It looked like everything the Tigers needed, the perfect breath of fresh air as Doug Fister came bag onto the mound against his former team and threw seven scoreless innings. Maybe that weird funk the Tigers had found themselves in ever since Fister’s injury in the second game of the season would all be gone from our memories. Then the ninth inning came along, and Jim Leyland – having decided to give regular closer Jose Valverde the night off after appearances in three straight games – painfully watched as veteran reliever Octavio Dotel allowed the Mariners to eek back into the game without even having to swing a bat.
It was one of the most shockingly bad efforts I’ve ever seen out of the pen, and was all the more surprising with how efficient Dotel had been before last night’s game – 12 strikeouts, 2 walks, and only 2 earned runs in 10 innings. Coming in with the Tigers leading 2-0 in the ninth, Dotel walked Brendan Ryan and Ichiro Suzuki to start the inning, nearly hitting Ryan a couple times and barely even coming close to the plate with either batter. He then threw a wild pitch way outside with Jesus Montero in the box, allowing both runners to advance. Another errant pitch got behind catcher Alex Avila – scored as a passed ball, but there was little Avila could do. Ryan scored, Ichiro advanced to third, tying run in prime position without Seattle having to do anything but take advantage of Dotel’s miscues. Then Montero hit a double off the wall in deep center, ending Dotel’s night (Montero’s pinch runner Munenori Kawasaki was then advanced on a bunt and sacrifice fly to win the game).
As frustrating as it was to watch Dotel’s meltdown, it would be foolish to place the entire game squarely on his shoulders. He of course deserves part of the blame, but it’s the Tigers inability to come up with timely hits that keeps costing the team losses, especially this one.
Seattle lost second-year starter Blake Beaven after the third. With runners on the corners and one out, Miguel Cabera hit a sharp liner off Beaven’s elbow, which resulted in an inning-ending double play as well as the end of the night for Beaven. But the Seattle bullpen was up to the task of shutting down the Tigers the rest of the way: 6 innings, 5 hits, 1 earned run to key the victory.
This wasn’t the first time the Tigers hitting has failed to back up a solid pitching outing. In fact, it’s become something of a trend in May so far: solid starts, weak hitting, game blown in the ninth. Last Wednesday, Verlander threw eight innings and allowed only two runs against the Royals, but Kansas City starter Jonathan Sanchez –who has struggled in just about every other start this year (6.75 ERA on the season) – held Detroit scoreless in five innings, and the Royals won the game 3-2 off a Chris Getz single in the ninth.
The Tigers have scored a total of 14 runs in their past 5 games (a 2-3 record), but what’s more remarkable is that the Tigers pitching has allowed the same amount of runs along that stretch. Those three losses have come after solid starts from Verlander and Fister (as previously mentioned) as well as Max Scherzer’s best start of the year: 7 innings, 4 hits, 1 run, 9 strikeouts.
With all the questions about the Tigers pitching staff in the early going, it’s particularly frustrating to see the starters getting the job done, but the hitters unable to back them up. And I really, really, really, hate to draw comparisons because it was distantly the toughest season of my life as a Tigers fan, but a lot about this team is starting to remind me of the famously disappointing 2008 team.
All you Tigers fans out there remember, I’m sure, but we all hate acknowledging it. The 2008 squad was expected to have a batting order of epic proportions, featuring Curtis Granderson, Placido Polanco, Gary Sheffield, Miguel Cabrera, Magglio Ordonez, Pudge Rodriguez, Carlos Guillen, and Edgar Renteria. However, the Tigers started the season 0-7 and even once they reached .500 around midseason, it was just clear that the team didn’t have that special something it takes to make a playoff run –eventually finishing dead last in the Central. Every time it looked like they could be turning the corner, there was an unfortunate event that would set them back once again, and that’s been just about the same thing I’ve seen so far this season.
On Saturday, I thought Scherzer’s first solid outing of the season would give the Tigers both a 2-0 series lead on the White Sox as well as more team confidence, but the lineup failed to support Scherzer and Valverde was unable to hold the Sox in the 9th (3-2 loss). Then last night as Fister stepped back onto the mound and tossed 7 shut-out innings, giving him a total of 10 scoreless innings on the season, again the Tigers couldn’t support the effort enough at the plate or in relief (another 3-2 loss).
The sign of a true competitor is a team with the character to win the close ones and although the Tigers 5-6 record in one-run games isn’t something that should keep Detroit fans sleepless at night, the manner in which they’ve lost these games is at least nightmare worthy. I’m not talking Freddy Krueger, run-for-your-life type nightmares, but instead the paralytic stasis that comes when the dream you were seemingly promised at the beginning of the season starts falling apart while you stand motionless and unable to help.
Down, but definitely not out, the Tigers need to start showing the competitive character that’s recently driven the Cardinals and Rangers and is currently riding with the Dodgers, Nationals, Orioles and even the Miami Marlins on their 7-game winning streak.
The 2008 team couldn’t find the right identity. Will this year’s team be any different?