by | Feb 25, 2009 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

A knuckleballer can make you look like hell, and the Tigers need no help in that department. So Tuesday night at Comerica Park had potential ugly written all over it – even before it started. In that way, it did not disappoint. Against Boston’s Tim Wakefield, who turns 94 as you read this, the Tigers looked impatient, imprudent and totally imperfect.

This is a floundering baseball team.

There’s no other way to say it. You could say “slump,” but that wouldn’t explain the bad defense or tepid at-bats. You could say “growing pains,” but these are not all young guys.

No, this is a bad stretch, they know it, their manager knows it, you know he knows it because he was kind and gentle after this loss, and when Jim Leyland is kind and gentle, I worry.

“These are the times the players need a manager and a coaching staff,” he said after the 5-0 defeat, the Tigers’ fifth in a row. Remember, Leyland, when things are great, can sound a bit grumpy. But now that things are bad?

“Everyone thinks this is the time to yell and scream … but that’s not the answer, either.”

Besides, he tried that already.

New tack to right the ship

Remember, a few weeks back, Leyland exploded. He criticized his underachieving team. And the Tigers responded. For a while. But you can’t keep priming that pump. So now that they’re drooping again, what can he do?

Kill ’em with kindness.

“Right now the players are getting booed, I’m getting booed and we should be getting booed,” Leyland said. “… The answer is not to yell and scream. That rah-rah (expletive) gets by once in a while, but that’s not the answer every time – throw chairs, throw stuff. …

“Just talk to them, just remind them how good they are. This will all pass.”

We can only hope. After all, tucked in between the hockey and basketball playoffs, this should be a big home week for Detroit’s baseball team – four against the Red Sox, three against the Yankees – a chance to right a ship that took a cannonball in the opening week.

Instead, after two chances, the Tigers are winless against 1) Dice-K, who throws lots of great pitches and 2) Wakefield, who throws one. Wakefield fluttered his knuckleball in the mid-60-m.p.h., and the result was two hits and no runs in eight innings. This against the mighty Detroit offense, which has again gone AWOL.

So many issues right now

Now granted, trying to hit a knuckleballer in his groove is like trying to cut a bumblebee’s hair. But the Tigers looked like a club lacking fire. After Boston scored three runs in the second, Detroit went down on five pitches: ground out, ground out, ground out – and that was Miguel Cabrera, Gary Sheffield and Edgar Renteria. They say the way you fight back in the frame after the other team scores shows the bite in your baseball dog. If so, our dog is panting.

Or maybe it was just the knuckler. Maybe tonight something ignites. Leyland said what often broke you out of these things was a freakish play or an unexpected performance.

The Tigers, with a 14-20 record, have limited options. They can’t play small ball. They don’t have the speed. They can’t do much with their starting pitching: They have to wait on Dontrelle Willis, pray that Justin Verlander finds his ace cap, and hope one of the others can go eight innings and hold a team to two runs or fewer – the way Wakefield did.

Oh, and hope that Sheffield, recently moved to leftfield, isn’t halfway out the door, and that Cabrera performs the way he is supposed to. Leyland hinted that his expensive superstar may have underestimated the pitching in the American League, thinking, like others, that they play “slow-pitch softball” over here.

But that would be negative.

“It’s important to remember … how good these guys are,” Leyland said. Then he added: “They have to remember it themselves.”

All guru, no grump. Cross your fingers.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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