By: Will Burchfield
Are the Tigers sliding into one of those dreaded ruts? With 18 games left in the season and the wild card race up for grabs, is this mercurial team about to rear its ugly head?
The Tigers fell to the lowly Twins on Tuesday night, their third loss in the last four games. Their offense was shut down by the battered Kyle Gibson, a day after succumbing to Ervin Santana and three days after wilting against Ubaldo Jimenez.
Gibson, who entered Tuesday’s game with an ERA of 5.34 on the season and 7.36 in his last four starts, limited the suddenly punchless Tigers to five hits and one run over eight innings.
“It’s a given day,” Brad Ausmus said. “The guy pitched well, we’re struggling offensively, combine those two factors and we don’t score many runs and he ends up with good numbers. So it is what is it and you can’t really change it.”
A given day, yes, but not an isolated event. The Tigers have been shut down by a number of second-rate pitchers this season, a nearly inexplicable trend for a team with so much offensive talent.
“You gotta give some guys on the other side credit,” said Ausmus. “I know you always want to point a finger at what’s going wrong here, but there’s guys on the other side making millions of dollars. They’re pretty good too.”
If that response sounds familiar, think back to the middle of July, when this same Twins team held the Tigers to four runs in three games. After the series finale, a disheartening 4-1 loss, Victor Martinez had this to say:
“You know what, man, they’re in the big leagues for a reason. It doesn’t matter if they’re in last place or not, they’re still in the big leagues. They’re getting paid, too, so don’t forget about that.”
It’s a flimsy excuse, for the simple fact that the Twins’ payroll is about $100 million less than the Tigers’. And though that disparity isn’t always reflected in the score, it most certainly should be at this juncture of the season. These games matter too much for the Tigers to turn belly-up against Kyle Gibson.
“I know, but sometimes you can’t control everything,” Ausmus said. “You can’t control when you’re struggling offensively. Guys go into slumps, they get out of whack mechanically and sometimes it takes some time to get back to where they are when they’re swinging that bat well. It’s just a simple fact of baseball.”
The Tigers’ inconsistency this season has tested Ausmus’ managerial tact. It seems he’s used every trick in the book when it comes to slumping players, trying this, that and the other thing to jolt certain guys back to life.
“I mean how many times have we talked about this over the course of the season? We’ve had slumps offensively. I’ve changed the lineups a number of times, I’ve rested guys because they’ve been struggling,” he said.
Ausmus deserves credit for benching the ice-cold Justin Upton back in August, giving him time to rest and regroup. When Upton came back, he was a different hitter. And the manager gets a nod for flipping Ian Kinsler and Cameron Maybin in the batting order about a week later, when the former was enduring a slump of his own.
Ausmus hasn’t been averse to make changes, nor has he been especially concerned for the egos of his star players.
Which makes it all the more puzzling that Victor Martinez is still hitting fourth in the Tigers’ lineup.
The 37-year-old is batting .204 in the last 15 games with just three extra-base hits and one RBI. In that same time span, J.D. Martinez, the team’s number-five hitter, has a .340 average, six extra-base hits and seven RBI.
But Ausmus said after Tuesday’s loss he hasn’t considered making any changes to the batting order, certainly not when it comes to V-Mart and J.D.
“The one problem is Victor is a switch-hitter and is the one guy who could probably protect Miggy, as opposed to having a right-handed hitter behind Miggy,” he explained.
The logic makes sense in a vacuum. In context, it falls apart.
V-Mart isn’t protecting Cabrera at the moment any more than Jarrod Saltalamacchia is protecting Erick Aybar. He isn’t striking fear into pitchers’ hearts as he waits on deck. Throw splits and numbers to the wind. Any pitcher, right-handed or left-handed, would rather face V-Mart right now than J.D.
Oh, and then there’s this: despite Ausmus’ reluctance to put a right-handed bat behind Cabrera lest righties start pitching around him, J.D. is hitting .325 against right-handers this season with a .971 OPS. Victor, with that irrefutable switch-hitting edge, checks in at .292 with an .845 OPS.
Ausmus is a smart, well-read manager. He doesn’t ignore the stats. He must be aware of J.D.’s numbers against righties, especially as they compare to those of Victor. But for some reason, he’s not acting on them. Indeed, he’s willingly pushing them aside.
If it’s out of respect for V-Mart’s tenure, Ausmus is choosing a decidedly bad time to start soothing egos. A player’s personal pride should be the least of the manager’s worries right now, with time running out on the season and the Tigers needing to make up ground in the playoff race.
If it’s out of faith that V-Mart will turn things around, Ausmus is practicing patience at the wrong point in the season. The Tigers can’t afford to wait around for a star hitter to find his groove, especially with another slugger ready to take his spot.
And if it’s neither of those two things that’s keeping Ausmus from swapping V-Mart for J.D., then what is it? Is he worried about incurring Victor’s wrath? Concerned about a clubhouse catastrophe? Surely, no.
Quite simply, Ausmus is an even-keeled manager who makes even-keeled decisions. He doesn’t react to every dip in his team’s play.
“We’re struggling offensively, it’s just the way it is. You go through ups and downs and we’re going through a down spell offensively. I think the upside is with an offense like this, it’s at some point going to come back around and hopefully we get hot here soon for the remainder of the season,” he said.
Only it looks like they’re sliding in the wrong direction. To turn it around, maybe it’s time for Ausmus to make an impulsive decision.