Niyo: Ron Gardenhire faces major problems from the start; Casey Mize to the rescue?

Detroit News

When it rains, it pours. And the way the Tigers’ starting pitchers have been hitting the showers during games this season – early and often – it was only a matter of time before the levity broke.

Sunday, it was Michael Fulmer who couldn’t make it the full three innings as the Tigers’ scheduled “opener,” exiting in the top of the third after spotting the Cleveland Indians a 3-0 lead.

He’d have company in the clubhouse soon, though. Because when Sunday’s umpiring crew handed the visitors a favorable ruling on a ground-rule double later in that same inning, Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire decided he’d seen enough. Gardenhire drew his first ejection of the season after a heated argument with first-base umpire Tim Timmons.

Not long after, veteran outfielder Cameron Maybin got tossed as well, arguing balls and strikes — mostly that one ball that home-plate umpire D.J. Reyburn called a strike — after hitting into an inning-ending double play.

And on it went from there, as the Tigers finished drowning their sorrows, along with any excitement they’d generated with a fast start to this abbreviated 2020 season, in an 8-5 loss at Comerica Park.

It was their fifth straight loss to fall below .500 for the first time since an Opening Day defeat in Cincinnati. But more notably, Sunday’s result also capped a series sweep for the Indians, who’ve now won a whopping 20 consecutive games against the Tigers. That’s the second-longest streak in MLB history, trailing Baltimore’s 23-game run over the expansion Kansas City Royals in 1969-70, a record the Indians will try to match when the Tigers head to Cleveland for a three-game series next weekend.

 “Bizarre,” was how the Tigers’ Jacoby Jones described it afterward, adding. “That’s crazy, winning 20 straight against a big-league team.”

But as bench coach Lloyd McClendon also reminded everyone late Sunday afternoon, “that’s baseball, and it starts with pitching.”

And right now, that’s where the problems begin and end for the Tigers, whose starting rotation is screwing everything up, quite frankly.

In their last six games, Tigers starters have combined for just 22 innings, while the relievers have thrown 32. That’s the kind of ratio that prompts Gardenhire to take off his ballcap as he did in his postgame media session Friday night and say, sarcastically, “You see my head? There’s a lot of stress, OK? There’s a lot of concern.”

And not much hair left to pull out at this point, obviously.

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Tigers’ starters rank dead last in the majors with a 7.46 ERA, allowing 66 runs in 79 2/3 innings. Subtract Spencer Turnbull’s four starts this season, though, and it’s even worse:  a 9.32 ERA with zero quality starts — or 16 fewer than the Indians have racked up already. 

“It sucks, and we’re all frustrated,” said Fulmer, who remains on a three-inning limit but only recorded eight outs Sunday in his third start coming off last year’s Tommy John surgery. “We know can perform better, we know we should perform better and we know we have to perform better. And I think it honestly starts with me.”

That’s magnanimous, but certainly a stretch, even after Fulmer gave up two more home runs Sunday, including a two-run shot by Francisco Lindor off a backdoor slider that Fulmer accidentally delivered to the front door in the top of the third.

Sure, Fulmer’s pitch counts are an issue — for everyone, including the former All-Star himself. But no more so than Matthew Boyd’s league-worst 10.24 ERA through four starts as the staff’s presumptive No. 1 starter. Or the fact that Ivan Nova went on the injured list with tendinitis in his right arm after getting rocked in Friday’s 10-5 loss to the Indians, joining another veteran starter, Jordan Zimmerman, who never even made it out of summer camp.

Or the fact that the most talented and intriguing arms remain under lock and key at the Tigers’ “alternate training location” in Toledo, waiting for the green light. Or the white flag, I suppose, depending on your perception of the organizational philosophy that’s at play here with top prospect Casey Mize.

BOX SCORE: Indians 8, Tigers 5

Gardenhire, who grew testy with repetitive questions about Mize’s status prior to Saturday’s game, was in a slightly better mood Sunday morning, even if he was still playing coy about the Tigers’ rotation plan this week as they head to Chicago for a four-game series against the White Sox.

Boyd is scheduled to start Monday night’s game opposite Chicago’s Gio Gonzalez. Turnbull, who has the Tigers’ only two quality starts through 19 games, is slated to pitch the series finale Thursday afternoon. As for Tuesday and Wednesday, Gardenhire shrugged, “We’re still figuring out the other two.”

Lefty Daniel Norris, who has been used in a piggyback role thus far, could be an option to start one of those games. So could Rony Garcia or Anthony Castro, who was called up Saturday to take Nova’s roster spot.

But there’s no excuses left – not even the service-time manipulation the Tigers can’t publicly admit – for not calling up Mize to start a game in Chicago. Avila offered up a few in an interview with MLB Radio on Friday, talking about wanting to get Mize, the former No. 1 overall pick, and other top prospects like Tarik Skubal and Matt Manning “more work” in Toledo and “not just throw them in the fire” in this shortened big-league season.

Yet at some point – and Avila is expected to speak with the media Monday afternoon – they have to admit they’re delaying Mize’s development in Toledo in the absence of a minor-league season. C.J. Cron’s season-ending surgery gives them an easy, if unfortunate, opportunity to add Mize to the 40-man roster now as well. And Wednesday’s game in Chicago would appear to line up perfectly for Mize, who reportedly pitched Friday in a rain-shortened intrasquad game in Toledo.

The Tigers could’ve — and probably should’ve – had Mize make his major-league debut against the White Sox this past week in Detroit, rather than sending lefty Tyler Alexander out against that lineup overloaded with right-handed hitters. But once again, they kept the fans – and the manager, whose impatience has been audible for more than a month now — waiting again.

“When it’s time, and when it’s his time,” Gardenhire said this weekend, asked about Mize, “I’m sure Al Avila will let you guys know.”

Enough already. It’s time. 

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