Tigers can win today, but not in long run
It’s not that the Tigers can’t win today. They can. Comerica Park is not a shoebox like Camden Yards, and routine fly balls here do not rack up as home runs. David Price could pitch into the eighth inning, limiting visits to the haunted house that is the Tigers’ bullpen. And quieting that orange crush of Orioles fans won’t hurt.
So the Tigers can win. Today. Maybe Monday. But they can’t win long-term. Not in the playoffs. Not with this construction. Defense, relief pitching, small-ball hits and speed are all magnified in the playoffs.
So is the lack of them.
And the Tigers, right now, are like an IMAX screen; the whole world can see their flaws.
Our baseball team didn’t show anything in Games 1 and 2 against Baltimore that it hasn’t been showing most of the season. Heck, just last weekend, in the critical second-from-last and next-to-last games of the season, remember? Against the lowly Twins? Gave up 23 runs – 11 of them in the sixth inning or later?
No team in baseball has given up more runs after the seventh inning than the Tigers. Did we think the bullpen would suddenly do a makeover? That they’d squeeze a Popeye spinach can and muscle to the rescue?
No. This is who the Tigers are, and what they have been battling against since Bruce Rondon went down as a late reliever and Dave Dombrowski went on an acquisition spree that makes him look as if he bought every pitching lemon in the parking lot.
Not all his fault. The guys he brought in this year – Joba Chamberlain, Joe Nathan, Joakim Soria, Jim Johnson, Joel Hanrahan – all had nice resumes.
But they were often as effective as paper.
Meanwhile, disappearing everyday players have meant quick fixes that cost the team defensively. Steady-handed Jose Iglesias was lost to injury for the year, making shortstop a juggling act. Austin Jackson vacated centerfield in the Price trade, and the Tigers now have a hobbled Rajai Davis who can barely catch up to balls.
In the regular season, you can mask such things. In the playoffs, where every run in every game counts, every error is glaring. Andrew Romine’s botched grounder in Game 1 helped open the floodgates. J.D. Martinez failing to cleanly field Delmon Young’s double in Game 2 was the difference in not gunning down the winning run.
The biggest error Friday came from third-base coach Dave Clark, who sent Miguel Cabrera home on a Victor Martinez double with no outs. Cabrera, running behind Torii Hunter, was out by the length of Venezuela. How do you send your slowest runner and greatest asset, who is injury-prone on the basepaths, into a potential home plate collision – when you have J.D. Martinez coming up and can have second and third with no one out?
“Like you, I was watching the play develop,” manager Brad Ausmus told the media Friday, “and hoping they would both make it.”
That’s not a satisfactory answer. Little things like these have pushed the Tigers halfway off the cliff. The relief pitching has knocked them over.
Long winter ahead
The Tigers committed at least four “can’t do that” faux pas in Game 2. Clark can’t send Cabrera home. Martinez can’t bobble that ball. Chamberlain can’t – absolutely can’t – hit a batter to put him on base. And Soria – after a pow-wow with his pitching coach – simply can’t throw anything to Young that Young can hit, seeing as everyone in the world knows he swings at the first pitch. Throw it over his head, he would have swung. Don’t give him a pitch in the low center of the strike zone.
Can’t do these things. The Tigers did them. As for other moments (Should Anibal Sanchez have pitched longer? Did Justin Verlander – and Max Scherzer – barely rise to the occasion? Where was Al Alburquerque?) they are all worthy questions that are extraneous if they win, and sag like lead weights in a 0-2 deficit.
It may be that Ausmus, in his first year, is taking comfort in the known and predictable, saying “this is who we are, who we use.” That keeps a club calm. But not as much as winning.
Right now, I don’t see that happening in this series. Certainly not the next one. Put a dress on a mannequin, it’s still a mannequin. The champagne dance of a week ago seems almost silly, given the weaknesses the Tigers knew they were taking into the playoffs.
But they can win today. And winning today may be all you can ask. Trust me. These other questions aren’t going anywhere.
Mitch Albom argues playoffs magnify team’s fatal flaws