For a while on Sunday afternoon it looked like the bizarre disappearance of David Price might end up serving as a metaphor for the Tigers’ season:
Where’s our starting pitcher?
Where’s the team we thought we had?
But in the end Price’s mysterious absence from the mound in the seventh inning turned out to be a miscommunication between the lefthander and his manager. And the Tigers won the game, so no harm, right?
The way the Tigers won this game though, may prove to be far more important than the strange footnote of Price’s unexpected exit from the game. Down by four runs after seven, the Tigers stormed back for five runs over their last two innings to steal a game from the White Sox. It was the first time Detroit has won a game after trailing through seven innings this season. For a team with the firepower Detroit has, that was unexpected. But here they were doing it on Sunday in a strange game where it looked like they might be coming apart at the seams. Could the crowd-pleasing victory be a turning point?
The 2015 Tigers have been a strange team. In April they roared out to a great start and looked like they would be among the league’s best teams. They were getting pitching and hitting at the same time. All teams go through tough stretches, but since their 11-2 start the Tigs have limped along at 28-34. Most good teams will have a stretch where they hover near the .500 mark, but that’s usually for two weeks, not two months.
The team has been dealt some stinging bites from the injury bug:
- Justin Verlander started the season on the DL and didn’t throw his first pitch in a big league game until June 13th. He returned but then missed his most recent start due to back stiffness.
- Victor Martinez missed a full month from mid-May until June 19th with nagging leg injuries. Since his return he’s hitting .333 with 10 RBIs in nine games.
- The bullpen started the campaign without Bruce Rondon and his 100 mile-per-hour heater (again). The “closer-of-the-future” returned last week and got his first win in two years on Friday.
- Catcher Alex Avila has played only 22 games due to injury. He’s rehabbing now and might be back within a week.
Detroit also saw several members of their 2011-14 division-winning teams exit in the offseason:
- Max Scherzer took the money and ran to D.C. He’s basically been a nightmare for Detroit fans: nearly throwing back-to-back no-hitters and showing why he’s the best competitor in baseball on the mound right now.
- Rick Porcello went to Boston where he’s regressed after having improved the last two years in Motown.
- Team leader Torii Hunter signed a “reunion contract” with the Twins.
But even with those losses and the adversity from injuries (which are part of the game), this team is still loaded. They are clearly the most talented team in their division, maybe in the entire American League. Miguel Cabrera is fully healthy for the first time in two years and he’s showing everyone why he’s one of the five best righthanded hitters in baseball history. Price is a legit ace who thrives on shutting down opposing teams. Jose Iglesias is a wizard at shortstop. Add in a rejuvenated Joakim Soria at the backend of the bullpen, the still-humming J.D. Martinez, and the great play of Yoenis Cespedes, and the Tigers have more than enough depth to win 90+ games and challenge for a fifth straight division title.
Instead they rest eight games back of the Royals in the loss column and the Twins (the Twins!) are ahead of them too.
For much of the season (after the fast start), the Tigers have looked listless. Their offense, though statistically ranked near the top in baseball, can sputter. They are prone to rally-killing double plays. The bottom half of the order can disappear for days and days. Outside of Miggy, VMart, Cespedes, and the surprising Iglesias, the lineup has been streaky. That’s led to far too many low-run efforts.
Meanwhile, outside of Price and the steady Alfredo Simon, the starting rotation, once a Detroit strength, has been disappointing. The Tigers have 37 quality starts (at least six innings with three earned runs or less) in 75 games. They need Shane Greene to get straightened out in Toledo. They desperately need Anibal Sanchez to be as good as he can be. And they need Verlander to strut his stuff on the mound again. He’ll probably never be the JV of 2010-12, but Verlander can be a very good #2 in this league still. It feels like he’s been trying too hard to get his magic back the last two seasons. A more relaxed and focused Verlander would be a welcome sight.
Despite the uncertainties, I like the Tigers chances to make the playoffs. The hero of the thrilling walkoff win yesterday — young rookie James McCann — has great upside. Ian Kinsler will get hot and start to play like we know he can. The starting pitching will improve. This team can batter opponents and also win close games (as they proved yesterday). They can string together a ten or twelve game winning streak. This Detroit team not only has the talent, they have the experience, to win 20 of 25 or something like that. The Royals may seem out of reach, but it’s not even July. Three seasons ago the White Sox were out in front and the Tigers hunted them down.
It’s not panic time yet.
Sunday’s thrilling win seemed like a turning point. Let’s see what this team does here on out.