Detroit Tigers manager AJ Hinch doesn’t like accepting moral victories or silver linings. The 2017 World Series winner with the highest managerial winning percentage in Houston Astros history, Hinch views the game in two ways.
You win or you lose.
The Tigers have done more losing than winning this season, with a 21-31 record. They’re in last place in the American League Central and on pace for their third 64-98 record in the past five seasons, but Hinch’s team played a better brand of baseball in May.
“We’re going to post and we’re going to play our 27 outs,” Hinch said. “It’s going to be our identity. This is going to be our culture, and our players are buying in. Credit to those guys for showing up daily and having a game plan on how we’re going to be successful.
“Have we been successful enough? Not yet. But it is fun to experience the good times when we put it all together.”
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The improvement started challenging the Boston Red Sox for three consecutive games on May 3-5. The Tigers lost two of the three games, but scored 22 runs in the series — a huge improvement from a miserable 17-game stretch (including 15 losses) from April 15 to May 2 in which the Tigers scored just 30 runs. They began winning games with singles and walks, minimizing the pain of too many strikeouts. They have made comebacks and fought for runs until the final out.
Sometimes they win, sometimes they lose.
“Chances are better than no chances, I’ll tell you that,” Hinch said. “I mean, you want to give yourself as many opportunities as you can, and then you get a big hit. The more chances you give yourself, while you’ll be frustrated on the ones you don’t get performance on, you’re going to come out of it better.”
The Tigers have been far better in May than in April, when the offense went into hibernation and refused to wake up. Still, the offense hasn’t been perfect: The Tigers still haven’t scored 10 runs in a game and they lack even one consistent power threat.
But Hinch’s winning culture is setting in.
“What a winning culture does is it puts the entire game in a completely different perspective,” Hinch said. “When we fall behind early, it’s just ‘find a way to get a run.’ When you’re losing, it feels like, ‘Oh, here we go again.’ There’s a drastic difference between those two mindsets and those two cultures.”
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The Tigers swept the Kansas City Royals at Comerica Park from May 11-13. Utility player Harold Castro ripped a walk-off single May 15 against the Chicago Cubs. Behind elite starting pitching — including Spencer Turnbull’s no-hitter — the Tigers swept the Seattle Mariners.
Miguel Cabrera’s two home runs — including a grand slam — propelled the Tigers to a 7-5 win over the Royals on May 21 at Kauffman Stadium. They trailed by two entering the seventh inning but clawed back.
“In April, we may have conceded that game a little bit mentally and let it get away from us,” Hinch said the next afternoon. “Instead, we kept in the fight. I’m proud of the effort and the perspective that we’ve gained.”
The next day, the Tigers plated two runs in the ninth and got the winning run to the plate in a loss to the Royals on May 22. They were positioned to win May 23, but Carlos Santana launched a walk-off home run off Michael Fulmer. Since May 16, the bullpen is third-best in baseball, with a 1.63 ERA, led by Fulmer, Gregory Soto and Jose Cisnero.
Upon returning to Comerica Park, the Tigers loaded the bases in the ninth inning in consecutive games against Cleveland but came up short both times. Eric Haase missed a walk-off single because of a diving catch in a 6-5 loss May 24. The next day, the Tigers again stranded the bases loaded in the ninth and lost by three runs.
In the eighth inning Wednesday, a Niko Goodrum double, Jake Rogers sacrifice bunt and Robbie Grossman sacrifice fly delivered a 1-0 win against Cleveland. It was old school baseball in the purest form. Soto finished off the ninth for his fifth save.
Against the New York Yankees on Friday, the Tigers chased Gerrit Cole after six innings by increasing his pitch count, then got a walk-off homer from Grossman in the 10th inning for a 3-2 victory.
“I appreciate our guys’ effort,” Hinch said on May 24. “We’ve put up such better at bats than where we were a month ago, stayed in games and came back and made it interesting. We thought we were going to win the game up until the very last out. What you can ask of your team in the times you don’t win is to have that mindset. We’re working on that and getting better.”
The numbers support Hinch’s statement.
In 17 games from April 15-May 2, the Tigers hit .173 (89-for-513) with 30 runs, 30 walks and 186 strikeouts while going 2-15. That’s 1.8 runs, 1.8 walks and 10.9 strikeouts per game.
In the 23 games since — beginning with the series in Boston — the Tigers have hit .259 (204-for-787) with 107 runs, 85 walks and 225 strikeouts while going 13-10. That’s an average of 4.7 runs, 3.7 walks and 9.8 strikeouts per game.
“Everybody does a really good job late in the game and focuses for the whole game,” Cabrera said. “We don’t give anything away. We’re always fighting and trying to compete. That’s the most important thing, keep competing to have a chance to win in the ninth inning.”
When scoring four runs or more, the Tigers own a 17-7 record. The starting rotation has posted a combined 3.85 ERA, the 12th-best in baseball. Former No. 1 overall pick Casey Mize is developing into a frontline starter, and fellow rookie Tarik Skubal is tapping into his potential.
Hinch came to Detroit to build a winning culture.
Right now, that’s in its early stages.
“We know we’re in every game,” starting pitcher Matthew Boyd said. “We have a winning mentality, and we’ve really grown from these last few weeks. We’re learning from it and going forward. We’re in every game, and we believe it.”
Reliever Derek Holland added: “We’re knocking on the door. Here soon, we’re gonna kick that (expletive) thing down.”
‘We want to create options’
There’s another important aspect in the foundation of Hinch’s winning culture: Results matter.
Veterans JaCoby Jones, Victor Reyes, Buck Farmer and Joe Jimenez have all been sent to Triple-A after struggling in the majors.
“I think we need to have a standard here as the Tigers that performance does matter,” Hinch said. “This is a performance league. You want to push your guys just enough not to stress them out and not to over stress them, but there is accountability to playing at this level.
“There is a bar that needs to be raised, and if you don’t and we have solutions in other ways, we want to create options for ourselves.”
Jones and Reyes were demoted to Triple-A Toledo, with Reyes earning a recall on May 24.
Farmer — who opened the season as the second-longest tenured Tiger on the 40-man roster — was designated for assignment in early May. Former All-Star Joe Jimenez was cut from the Opening Day roster in spring training. He needed to grind his way back to the majors, where he still must prove his worth.
Hinch isn’t afraid to make changes at the major-league level, either. Wilson Ramos’ defensive struggles have opened a competition for the starting catcher spot. Once Ramos returns from his second stint on the injured list, expect Hinch to use him more often as the designated hitter.
Simply put, nothing is guaranteed without results.
“That doesn’t mean that every single player that struggles is going to get sent down as some sort of message,” Hinch said. “It means that we have to hold ourselves to a high bar at this level. When we have options and we have opportunities to feel like we can make ourselves better, then we’re going to do it.”
Evan Petzold is a sports reporter at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold. Read more on the Detroit Tigers and sign up for our Tigers newsletter.