Tigers in Transition: The two weeks which changed everything

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Photo by Craig Calcaterra

DETROIT — I came to Comerica Park with the idea that I’d write a story about how a team which has won consistently for several years maintains its momentum. I’d talk to some veterans and some coaches and some front office people and ask them the difference between winning when everyone is young and enthusiastic and winning when everyone is older and has been there and done that and now needs to find ways to stay fresh. Teams rise, win, then lose, then fall, and you hear an awful lot about the rise and the fall. You don’t tend to hear, however, all that much about that time in the middle when they’re simply keeping the momentum going. It seemed like something worth writing about.

And, at the time, heading into the July 4th weekend series against the Blue Jays, it was something the Tigers were more than eager to talk about. Particularly about how they have always been good at integrating new players into their core of established veterans and keeping their winning ways going. It’s a team that always shoots for first place and, if anything, makes some little tweaks over the course of the season. Consistency and continuity is the name of the game. Since 2011 they have won four straight AL Central titles, one AL pennant and have made three appearances in the ALCS.

“We know we have a good ballclub but we’re uniquely kind of relaxed. Happy. Good clubhouse, good atmosphere. You don’t let all of the outside noise creep in and let its way into what we have going on here,” starting pitcher Justin Verlander said.  “The main thing since we’ve been on this run is the mix of veterans and young guys. We don’t have anyone on this team that’s a prima donna or who won’t say ‘hi’ or won’t talk to the young guys,” Verlander told me. “Everyone is kind of easy to approach or will take someone under their wing or whatever. It’s pretty easy for guys to slide in and quickly figure it out.”

Bench coach Gene Lamont echoed that sentiment, saying that “Dave [Dombrowski] has always brought guys in,” and that there has never been a problem keeping a good winning clubhouse chemistry going. “It’s easy when everyone wants to win and we’ve always had players who want to win,” Lamont said.

Tigers Legend Al Kaline, a special assistant to Dave Dombrowski but present in the Tigers clubhouse far more than your typical special assistant usually is, agrees that the current Tigers are particularly good at seamlessly integrating new pieces to the machine and keeping things running.

“When I was playing, young players weren’t particularly welcomed by the older players. Today the veteran players take these kids under their wing, take ’em out to dinner, buy ’em clothes. Spend time with ’em. Back when I played they pretty much ignored you and figured you didn’t belong here if you were young. Until you won your stripes. It’s harder to play right now but it’s easier to be here.” He singled out Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez as two guys who have helped keep the clubhouse happy and cohesive and who makes sure everyone keeps their head screwed on straight.

But happy is not enough. Winning is the bottom line. Of that Kaline said  “We’re a good team. We’re gonna be competitive all year long. I think we can still contend in the Central.”

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In late June and the first few days of July it was hard to disagree with Kaline’s sentiment. No, the Tigers were not in first place, but they hovered between four and six games back of the Royals. We’ve seen this sort of thing from them before. In 2014 they were three games back in late August. They were six games back in June of 2012 and still trailed by four and a half as late as July 7, but again won the division. They’ve rarely been a perfect team, but they have the best hitter in baseball and you can never go more than a couple of days without having to face one of their former Cy Young winners. The Tigers have always had another gear.

On the Friday night of my first weekend trip, however, Miguel Cabrera was on first base and then broke for second base on an attempted hit-and-run. He pulled up lame and was eventually diagnosed with a Grade 3 calf strain. He’d be placed on the disabled list the next day and is not expected back until late August at the earliest.

Cabrera’s prognosis was announced on the morning of July 4, before a daytime tilt with the Blue Jays. And, that morning, everyone seemed pretty relaxed. Despite losing Cabrera, the Tigers won the game the night before.

Manager Brad Ausmus was certainly not pleased to lose the man he called “the best hitter on the planet,” but he was pretty zen about it all, saying “We still have a very good offense, with names like Cespedes, and [J.D.] Martinez and [Victor] Martinez. And we’re going to need some contributions from other places as well. It doesn’t have to be one person that steps up. It can be a number of people that step up over the course of this timeframe.”

Justin Verlander has more time in with this club than Ausmus does and he, for one, was not panicking.

“You can either look at it negatively or positively. And I think this is a positive clubhouse,” Verlander said. It’s time for everyone to step up . . . If the veterans aren’t panicking the young guys aren’t.”

Catcher Alex Avila said “I don’t think anyone is going to feel sorry for us . . . I’m not giving up in here, and if there’s anyone else giving up in here you can pack your bags and leave. With him going down, it hurts us, but there’s still a lot of good players on this team. We’ve got to keep it there for when he gets back and make a run at this.”

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Those sentiments were expected. But wouldn’t the Cabrera injury be an awful lot to overcome? Wouldn’t this team, with its porous bullpen and depleted starting rotation be well-served to use the Cabrera injury as a pretext for a restructuring? Maybe not a wholesale rebuild, but might it be worth punting 2015, trading the players who were likely to leave via free agency after the season, and going back at the Central with a healthy Cabrera in 2016?

At the time I asked several Tigers officials, all of whom wished to remain anonymous, about that possibility. One said “Dombrowski is a buyer. He’s never been a seller.” Two made mention of the fact that owner Mike Illitch is 85-years-old (he turned 86 yesterday) and that given his age and the amount of money he has poured into the team, the notion of tearing things down was just not a thing anyone discusses. When I asked them to tell me what they’d do as the GM right now, especially given that the Tiger’s farm system is mostly barren of desirable, projectable talent, I was given variations on NBA-style trades in which good players were acquired via the acquisition of bad contracts. One suggested getting Jonathan Papelbon. Another thought that the Reds may be willing to trade Aroldis Chapman if the Tigers took on Jay Bruce.

Since that morning the Tigers are 6-7. The division-leading Royals are 10-4. The second place Twins are 8-4. Even the Indians and White Sox have gained ground on the Tigers, who now find themselves nine and a half games out of first place. The mood among the fan base has changed as has the front office’s idea of how to proceed for the rest of the season.

“Blow it up. We gotta blow it up and start over,” said one Tigers fan I spoke to when I returned to Comerica this past weekend. “We’re old. We’re hurt. Verlander is lost. The pen sucks. We’re not going to sign David Price. We need to trade everyone and start all over.” This came after Friday night’s 7-3 win over the Orioles. As the weekend wore on, the sentiment of fans and team officials I spoke to, and even that of some players, turned even more sharply negative.

On Saturday night the Tigers got a strong performance from David Price. Chris Tillman, however combined to toss a one-hitter. The crowd was never into it and, by the time Price was gone and the pen had given up two runs, there were scattered boos throughout Comerica Park. One of those pro-buying team officials I had spoken to previously — who is not in baseball operations, it should be noted — was now all about a fire sale. “Price has one foot out the door. Soria too. Maybe you let them walk and get draft picks, but you could get real talent for them now. Cespedes too.”

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Sunday was worse. Justin Verlander took the hill and didn’t survive the fourth inning, surrendering seven runs on eight hard hit balls. Getting shelled is something he’s been doing a lot lately — more on him tomorrow — and Tigers fans are all but resigned to it. Ian Kinsler was ejected by the home plate umpire for throwing his bat in frustration. Third baseman Nick Castellanos took a grounder to the face that, somehow, also injured his finger. It was an ugly, ugly game and those scattered boos from Saturday night turned into widespread boos on Sunday. “I don’t think booing is the way to help,” Verlander said after the game. “I think cheering would be more beneficial than booing, but we’re frustrated, too. We don’t want to be in this position.”

Late in the game I looked up from where I was sitting and saw this:

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It was a car fire in a nearby parking lot. I tweeted the picture out and was met with dozens of replies from Tigers fans, all of whom rushed to joke about how it was really a picture of the dumpster fire that was the Tigers bullpen. Or the tire fire that was Verlander’s approach to hitters with his diminished velocity. Or a symbol of what the Tigers’ 2015 season has become.

The man in charge, Dave Dombrowski said nothing at all that weekend. I requested a chance to speak with him or someone else in baseball operations on Sunday, but was politely, and perhaps understandably, invited to interview him or an assistant by phone sometime later this week. Seems they’re quite busy at the moment, with a report out now that he is planning on punting on 2015 and trading multiple veterans, including David Price and Yoenis Cespedes. You have to figure Soria is on the block as well. Officially Dombrowski said that plans have not yet been finalized, but he didn’t deny the report either. In the past two weeks the conversation has turned away from integrating new pieces into the core of veterans and keeping the Tigers mini-dynasty alive and, instead, breaking things up and, if not rebuilding, certainly retrenching.

The question I had in my mind as I drove up to Detroit two weeks ago was “how do you keep a dynasty alive?” The answer, it seems, is “you don’t.”

And That Happened: Wednesday’s Scores and Highlights

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Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Mets 6, Nationals 1: Max Scherzer tossed six shutout innings and the pen blanked the Nats in the seventh, but Washington clung to only a 1-0 lead thanks to an almost-as-good start from Jacob deGrom. In the eighth, Dave Martinez called on Kyle Barraclough to hold things down. He got two out but also put two runners on, so Martinez called on Sean Doolittle to get a four-out save in a tight game. Tough order, but Doolittle’s good. Usually.

Doolittle hit the first batter he faced to load the bases, gave up a bases-clearing double to Juan Lagares, intentionally walked a guy and then gave up a three-run jack to Rajai Davis. The best part: Davis was just called up the Mets mere hours before. Hell, he had already taken batting practice for Syracuse, who was playing at Lehigh Valley. He took an Uber to New York, got there by the third inning, got lost and was finally suited up not long before entering the game as a pinch hitter.

As I wrote once upon a time, an essential part of living life is dealing with stuff when you’re basically unprepared. When you’re just thrown into a situation for which you didn’t have time or opportunity to gear up. Here’s a salute to Rajai Davis, who may not have been prepared to face a big league pitcher in a big league stadium when he woke up yesterday morning but who rose to the occasion because, really, what else can you do?

Cubs 8, Phillies 4: Cole Hamels took on the Phillies for the first time but, more importantly, he took on Cole Irvin in what I’m going to assume was a “Highlander” situation. Hamels didn’t pitch that well or get the win but he did a lot better than Irvin, so I assume Irvin’s head was cut off. There can only be one.  Albert Almora Jr. hit a three-run homer to help the Cubs get out of an early hole. Let’s call it a Cole hole.

[Ed. — Let’s not]

White Sox 9, Astros 4: Not a great night for Coles. The White Sox beat up on Cole, Gerrit for six runs on seven hits. Eloy Jiménez hit two homers in this one and the Chisox even turned a triple play. A good one, too! Around-the-horn, bang-bang-bang, not one of those janky “baserunner screwed up and stood in the baseline as a guy caught a pop fly, stepped on the bag, and tagged out the confused runner” things. Watch:

Brewers 11, Reds 9: Zach Davies, with a 1.54 ERA, faced off against Luis Castillo, owner of a 1.90 ERA. So naturally 20 runs were scored. The Reds led 6-1 and blew it, then led 8-6 and blew it before the Brewers pulled away. The 8-6 lead went away when Yasmani Grandal hit a two-run homer to tie it. He also started a double play when, with the bases loaded, a strikeout pitch got past him but ricocheted right back to him. The guy on first took off but no one else did because they saw the ricochet. Grandal threw down to first to retire the struck out batter then the Brewers got the baserunner out in a rundown. Just how they drew it up.

Yankees 7, Orioles 5: The Bombers hit five more homers against an Orioles pitching staff that is going to do some ghastly things to the record books before this season is out. Thairo Estrada, D.J. LeMahieu and Gleyber Torres went deep in the first three innings go give New York a 5-0 lead. Gary Sánchez homered in the fourth to make it 6-1 and Torres homered again in the fifth to make it 7-2. Sánchez has homered in three straight games. Torres has 12 homers on the year. Ten of them have come against the Orioles.

Red Sox 6, Blue Jays 5: This thirteen-inning game ended twenty minutes before midnight. Today they get started at 12:37PM. Look for some super crisp play from the Sox and Jays today! Here Michael Chavis hit a tiebreaking homer in the 13th inning to give Boston the win. Rafael Devers homered earlier for his third blast in as many games. That gave Boston a lead that Marcus Walden could not hold thanks to a ninth inning rally from Toronto that made everyone stay up late. Meanwhile, Craig Kimbrel was, I imagine, tucked into bed back wherever he calls home and will be a fresh as a daisy this morning.

Athletics 7, Indians 2: Jefry Rodríguez didn’t fool A’s batters, who touched him for five runs in four innings while Frankie Montas blanked the tribe for six while striking out nine. Mark Canha homered and drove in three and Nick Hundley on a three-hit day as the A’s won their sixth game in a row and took their 10th of 14 overall.

Royals 8, Cardinals 2; Cardinals 10, Royals 3: New rule idea: when teams split a doubleheader the team which outscores the other in the aggregate gets some sort of bonus in the standings. So, here, since the Cards “beat” the Royals 12-11, each team gets one win and the Cards get, um, a point on top. Wait, that would require some sort of hockey-style points system too. OK, we can work with that. It might require some more changes. Like, when you lose a getaway day game in under two and a half hours, you lose a point as a “phoning it in tax.” There are all kinds of variations we can come up with here. Let’s blow this dang game up!

Oh, here: Brad Keller tossed two-hit, two-run baseball and the Royals — boosted by a Jorge Soler three-run homer — beat up on Michael Wacha in the first game. In the second game Homer Bailey got shelled, failing to make it out of the second inning, while Marcell Ozuna, Matt Carpenter, Dexter Fowler and Kolton Wong all went deep. Adam Wainwright was shaky but John GantAndrew MillerCarlos Martinez and John Brebbia combined for four innings of scoreless relief to disabuse Kansas City of any notions of a comeback.

Rockies 9, Pirates 3: For the second time in a couple of weeks Josh Bell hit a homer into the Allegheny River on the fly. That was nice but, at least until my points-system rules changes come into effect which would provide Bell a “cool factor” bonus, it was just a solo shot. Meanwhile, Rockies batters Daniel Murphy and Tony Wolters each hit three-run homers in the early going. Rockies starter Jon Gray allowed three runs and seven hits with seven strikeouts in seven innings. One of those strikeouts was of Bell, on three pitches no less, in his next plate appearance after the splash homer. That would take a half point away, by the way.

Rangers 2, Mariners 1: The sweep. And the seventh win in eight games for Texas. Hunter Pence homered. Seattle is now in last place where most people expected them to be. That opening series in Japan seems like a thousand years ago.

Padres 5, Diamondbacks 2: Eric Lauer allowed one run on four hits over seven frames Eric Hosmer drove in a couple. Kirby Yates got his 20th save of the year. That’s a 65-save pace for a team that’s just above .500.

Rays 8, Dodgers 1: A couple of solo homers had this one tied at one entering the bottom of the seventh, with Dylan Floro taking over for the Dodgers to start the inning. He hit guy, gave up two straight singles, then a homer and just like that L.A. was down 5-1. The homer — a three-run shot — came from Avisail García and chased Floro. Caleb Ferguson then came in, walked a guy, struck out two, then hit a guy and surrendered a three-run bomb to Kevin Kiermaier. Not what you want out of your bullpen.

Marlins 6, Tigers 3: The Marlins were down 3-0 entering the sixth before coming back. Brian Anderson hit a two-run shot for Miami, Neil Walker doubled in a couple and Garrett Cooper hit his first career homer to power the comeback. That’s five straight wins for the Fish. Eight straight losses for the Tigers, whose early season friskiness has long since passed.

Braves 9, Giants 2: Jeff Samardzija allowed six unearned runs but, as we said the other day, not all unearned runs are created equally. He put a couple of guys on and the would-be out number three of the inning was postponed due to an error, but before it was finally recorded he gave up a run on a wild pitch and coughed up homers to Dansby Swanson and Freddie Freeman. So, yeah, take that “unearned” stuff with a grain of salt. The Giants couldn’t do much against Max Fried, who allowed two over six, and nothing against the Atlanta pen which tossed two shutout innings.

Twins vs. Angels — POSTPONED:

Got on board a westbound seven forty-seven
Didn’t think before deciding what to do
Oh, that talk of opportunities, TV breaks and movies
Rang true, sure rang true
Seems it never rains in southern California
Seems I’ve often heard that kind of talk before
It never rains in California, but girl, don’t they warn ya?
It pours, man, it pours