By: Will Burchfield
Victor Martinez spiked his helmet into the ground as Mikie Mahtook crouched over first base in disbelief.
The Tigers had just ran themselves into a double play and out of a potential rally, and never was there a more fitting snapshot of this disappointing season.
“The worst thing as an athlete and as somebody that’s competitive is letting your teammates down and feeling that you disappointed them,” said Mahtook. “I know better.”
“There’s no excuse,” he added later. “It was a very, very bad mistake on my part.”
With the Tigers trailing the Royals 3-1 with one out in the seventh, Mahtook was on first base, representing the tying run. At the plate, Martinez laced a line drive down the right field line for what looked like a sure double.
“I think the entire stadium thought it was a double off the bat, quite frankly,” said Brad Ausmus.
Mahtook put his head down and ran. His error wasn’t in being too aggressive. It was in lacking awareness.
He never looked to see where Royals right fielder Jose Bonifacio was playing.
“I knew the situation, I just didn’t pick up the outfielder. I was trying to score from first on a double,” he said.
Bonifacio was positioned just a few steps from the right field line, enabling him to catch V-Mart’s line drive and throw back to first to double off Mahtook.
“It’s one of those things that as you play the game growing up, the right fielder is never standing there. He just isn’t,” said Ausmus. “Even when you shift a guy over in the outfield or shade him in a certain direction, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen it that extreme.”
True as this may be, Mahtook wasn’t willing to let himself off the hook.
“Regardless,” he said, “you have to check. That’s the cardinal rule of getting on base, is pay attention to where the outfielders are, especially in situations like that. I knew where the left and center fielder were, I just didn’t check behind me.”
By the time he did, slamming on the breaks and turning back toward first, it was too late. Bonifacio’s throw beat him by a hair.
On third base, meanwhile, Justin Upton had made the same misjudgment as Mahtook. Though he scrambled back to the bag and tried to tag up and score, he was unable to cross home plate before Mahtook was gunned down at first.
Two runs quickly became none.
For Martinez, who’s endured a supremely frustrating season, it was too much to handle. He crouched a long while halfway between home plate and first base, staring at the ground between his knees, and then, as he was making his way toward the dugout, hurled his helmet into the dirt.
It ricocheted into the stands and apparently struck a fan.
Martinez quickly tried to make amends by offering the fan his jersey and his batting gloves.
“I didn’t see how the helmet got there,” said Ausmus, “but based on what happened I think it was his way of saying, ‘Sorry about the helmet popping up at you.'”
In some ways, this is what the Tigers’ season has become — indiscretion on the field and disenchantment in the crowd.
Mahtook, to be fair, is hardly to blame for Detroit’s losing ways.
“The one thing I’ll say about Mikie,” said Ausmus, “is when he makes a mistake he’s doing it for the right reasons. He’s trying to win.”
But winning takes savvy as much as zeal, and this year the Tigers haven’t been long on either.