For Tigers, Last-Gasp Hope Lies In Manager’s Former Team

By: Will Burchfield
@burchie_kid

When Brad Ausmus is trying to combat the pessimism — something he’s done frequently over the past three baseball seasons in Detroit — he often cites the 2005 Houston Astros.

Ausmus was the catcher on that team.

The Astros were 15 games under .500 in May, he’ll tell you. They were 15 games out of first place in June. They were dead and buried by almost everyone, he’ll tell you, with four months to go in the regular season.

Then, Ausmus will say with a mixture of defiance and pride, the Astros stormed back to win the N.L. wild card and made it all the way to the World Series.

The message is simple. Don’t hold a eulogy for a team that still has a pulse. And though the precedent is extreme — the Astros went 74-43 over their final 117 games — it offers hope for any ballclub whose back is against the wall.

Which brings us, of course, to the 2017 Tigers. Could they be this year’s version of the ’05 Astros?

Are there any similarities between those two teams?

“It’s similar in the sense that there’s a lot of veteran position players,” Ausmus said on Friday. “We’ve got Kinsler, Cabrera, Victor, Upton, Avila. In Houston, there was (Craig) Biggio, (Jeff) Bagwell, (Lance) Berkman, who wasn’t quite a veteran yet, I was on the team. It was similar in that sense.”

There’s something to be said for experience, especially when the going gets tough. That Astros team, which also included a couple vets on the pitching staff in Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte, surely benefited from a sense of been-here-before composure. Instead of panicking, they slowly but surely dug themselves out of a hole.

“I don’t think you know it until you look up,” said Ausmus. “We were 15 games under (on May 24) and all of a sudden you look up a month later and you’ve rattled off 19, 20 wins in a month.”

It didn’t happen right away for the Astros. But they gained some ground in June and then caught fire in July. In perhaps the most important month of the baseball season, when the trade deadline looms like judgment day, the Astros went 22-6. By July 31, they were 57-48, a dramatic 24-game turnaround from their low-water mark.

Contrary to popular belief, it wasn’t the incendiary headline on the front page of the sports section of the June 1 Houston Chronicle that spurred the Astros to life. Sure, the tombstone graphic emblazoned with the Astros logo and the letters ‘RIP’ may have rubbed some players the wrong way — “Berkman took umbrage with it,” Ausmus said — but they already believed within that they could turn things around. They didn’t need somebody suggesting otherwise for them to kick it into gear.

In reality, things normalized. Regression took hold. Berkman, who had begun the season on the disabled list and then scuffled out of the gate, found his stride in June and was in full sprint by July. Pettitte, who had three wins through his first 13 starts despite deserving much better, finally started getting some run support in July and took off into orbit. All-Star closer Brad Lidge, who had blown three saves by June 15, blew just one more the rest of the way.

“We were all just amazed we weren’t playing better,” then-GM Tim Purpura told the Seattle Times, thinking back to the Astros’ dreadful start.  “There was no reason we shouldn’t be playing better. I think the common theme was, ‘We’re better than this. We shouldn’t be playing this bad, but we are.’”

Many Tigers have voiced a similar sentiment this season. They see their record and refuse to believe it’s indicative of their potential. They cite the standings and vow that things will change. On Friday afternoon, with the Tigers stuck at 35-43 and seven games behind the Indians in the A.L. Central, J.D. Martinez spelled things out.

“I’m gonna give you a situation,” he said. “Let’s say we sweep Cleveland right now, then all of a sudden the Twins lose a series. Now what? What are we looking at? Three or four games (behind)?…Then all of a sudden we get hot. We go an eight-game winning streak. Now all of a sudden you look up and we’re one game out, two games out. We might even be tied.”

Optimistic? You bet. But not necessarily unrealistic. Simple odds suggest the Tigers are due for a hot streak — they’ve yet to really have one this season — and the hard-core evidence would agree. Such promising offensive figures can’t continue to yield such middling results. The team’s best hitter, Miguel Cabrera, has yet to really get going, but history says he’ll shake off his various aches and pains and break out before long. Is he the Tigers’ version of Berkman?

In the rotation, Detroit needs an anchor. Michael Fulmer has been that man for much of the season, allowing three earned runs or fewer in 13 of his 15 starts. His record, 7-6, belies how well he has pitched. Sound familiar? With a little more offensive support, Fulmer looks poised to take off on the type of run that Pettitte embarked on at just this time of year in 2005. (Heck, Ausmus compared the 24-year-old Fulmer to Greg Maddux, of all people, on Thursday.)

Then there’s the Struggling Tigers Bullpen™. After a decent start to the season, it’s once again hit a snag. The bright side of things is that Justin Wilson has stepped up as closer since taking over for Francisco Rodriguez. Might he put an end to the blown saves in Detroit just as Lidge did in Houston?

Lidge, of course, was never really the problem for the Astros. It was the guys behind him. But the team’s relief core stabilized as the season wore on, thanks to the continued excellence of Dan Wheeler and the emergence of a second-year pro named Chad Qualls.

For the Tigers, one of Alex Wilson or Shane Greene must step up and grab the eighth inning by the horns. And someone else must channel Qualls. Could that be the recently recalled Bruce Rondon? He was awful early on, just as Qualls was in 2005, but the 26-year-old, just like Qualls in 2005 (!!), has been given a second shot. He might as well start hitting his target.

“I’m done saying the bullpen’s gonna fall into place, I’m just gonna ride with who’s hot,” said Ausmus on Wednesday. “Greeney’s had a couple rough outings but I still think he’s got the capability to pitch anywhere in tight situations. Willy’s struggled a little bit lately but he’s still gonna be a guy we go to late. And Bruce, his two outings (since he was recalled) have been good.”

Let this be clear about the 2005 Astros: They were salvaged by much more than track records. Morgan Ensberg set staggering career highs in both home runs (36) and RBI (101). Although it would later prove to be a blip on the radar, this was the kind of breakout the Astros were hoping for out of their hard-hitting third baseman in his fourth MLB season. Keep that in mind. Meanwhile, right fielder Jason Lane, who entered 2005 with 12 homers and 39 RBI to his name over a three-year career, blasted 26 bombs and drove in 76 runs straight out of the blue.

Can Ensberg drop a line to Nicholas Castellanos? The Tigers were banking on big things this year from their third baseman, who, entering his fourth MLB season, looked poised to arrive on the national stage. Through three months, he’s yet to take his cue. But here’s the thing with Castellanos. For one, despite what feels like a disappointing start, he’s on pace to post career highs in both home runs and RBI, the latter by a considerable margin. Moreover, the 25-year-old has some of the best peripheral numbers in baseball — that’s the hard-core evidence we were talking about — but has been a victim of terrible luck. At some point that has to change. An Ensberg-ian breakout, if somewhat subdued, is still very much in the cards.

It’s hard to imagine anyone on the Tigers emerging á la Lane. No one really fits the mold. But the essence of Lane’s value was that he provided so much more than the Astros expected. In that vein, take a look at Alex Avila. Signed to be the Tigers backup catcher, Avila has been their steadiest hitter. He’s the only regular — and you can bet he’s a regular now — whose average is above .300. He leads the team with 2.5 offensive WAR. Even allowing for a slight dip in the second half, Avila will move the needle for the Tigers in a way no one could have foreseen. That’s critical in making up ground.

We’ve avoided a dirty little secret about the ’05 Astros thus far. Their rotation was ruled by a three-headed, fire-breathing, possibly-chemically-enhanced monster. Along with Pettitte, it featured Roy Oswalt and Roger Clemens. Oswalt, the ace, went 20-12 with a 2.94 ERA. Pettitte, the other ace, went 17-9 with a 2.39 ERA. And Clemens, the other-other ace, went 13-8 with a 1.87 ERA (!!). They all finished in the top five of Cy Young voting.

The Tigers have nothing that can compare to that. Who the hell does? But they’ve got a stud in Fulmer, a superstar in Justin Verlander and, well, a giant-but-hopeful question mark in Jordan Zimmermann. That trio is the key to the Tigers mounting and maintaining any kind of charge, a fact that was apparent at the outset of the season and will remain so to the finish. If they can come anywhere close to the collective performance of Oswalt, Pettitte and Clemens, the Tigers could have a legitimate shot.

Because here’s the other dirty little secret about those Astros. Their offense stunk. I mean, stunk. Not a single guy hit .300 and only one, Ensberg, reached the 100-RBI mark. They finished dead last in baseball in runs scored.

The Tigers offense does not stink. In fact, one could argue they’ve swung the bats better than any team in baseball. (It hasn’t bore fruit quite yet, but it will. When it does, they just may start battering pitchers to a pulp.) If the Astros were able to will themselves to the playoffs with a dominant rotation, a firm bullpen and a tire-fire of an offense, why can’t the Tigers execute the same formula in reverse? Yes, their bullpen needs to improve — the floor is yours, Rondon — but otherwise things balance out. In fact, bullpens excluded, the scales might tip in the Tigers’ favor.

In thinking back to 2005, Ausmus couldn’t put his finger on a game or a moment that triggered the Astros’ turnaround. Rarely does a bonfire ignite from a spark. But perhaps Purpura kept the embers of the team’s season alive when he held a meeting with the players in early June. The GM’s message was simple: We’re not giving up.

“We were playing terribly; there were rumors out there in the media,” Purpura told the Times. “Fans were talking about whether we should tear this thing apart, should we make some trades to get some other guys, which was the least possible thing.

“My gut told me to say some things to the guys to settle that down. I just said, ‘We believe in you, and you believe in yourselves most of all. You just have to play better baseball.’ It was more to settle the uncertainty that was starting to develop.”

It’s unknown if Tigers GM Al Avila has done this with his team — he’s frequently in the clubhouse, for what it’s worth — but he delivered a similar message to the media at the beginning of June.

“Right now, with what we’ve got, we feel we can win,” he said. “What I’m looking at today is this team. I’m not looking at what’s gonna happen next year or the following year. We gotta focus on today.”

In the same interview session, held casually in the Tigers’ dugout, Avila intimated the Tigers would not be buyers at the trade deadline. For one, they’re not in any position to take on salary. What’s more, the GM seems to firmly believe in the roster at hand. There are too many good players on this team to accept that .500 baseball is its destiny. There are too many proven performers to dismiss the possibility of a resurgence.

Avila is in very much the same situation that Purpura was in. Though the latter may not have been facing an edict to trim payroll, he was similarly working against the clock, trying to feed his veteran roster as much slack as possible. With the trade deadline looming, he knew then-owner Drayton Lane had his finger hovering over the re-set button.

“He was concerned,” Purpura told the Times. “We had to convince him we were better than we were playing. I think we did. We didn’t get into a situation where we were forced to break things apart.”

The Tigers must prove the same thing to owner Chris Ilitch. Avila seems to be somewhere in the middle, almost stuck between loyalties: sympathetic of the team, mindful of the organization. The players, for their part, are aware of what’s at stake.

“The writing’s on the wall. If we don’t perform there’s a good chance things will be shaken up,” Verlander said last month. “I don’t think anybody’s shying away from talking about that. We’re all grownups here, we all realize that we need to go, man.”

Said J.D. Martinez, “I think it’s gotta be done by the beginning of July. Because if not, there’s a good chance that there’s a couple of us that might not be here.”

With six games at home before the All-Star break, including three against the rival Indians, the Tigers have a prime opportunity to send a message to management. Five wins, Ausmus believes, “would probably be a statement to the people making decisions.”

It has to start somewhere. And it has to start soon. July was the Astros’ month of reckoning, so it will be for the Tigers. In 2005, Houston entered July six games under .500 and 6.5 games out of a playoff spot. Then they ripped off 22 wins in 28 games to move into first place in the wild card. In a month, 35-41 became 57-47.

How’d they do it? Almost everyone got hot. Berkman hit .362 and racked up 20 RBI. Qualls pitched to a 2.08 ERA and secured six holds. Little-known center fielder Willy Tavares batted .321. And a catcher with the last name Ausmus, who entered the month with a .214 average, hit .301.

Meanwhile, those who had been hot stayed hot. Ensberg posted 24 RBI and a 1.02 OPS. Biggio, at age 39, popped seven homers and scored 19 runs. (There’s your Ian Kinsler model.) Lane, still largely an unknown, hit .317. And, of course, the three-headed monster eviscerated the opposition, led by Pettitte, who went 5-0 with a 0.90 ERA. (Gulp.)

“I never got the feeling that (manager) Phil Garner had given up, or the coaching staff, or the players,” Purpura told the Times. “If I had that sense, I might have made some moves at the trade deadline. But there was no period of time we felt, you know what, we’re done.”

Can the Tigers pull off a similar feat? They enter July eight games below .500 and five games out of a playoff spot. (Oh, you didn’t hear? There’s two wild cards now.) They have 26 games this month, including 16 at home and 16 against divisional opponents. Can they win 20? Can they turn 35-41 into 55-47?

“I think the one thing that’s good,” Ausmus said on Wednesday, “is that even though we’ve struggled the clubhouse has always been positive. The players have always played hard and busted their butts down the line. I’ve been happy with the way the guys have gone about their business. We haven’t won like we’ve want, but hopefully it turns around today.”

Here’s the truth about baseball. 162 games is often distilled to 30. It’s within those 30 games that a team defines its season. The Tigers’ season is before them.

“Quite frankly,” said Ausmus, “most teams play extremely well for a period of time, a month, 30-45 days, and that’s the difference in their season. It really is. The rest of the time they’re probably playing .500 ball.”

Just how true is that?

The 2005 Astros finished 89-73. In July they went 22-6. Notice the differences? See how they’re the same? The eventual National League champs were an even .500 team — 67-67 — for all but 28 games of the season. They were wholly ordinary but for one extraordinary month.

“That confidence they had in themselves, that they were better than this, finally manifested itself,’ said Purpura. “That’s when we said, ‘Let’s ride this thing as far as we can.’”

Can the Tigers channel their manager’s former team?

Is there some Berkman in Miggy, some Pettitte in Fulmer? Can Greene portray Wheeler as Rondon portrays Qualls? Is Clemens stirring in Verlander? Is any bit of Oswalt hiding in Zimm? Can Castellanos find his Ensberg? Can Avila keep in touch with his Lane?

How about Biggio, the second baseman with a power stroke? Is he to be honored by Kinsler? How about Tavares, the pesky center fielder? Will he be reborn in Mikie Mahtook?

All of these questions, and several more, coalesce into one: Can the Tigers be extraordinary in July?

The odds and the logic say no. The gut does, too.

But precedent gives them a shot, and that’s all they can ask for.

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