Apr. 19—DETROIT — Back in a previous life, before the internet, before Statcast, before electricity (it feels like), I covered the Doug Collins era of Pistons basketball. Watching the Tigers’ woebegone offense over the weekend and trying to come up with different ways to ask manager AJ Hinch about it brought this memory back.
I used to similarly badger Collins when his Pistons struggled to score points, which they did a fair bit in the early days of his brief tenure. Finally, after a particularly cold stretch, Collins snapped.
“I can’t (bleeping) shoot it for them, Chris!”
Of course, this is the same coach who once said if he had 80 timeouts the Pistons would score on every possession. So, there you go. But Hinch can’t draw up a play for his Tigers. He can’t make an offensive strategy when virtually every hitter in the lineup is scuffling, nor can he devise ways to put pressure on a pitcher or a defense when nobody gets on base.
“I can’t (bleeping) hit it for them, Chris!”
The Tigers hitters went 13-for-91 (with 28 strikeouts and six walks) and managed six runs in three games while getting swept out of Cleveland. They went 24-for-130 (42 strikeouts, five walks) and scored six runs in four losses in Oakland.
There is no more helpless feeling for a manager. Well, maybe there’s one other.
“Right next to that, it’s helpless when you can’t throw strikes,” Hinch said. “Unfortunately, we’ve had a little bit of both. …When you don’t hit and you don’t throw strikes, it just sucks the energy out of everyone in and around the dugout.
“We can and will do a better job of that, but it is a bad feeling for sure.”
It didn’t help matters that the Tigers lost Miguel Cabrera (bicep) in Cleveland and Nomar Mazara (ab strain) in Houston. It didn’t help that right-handed starter Julio Teheran (shoulder strain) was lost for several months in the first game of the trip in Cleveland.
The Tigers’ margin for error was already small. But it became minuscule by the end of the trip — and that’s when things get magnified, things that might be overlooked if the team was scoring runs. Things like: — Twelve walks in the first game in Oakland. Joe Jimenez walking seven of the 10 batters he faced in two games. — A couple of errors that extended innings for rookie Tarik Skubal and forced him out of a game after four innings, when he had allowed just two hits. — Not completing a double play that would have ended an inning — shortstop Willi Castro’s guided throw getting to first base too late — which turns into a two-run inning in a 3-0 loss. Wasting an eight-strikeout effort by Jose Urena. — Going 23 straight scoreless innings, stringing back-to-back base runners only once. Not producing a single extra-base hit in the final three games in Oakland. — Getting thrown out at third base on a bloop single to center with no outs and two on in the first inning (Robbie Grossman) Sunday. — Losing a fly ball in the sun (Victor Reyes) and then not at least blocking a ground ball (Jeimer Candelario) in the bottom of the ninth and losing on a walk-off error.
But here’s the beauty of baseball. The Tigers had a day off Monday to flush all that negativity before the 7-9 Pirates, with their 81 runs and 21 homers allowed (third most in the National League), come to Comerica Park. Bright days ahead, though not according to a snowy weather forecast for the week.
Some reinforcements are coming, too. First, right-hander Spencer Turnbull, the 1A starter in the Tigers rotation along with Matthew Boyd, returns on Wednesday.
Even though it might take him a couple of outings to get his game legs under him, it’s a huge boost. It allows Skubal, whose velocity (and confidence) was down, to work in a tandem role similar to what Daniel Norris and Tyler Alexander have done in the past. For two or three turns, he will still pitch every fifth day, just in shorter stints.
It keeps him in a starter’s routine and it helps limit his innings and pitch load. Casey Mize will eventually do the same at some point before the All-Star break, with the hope being that both can pitch through the season without being completely shut down.
Cabrera is expected to ramp up his on-field activity this week, taking batting practice on the field. He could be back, optimistically, by the end of the week when the Royals are in town. Things are little more unclear with Mazara, only because his injury is more difficult to put a timeline on. If he can swing without pain, he also could be back by the end of the week.
Here’s another player I expect to make a “return” — Jonathan Schoop. Hinch smartly gave the struggling infielder Sunday off so he could have two full days to reset. It’s been very odd to watch him fight to find his timing. He came three weeks late to camp and has yet to catch-up.
Here’s how you know he’s still getting caught in-between fastballs and secondary pitches — he’s seen 237 pitches and not hit a single ball on the barrel. He has eight singles, no extra base hits, two RBIs and 18 strikeouts in 14 games.
He’s 2-for-26 against breaking balls and change-ups.
He didn’t just go back to Curacao this winter and forget how to hit. He’ll figure it out. Sooner the better. It would be a huge spark, and take considerable pressure off the likes of Candelario, Willi Castro, Wilson Ramos and Akil Baddoo, if he heated up.
But let’s keep things in perspective, please. We’re only 16 games in and they’re going to play a full 162 this year (COVID willing). There is no need for panic or despair.
The starting pitching has been mostly solid and it’s getting stronger now with Turnbull back. The bullpen had a rough stretch, but Norris, Jose Cisnero, Buck Farmer and Bryan Garcia all had bounce-back outings on the trip.
Alex Lange has positioned himself to be somewhat of an X-factor, earning work in leverage situations, and Gregory Soto is steadfastly claiming ownership to being the de facto closer.
But again, a lot of positives get lost when the offense can’t produce runs and losses pile up.
On deck: Pirates — Series: Three games at Comerica Park, Detroit — First pitch: Tuesday-Wednesday — 6:40 p.m.; Thursday — 1:10 p.m. — TV/radio: All games on BSD/97.1 — Probables: Tuesday— LHP Tyler Anderson (1-2, 4.02) vs. RHP Michael Fulmer (1-0, 3.00); Wednesday — RHP Mitch Keller (1-2, 8.74) vs. RHP Spencer Turnbull (2021 debut); Thursday — RHP JT Brubaker (2-0, 1.76) vs. RHP Jose Urena (0-3, 5.52). — Anderson, Pirates: The 43 right-handed hitters he’s faced this season are hitting .342 with three home runs and a 1.001 OPS. That should bode well for the likes of Jeimer Candelario, Niko Goodrum and JaCoby Jones. — Fulmer, Tigers: It’s been one of the Tigers’ best stories this season. He’s fought his way back from both knee and elbow surgeries and he’s back throwing 95- and 96-mph sinkers and four-seamers again, just like back in his Rookie of the Year season in 2016. He beat the Astros in Houston in his first start of the season.