The bases were loaded, two men out, and Jose Lopez smacked the ball to deep centerfield. Quintin Berry backed up, then speeded up, then turned his body forward, then kept turning, until he finally snagged the ball as if swatting a giant mosquito.
It’s not just a job, it’s an adventure.
When you have a 4-0 lead after the first inning and a 7-1 lead going into the sixth, your operative emotion shouldn’t be “Look out.” But right now, nothing with the Tigers is safe. The ball could be dropped, bobbled, overthrown or simply missed – all of which happened at some point Thursday against the Indians at Comerica Park.
Yes, the Tigers finally won a game against Cleveland this season, 7-5 – after losing their first five – but as victories go, this was not inspiring. Detroit survived it rather than attacked it. If not for a double play here, and Berry’s wiggling catch there, that 7-1 lead easily could have finished in a fourth straight loss at home.
“We actually got by a little bit today with a couple miscues, to be honest with you,” manager Jim Leyland said. “I think when you’re struggling, there’s no question about it, sometimes people are waiting for something bad to happen.”
The Tigers are struggling.
And it’s happening.
Fielder and Cabrera struggle
When the experts warned that the Tigers would be more bat than glove this year, most fans paid little attention. People watch baseball for offense. Defense is a bonus.
But good defense wins you just as many games. And, more important, it’s just as contagious. When an infielder blows a would-be double-play ball, the whole team sighs. When an outfielder drops a sure fly (witness Brennan Boesch on Wednesday night) it hangs around like a fat shadow.
On Thursday, the Tigers exploded for four runs early, but their gloves kept threatening to give it back. In the fourth inning, first baseman Prince Fielder took a pickoff attempt and had Jason Kipnis dead to rights. He threw so wide, Gumby couldn’t have stretched for it. If not for the backup man, that ball would still be rolling.
Kipnis scored when the next batter doubled.
That same inning, Fielder bobbled a relatively routine grounder, allowing another sure out to reach base. Two miscues in one inning is a lot, even for a guy who pounds the leather off the ball.
Meanwhile, Fielder’s slugging mate, Miguel Cabrera, continued his sometimes head-shaking play at third base. He took a relay throw in the seventh inning and threw home – but so high, Tim Duncan couldn’t have reached it. “It sailed on him,” Leyland said.
One inning later, Cabrera fielded a grounder, went to tag a runner and missed him, before throwing to first for the second half of what was not a double play. A more nimble fielder makes that tag. Instead, the Indians had a man on third.
Now it’s true, in the end, the Tigers’ lead survived these blows. But if you need a 7-1 cushion to ensure a victory, your future is not very bright.
But on the plus side …
Which is not to say there weren’t some bright spots. Young Casey Crosby got his first major league victory – and a dousing from his teammates. And Boesch broke out of his slump with two hits. And hopefully, this weekend, the Tigers get back Austin Jackson and perhaps some of the other injured players.
But as Leyland pointed out, they weren’t playing so great when the roster was intact. At this point, their one shining stretch was the first week of the season. That feels like a long time ago.
“You gotta trust the bio,” Leyland said, when asked about some of his star players who are not living up to expectations. And he’s right. In time, baseball has a way of leveling things.
But even allowing for the low expectations, the Tigers must figure how to play better defense. They don’t have to be the Pittsburgh Steelers. But ranking dead last in the American League isn’t a recipe for success, either.
As Crosby warned, “You’re not gonna expect to get seven runs every outing.”
But until their luck changes, it would be a good strategy.
Contact Mitch Albom: 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR. To read recent columns, go to www.freep.com/mitch.