, the players haven’t lashed back.
How can they? They recognize their own limitations, which is why Cabrera offered an honest assessment of his back pain and other ailments. Victor Martinez’s irregular heartbeat, which will sideline him for a while, also had to shake his teammates.
And yet, there’s always another twist. The Tigers were poised to beat Tampa Bay a third straight time Saturday, with Michael Fulmer pitching well. But with two outs in the seventh, the Rays collected three straight hits off Fulmer and Alex Wilson to take a 3-2 lead. In one snapshot of irritation, Cabrera gestured toward the dugout when Ausmus ordered Fulmer to throw three straight times to first base to keep runner Daniel Robertson close. On the next pitch, Derek Norris singled and Fulmer was out, replaced by Wilson.
“When you’re not winning, you notice those things,” Ausmus said. “If we were winning, I promise you they’d be happening, you just wouldn’t care. They’re still going about their business the right way, still playing the game hard, busting their butt down the line. They’re human, they make mistakes, they make errors, they strike out. Every team in baseball goes through the exact same thing.”
The seeds of discontent have been sown, and we’re about to see if the Tigers have enough to overcome them. You can find encouraging signs here or there, if you want to look. The Tigers do have the best record in Central Division play (16-11) and have gotten better starts from Jordan Zimmermann and Daniel Norris.
But this game was as lame as it gets, as the Rays launched their own special promotion, delivering free baseballs to fathers in the outfield seats, clubbing five home runs. Now, down goes Farmer and up comes Sanchez, and on it spins. When and where it stops, nobody knows. But the ride doesn’t last forever, and if the Tigers aren’t careful, it might not last much longer.