For Tigers, 2020 was an irredeemable, almost forgettable slog

Detroit News

Chris McCosky
| The Detroit News

Detroit — It rained on the last day of the regular season. Of course it did. How else would such a dismal, woebegone baseball season end but in an empty Kauffman Stadium after an hour and a half rain delay, with a Tigers lineup that featured seven players who spent most or a part of the season playing intrasquad games in Toledo mustering three hits in a 3-1 loss?

The final three outs of the season were strikeouts. That seemed poetic at the time.

There was very little to redeem this 58-game slog of a season. From March 13, when the COVID-19 pandemic first shuttered baseball activities, to the death of Mr. Tiger, Al Kaline, on April 6, to the sudden retirement of manager Ron Gardenhire on through to that last strikeout in Kansas City on Sept. 27 — it was mostly a two-month misery ride with precious few pockets of joy.

Ten players made their big-league debuts, including top prospects Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal, Isaac Paredes and Daz Cameron. That would be encouraging, probably, if another 10 players hadn’t made their debuts in 2019. It just seemed redundant.

►There was some significant action on Miguel Cabrera’s milestone watch: He now sits 31st among the game’s home run leaders (477) and 47th on the hit chart (2,866) — with 500 homers and 3,000 hits now squarely in his sights.

There were, scattered about, a few other happy memories in 2020:

►A couple of them happened in summer camp. Two former No. 1 draft picks — Derek Hill and Riley Greene — were taking turns making highlight-reel catches. Hill made a spinning, over-the-shoulder diving catch in center that had teammates buzzing for weeks. Greene made a running leap over the fence in left to take a home run away from C.J. Cron.

►The Tigers homered in seven straight games to start the season and on Aug. 8, banged out four home runs in the first inning in Pittsburgh before an out was recorded — a franchise first. Niko Goodrum, Cabrera, Cron and Jeimer Candelario all took veteran lefty Derek Holland deep.

►When Cabrera came to bat in the first inning on July 28, the Royals positioned all seven fielders on the outfield grass. The first ever seven-man outfield alignment. We would have loved to hear Cabrera’s take on it, but he didn’t grant any Zoom interviews until the final week of the season, and then only if Tigers’ interpreter Carlos Guillen conducted the interview, using questions submitted by beat writers. Sub-optimal, but like the entire 2020 season, better than nothing.

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►On Aug. 8, Tyler Alexander made club history by striking out nine straight Reds hitters — the most by a Tigers reliever. He ended up with 10 in 32/3 innings.

►Alexander was involved in another rarity on Sept. 18. In a scoreless tie against Cleveland, he was struggling with his control and had loaded the bases with a pair of walks in the fourth. Jose Ramirez, with two outs, tried to pull off a straight steal of home. Alexander calmly stepped off the mound and threw him out at the plate.

“My first reaction was, ‘Thank you,’” Alexander said after. “I don’t want to say it was dumb but it didn’t seem like the right time to do it.”

►The Tigers unleased a seven-run fourth inning in Cleveland on Aug. 21 — capped by Paredes’ first big-league homer. The 10-5 win that day ended a 20-game losing streak to the baseball team formerly known as the Indians.

►Rookie infielder Sergio Alcantara’s first big-league at-bat came in Target Field on Sept. 6 against veteran lefty Rich Hill. In seven minor-league seasons, covering 631 games and 2,611 plate appearances, he’d hit just nine home runs. Guess what he did on the first pitch he saw from Hill? Yep, line drive home run to left field.

►On Sept. 11, Mize gave a glimpse of his elite potential, pitching five no-hit innings against the White Sox.

Of malady and malaise

But those smiles were few and far between, often followed by another malady and another losing streak.

►It was just two days after that four-home run first inning in Pittsburgh, the Tigers were 9-5 and riding a four-game winning streak, when Cron went down with a season-ending knee injury.

They lost nine straight after that.

►When they beat the Brewers 12-1 on Sept. 1, they were riding a six-game winning streak. They had moved above .500, 17-16, and were a half-game out of a wild-card spot. But in the sixth inning of that game, JaCoby Jones was lost for the season when his left wrist was broken by an errant fastball from Brewers rookie Phil Bickford.

The Tigers went 6-19 the rest of the way.

On Sept. 15, the Tigers executed a clean, 6-0 win over the Royals at Comerica Park to give Gardenhire his 1,200th career managerial victory. It would also be his last managerial win.

Four days later, Gardenhire and general manager Al Avila appeared together on a pre-game Zoom chat to announce that Gardy was retiring, effective immediately.

Earlier in the day, Gardenhire gave his daily press briefing and there was no indication that this was coming, although there had been countless indications throughout the year that this was going to be his last season in Detroit. His contract was up and the stress and grind of this season in particular had took a toll on his health.

A month earlier, Hall of Famer Jack Morris popped on one of the Zoom chats to tell him, apropos of nothing being discussed, to hang in there and take care of yourself.

“For what it’s worth, I’m pulling for you, kid,” Morris said. “You just keep smiling. It’s a crazy world. Hang in there.”

Asked about that exchange, Gardenhire tried to brush it off.

“I’m a little worn out,” he said. “Traveling wears you down and the thought of this COVID stuff — that’s on my mind a lot. Other than that, I’m good to go.”

Pressed further, he said:

“It’s very difficult. I love these guys here. You rely on them and my coaches, all of them, to do the right thing. You’re traveling around with this COVID thing all over the place, you see what’s happened to other teams — it’s definitely a different year.

“It’s a hard year and we’re just trying to get through it. I think that’s about as good as I can put it. It’s not easy.”

Shining through the gloom

So when Gardenhire and Avila appeared on that hastily arranged video conference on Sept. 19, and hearing the sadness in his voice as he explained that he had to leave now for health reasons, it was both a surprise and, honestly, not that surprising.

But true to form, Gardenhire’s biggest worry that day was that his players would think he was jumping ship and giving up on them. Nothing could be further from the truth, as player after player attested in the days that followed the announcement.

“He’s one of my favorite human beings,” Daniel Norris said. “The biggest thing that he didn’t need to say, but he did repeat it a few times, was, ‘I hope and pray you don’t think I’m walking out on you.’ And I can promise you we did not think that. That didn’t even cross anybody’s mind. But that’s just a testament to who he is as a person.”

The Tigers have since hit the managerial lottery. Against long odds, they have hired AJ Hinch, a 2017 World Series ring on his finger from his run with the Astros, to steer the organization out of the morass and back to prominence.

But let’s not let the excitement and optimism that comes with a new direction dampen or denude the work that Gardenhire and his staff did the last three years. A foundation was set, from the bottom rungs of the minor leagues on up, in terms of playing fundamentally sound baseball, playing aggressively, showing up every day ready to compete and most of all, to enjoy every minute that you are allowed the privilege of playing this game.

And that foundation was set in the midst of one of the most aggressive roster teardowns in recent history.

What shone brightest was the patient and indefatigable teaching and steadfast optimism that Gardenhire and his staff — pitching coach Rick Anderson, bullpen coach Jeff Pico, bench coach Lloyd McClendon, hitting coach Joe Vavra, assistant hitting coach Phil Clark, outfield coach Dave Clark and infield coach Ramon Santiago — brought every day.

Twitter @cmccosky

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