McClendon set to lead Tigers down stretch

Detroit Tigers

DETROIT — Lloyd McClendon wanted so much to be the Tigers’ manager seven years ago. This was never the way he would have wanted it.
As McClendon walked into the Tigers’ clubhouse at Comerica Park on Sunday morning and settled into his new role as interim manager, he finally had

DETROIT — Lloyd McClendon wanted so much to be the Tigers’ manager seven years ago. This was never the way he would have wanted it.

As McClendon walked into the Tigers’ clubhouse at Comerica Park on Sunday morning and settled into his new role as interim manager, he finally had a chance to catch his breath. Everything happened so suddenly Saturday, from Ron Gardenhire’s immediate retirement to first pitch, that there was no time to process it.

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McClendon sensed there was a “real good chance” Gardenhire might retire at season’s end. He knew the stress of managing one of baseball’s youngest teams in the middle of a pandemic and all the protocols involved.

“It was a tough grind,” McClendon said. “This has been a very, very emotional season for all of us in a lot of ways, With the pandemic and all the other things that are going on in this country, it’s been really, really tough. This 60-game schedule in a lot of ways has seemed like a 175-game schedule.”

Still, McClendon didn’t imagine Gardenhire would retire Saturday before a game.

“It’s different, obviously,” McClendon said. “Gardy’s just such a lovable guy. He had a special relationship with all of us, and obviously him not being here is tough. But this is such a business that you’ve got to tighten up the belt buckle, and you have to go out and get it done. And that’s the attitude we take.”

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The 61-year-old McClendon has served as a coach under three Tigers managers since joining Jim Leyland’s staff as a bullpen coach and later hitting coach. The former Pirates manager was a finalist for Detroit’s managerial post after Leyland retired following the 2013 American League Championship Series, then took over as Mariners manager after Detroit hired Brad Ausmus. McClendon returned to the Tigers system as the Triple-A Toledo manager in 2016, then joined Ausmus’ staff as hitting coach a year later, a role he retained when Gardenhire came on board.

McClendon became Gardenhire’s bench coach this season, replacing the retired Steve Liddle, and filled in as manager for a couple games earlier this month while Gardenhire dealt with a stomach virus in Minnesota.

For at least the next week, this is McClendon’s job after the first in-season change at the Tigers’ managerial post since Luis Pujols replaced Phil Garner six games into the 2002 season. But McClendon isn’t simply playing out the string with a club still in a rebuild; he’s managing a team that’s still technically alive for a playoff berth. Saturday’s 5-2 win brought Detroit within 3.5 games of Toronto for the final AL Wild Card spot.

The Tigers have six games scheduled after Sunday, but they could make up last month’s postponed doubleheader against the Cardinals if it has postseason implications for either side.

Gardenhire said a couple days ago that the team would field the lineup that gives it the best chance to win every day, at least while the club was still mathematically in contention. That won’t change under McClendon.

“The lineups that we put together [are] designed with one thing in mind: That’s to try to win a ballgame,” McClendon said. “Obviously, we’re still in this race. As Yogi said, it’s not over until it’s over. We will put the lineup together in an effort to try to win a ballgame on a daily basis.”

Asked what that means for playing prospects versus more experienced players, McClendon smiled.

“They’re all young,” he said. “They’re going to play.”

As for after next week, McClendon said he has not talked with general manager Al Avila about the full-time job. The Tigers have interviewed at least one internal candidate each of the last few times the position has opened, but Avila hasn’t announced anything about the next search yet.

“Do I want to manage again? Obviously yes,” he said. “I would definitely have interest in this job, and Al and I will sit down and talk about that at the end of the year and see what happens.”

Jason Beck has covered the Tigers for MLB.com since 2002. Read Beck’s Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason.

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