By: Will Burchfield
Never was there a more appropriate time for Brad Ausmus to unleash a clubhouse tirade than after the Tigers’ 7-2 loss to the Blue Jays on Friday night, a dismal performance in which the pitching staff issued 10 walks and the offense managed two extra-base hits.
Ausmus didn’t say a word.
Not according to starting pitcher Justin Verlander, at least. When Verlander was asked if Ausmus talked to the team afterward, he responded simply: “No.”
Such is the manager’s nature. For better or worse, Ausmus is a level-headed leader who keeps his emotions in check. For better or worse, he is a grounded speaker without much use for fire and brimstone.
For better or worse, he almost always keeps his cool.
After games like this one, it’s certainly for worse.
“I’m not real happy about it,” Ausmus said. “You get the (All-Star) break and a chance to reset, and then we don’t do much.”
After four days of rest and relaxation, the Tigers hardly looked like a rejuvenated club. The offense scored its only run prior to the ninth inning on a Blue Jays error, the defense was its usual sloppy self and the pitching staff, led by Verlander, made a mess of the strike zone all night long.
When it was all said and done, Detroit’s five hurlers had thrown 220 pitches, the most the team has thrown in a game since a 26-5 loss versus Kansas City in…2004. That’s some inglorious company.
“You can’t walk that many guys, you can’t have that many deep counts. You just keep turning the lineup over and the defense gets bored standing around. You can’t win games that way. You can’t perform like that at the big-league level,” said a peeved Ausmus.
“You can’t defend it,” he added later. “Walks happen, but they shouldn’t happen like that.”
But it wasn’t enough for Ausmus to light into his team or challenge its moxie. And challenge its moxie, he should. On the first day back from a four-day layoff, when spunk should be in high supply, the Tigers looked downright groggy.
Perhaps a post-game tongue-lashing could have woken them up.
“I’ve yelled and screamed before, but the more you do it the less meaning it has,” Ausmus said, who wouldn’t reveal if he’s had such an outburst this season.
At Comerica Park, things are growing bleaker by the day. The Tigers are 10 games under .500, 6.5 games out of a playoff spot and quickly running out of time. The July 31 trade deadline is looming like the Grim Reaper and the team seems to be resigned to its fate.
Yes, the players are largely to blame, but isn’t there something Ausmus can do to spur them to life?
“It’s the chicken and the egg though, what comes first? In my experience, generally something happens in a game or on the field that generates that electricity or that energy and then the ball gets rolling,” Ausmus said. “We just haven’t gotten that.”
Pep talks are overblown, especially in baseball. Players say so all the time. Then again — and players say this as well — baseball is a strange game. It’s impossible to know what might kick a team into gear.
For three and a half months, the Tigers have been searching for a spark on the field. They’ve been waiting for something to catch fire on its own. It hasn’t happened, and there’s little reason to believe it suddenly will.
It’s on Ausmus to breathe some oxygen into this smoldering season, even if the players might suggest otherwise.
“There’s nothing anyone’s gonna say that’s gonna do anything,” said Alex Avila. “It’s just a matter of performing and being able to get that big hit or get that big outing or a (reliever) comes in the game with guys on base and shuts them down. Those types of things are what allow you to gain momentum and confidence.”
But the Tigers aren’t looking for momentum or confidence at the moment so much as a darn pulse.
It’s hard to fight the feeling that this team has taken on the personality of its manager. Their collective calm comes from the top. Ausmus disputed that notion earlier this season by explaining the even-keel clubhouse is the product of a veteran roster. Maybe so.
Still, players take their cues from their manager. And right now, by all outward appearances, the only cue Ausmus is sending is this: Don’t panic. Stay the course.
“It’s disappointing, no question. I’m not happy about it” he said on Friday night. “Big picture, it’s one game. We’re trying to win the series, we gotta win the next two.”
Ausmus never dwells on a single result. The baseball season doesn’t afford you that luxury.
Said Verlander, “Baseball creates a unique atmosphere where you quickly learn to turn the page.”
But not all losses should be dismissed so cursorily. Some should come with a price. There were too many culprits in Friday night’s drowsy defeat for the players to be let off the hook. Losing becomes contagious only when it becomes routine.
“What are we gonna do, get in a fight?” Verlander asked. “A big brawl? The old rah-rah, go-get-em?
“I don’t know, man, that’s a question from somebody that hasn’t been in a locker room in a long time.”
Ausmus has been in MLB clubhouses for over 20 years. He’s been presiding over the Tigers for nearly four. He can gauge the pulse of a team as well as anyone in the business.
At what point will he realize the Tigers don’t seem to have one?