By: Eric Thomas
The good old days were two weeks ago. The Tigers’ losses multiplied like proverbial rabbits; tensions have become tight among fans, barbs bouncing back and forth, “It’s too early,” “Is JV done?” “The off-season moves are finding the water level,” or “They stink!” It is too early, and maybe fans were spoiled by the first three weeks in May when Tigers and their rookie manager were winning games with relative ease.
Memorial Day weekend couldn’t have been much worse for the Tigers. They lost every game by nearly ten runs. The games were over before we could blame the bullpen. They’re not scoring runs, but mostly because the at bats lose their significance in the fourth inning. Yeah, it’s frustrating, and the answer isn’t readily available. Brad Ausmus himself seemed at a loss in the aftermath of the first game against the A’s, putting all the pressure on Max Scherzer to save the slide.
The problem is both obvious and a mystery. The starting pitching, a rotation only two weeks ago hailed as the best in baseball, has completely collapsed. There’s no rhyme or reason. Scouts have pointed out that Justin Verlander has lost some MPH on his fastball since his MVP season, but it’s not like that’s a new problem. His velocity waned last year, but he’s fought through and recovered in the past.
The problem isn’t Verlander; it’s the entire starting rotation. The wheels have come off all five of them. The problem isn’t isolated at all.
Now for the clichéd psychoanalysis on Phil Coke: how can we stay mad at him? Coke has proven yards of heart. He’s clearly not having fun. He trots from the pen on a dignity salvation project amid a curtain of catcalls. Fans aim every ounce of their anger at him. If the Tigers cut him, will he even bother trying to re-sign somewhere else? Are the Tigers trying to make him reconsider not just his place in Detroit, but in baseball altogether? At this point he looks like a gas station attendant who’d really rather be somewhere else.
This is Brad Ausmus’ test. He was handed a stacked team in the off-season. The Tigers have had three straight appearances in the ALCS, some of the best players in baseball, and a person who had never managed was handed the keys. Early on Ausmus looked like a genius, but now his team is in free fall.
Players play and coach’s coach, but Ausmus is in the crosshairs here because of this nadir’s totality. It’s not just one starting pitcher who is struggling, it’s all of them. When it’s one person it’s on him; when it’s more than one it’s on the coach or manager. Ausmus must pass the test that Jim Schwartz never could as the Lions’ coach: can he pull this team out of a tailspin?
Fans got mad at Leyland because he was even keeled in times such as these, to the point of apparent apathy, but his docility served the team well. They never got up and never got too far down. It seems now that the Tigers may have gotten a little too sure of themselves in the time after the series against Boston and Baltimore.
Ausmus hadn’t yet faced adversity in his role as Tigers manager and so far, the returns are less than encouraging. Calling for pitchouts and crafting creative lineups is one thing; pulling back on a nosedive is another matter altogether, and it’s what separates the good managers from the pretenders. It’s up to Ausmus to turn this boat around. This late May crater from the Tigers isn’t about the offense or defense, the starters or the bullpen. It’s about their unproven rookie manager. Ausmus is undoubtedly intelligent beyond his relative years, but this is about his ability to lead.
We wait patiently for the results.