Do you get more worried when things are going poorly, or when they’re going well?
Most baseball managers would say the latter. Therefore, if Brad Ausmus seems relaxed right now, don’t be fooled.
Yes, the Detroit Tigers have the best record in baseball, and yes they have a 7-game lead in the AL Central, and yes they have some of the best players in the game and most of them are red-hot. Plus the Tigers haven’t lost a game on the road in more than three weeks.
But, make no mistake about it, the rookie Detroit skipper is not learning the moonwalk in his office. Because Ausmus has been around long enough to know things can change very fast in baseball.
Ausmus won’t take his foot off the gas pedal just because it seems obvious that they’re the best team in their division. And that’s good because the Tigers, as talented as they’ve been the last few years, have always had a stretch of head-scratching baseball at some point.
First Fenway Park sweep since 1983
It’s a great time to be a Tigers’ fan. The team is rolling after a three-game sweep in Boston (their first since 1983) in which they allowed only three runs. On the offensive side, the reports of Miguel Cabrera’s demise were greatly exaggerated, as he’s been hitting like…well…Miguel Cabrera for the last 18 games, raising his numbers to their typical lofty status. The switch-hitter extraordinaire following him in the order, Victor Martinez, now has more homers (10) than strikeouts (9), while putting to rest any worries about the loss of Prince Fielder in the cleanup spot.
PS. The last time the Tigers swept the Red Sox in Beantown, the United States was in a COLD WAR, Happy Days was still on the air, and O.J. Simpson was making movies instead of hubcaps.
Kinsler keys offense
That guy hitting leadoff most of the time, the one who was acquired for Prince? (Ian Kinsler) He’s hitting .315 and sparking a revamped lineup that seems much more dangerous now that they have many ways to score runs. On Sunday night, during a game beamed to millions of baseball fans via ESPN, J.D. Martinez recorded the Tigers’ 37th stolen base, giving them two more than they had all of last year. The new-look Tigers are on pace to have five players with at least 15 homers, and with the additions of Kinsler and Rajai Davis they’re on pace to steal as many bases as home runs. Of course, those are projections, and projections can get you in trouble, but as the team approaches their 40th game, it looks as if the Tigers are going to have a special season.
The team is balanced with offense and great pitching
When’s the last time the Tigers had such a balanced club? As noted above, the offensive side is well-balanced now, but the pitching is even more brilliant than the lineup. That’s because the Tigers have three aces and a ace-in-training in their rotation. Justin Verlander is solid as always, chewing up innings at the top of the rotation. Max Scherzer seems intent on having an even better 2014 season — so far his ERA is under 2.00 and he’s showing that his Cy Young season was no fluke. Anibal Sanchez, who toyed with the Red Sox on Sunday much as he did last October in the ALCS, has been injured but he still has the pure stuff that is exciting to watch and devastating to opposing lineups. But what of Rick Porcello, the New Jersey kid who seems to have harnessed his massive potential and learned to pitch where he used to be a “throw-to-contact” guy. Porcello is 7-1, but most importantly he’s reduced his hit rate while increasing his strikeout rate and somehow managing to walk even fewer batters than in the past. With a four-man front like that, this team isn’t likely to have a long losing streak, and since their offense is averaging 4.8 runs per game, the 2.36 combined ERA of their starters is going to make it hard for them to lose many games at all, home or away.
The uncertain bullpen is shaping up
The bullpen, which was a question mark in the spring and started the season like Papa Grande was their spiritual guide, has righted itself and is now rolling. Somehow and surprisingly, Al Alburquerque has learned to throw strikes, posting a very un-Alburquerque like 23-4 K to walk ratio thus far. Joe Nathan, The Ancient Closer, is a perfect 9-for-9 in his last 9 save chances. The guy behind that bushy beard who says he’s Joba Chamberlain is pitching lights out, and the previously unknown Evan Reed and Ian Krol are performing wonderfully in their bridge roles in the middle innings. The last 2-3 innings of games are going to be much less stressful for Tigers’ fans this season.
This could all get even better
Want to hear something scary? This team is almost certainly going to get better. As I wrote last week, help is on the way in the form of reliever Joel Hanrahan, outfielder Andy Dirks, and most likely a frontline shortstop who can hit the ball, like free agent Stephen Drew. In an embarrassment of riches, the Tigers also have young Robbie Ray, the lefty they stole from the Nationals in the unpopular Doug Fister trade. (Don’t some of you owe Dave Dombrowski an apology for your reaction to the Doug Fister trade?) Ray has looked major-league-ready in his two starts for the Tigers, but the rotation is so loaded, he’ll only get the occasional emergency start, as he will this week when Ausmus is choosing to stretch the rotation to six pitchers in order to give Porcello some extra rest. If GM Dave Dombrowski really wants to sucker punch the rest of the American League he could package Ray or Drew Smyly in a deadline deal to get another bat for his bench or short. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
We’re supposed to be enjoying this, right? But when everything is going so well, it’s hard not to wonder when this team — which has almost seemed to coast on autopilot the last few years on their way to nail-biting division titles — will struggle. It’s probably going to happen, even the ’84 Tigers had a rough patch in the middle of the summer, but this 2014 Tigers’ team is so stacked, so talented, that they might be up by 15 games before they hit a rough patch.
Let’s enjoy it Detroit fans. We can let Brad Ausmus worry.