Detroit — Tigers manager AJ Hinch has seen this steamroller in action before. He drove it for five years, all the way to a World Series title in 2017.
“They’re a challenge,” Hinch said of the Houston Astros, who rode a 10-game winning streak into Comerica Park Thursday. “Especially when they get as hot as they’ve been.”
There is a blueprint for at least slowing them down, and Hinch has a copy.
“This is a very momentum-driven team,” he said. “You’ve got to win the early innings then put a lot of pressure on them the rest of the game. You have to beat them at baseball. The more you limit your mistakes, the better chance you have.”
The Tigers Thursday night took that blueprint and torched it. They played one of their sloppiest games in recent weeks and become fodder for the Astros’ 11th straight win, 12-3.
“It was clearly not our night,” Hinch said. “We did a lot of things wrong that we can work on.”
Limit your mistakes? Not on this night. Second baseman Willi Castro made two errors, the first led to a pair of unearned runs off starter Jose Urena in the second inning and got the ball rolling for the Astros.
The third inning was a defensive disaster. After Michael Brantley led off with a single, Yuli Gurriel hit a bouncing ball up the middle that bounced off shortstop Harold Castro’s glove. After a force out, Carlos Correa singled in a run. Kyle Tucker followed with a ground ball that deflected off Urena to Harold Castro, who didn’t have a play.
With the bases loaded, Urena hit Kyle Tucker with an 0-2 pitch to force in another run.
Urena didn’t survive the fourth, giving up two more runs.
“If you hit guys and walk a couple and then throw in an error and they’re going to exploit it,” Hinch said. “They’re one of the best offensive teams in the league.”
The Tigers could be asking some hard questions organizationally about the immediate future of Urena. He has lasted just 9.2 innings over his last three starts, yielding 21 runs (18 earned). In his last four starts, after missing a start with a forearm cramp, he’s allowed 21 earned runs in 14.2 innings.
“The way he’s throwing is a concern,” Hinch said. “We’d like him to be better and work deeper into games. But he’s going to keep working. He hasn’t looked the same since his injury, but he says he’s healthy.
“He got up to 95 (mph with his fastball) so the velocity is there. Though some come out a little less than that. I don’t know if it’s a mental or physical issue for him.”
The spin rate on Urena’s slider was down 271 rpm (12 percent) off his season average and down 171 rpm (8 percent) on his sinker and four-seam fastball.
“I feel good,” he said. “Sometimes you don’t feel like you have everything but overall I feel good…You just keep your head up and keep fighting out there. It’s just the game, you know. It’s a long season and you’re going to be up and down.
“It’s tough when you struggle, but you’ve got to keep your mind right and do the best you can.”
With three rookies in the rotation now, and veterans Matthew Boyd and Spencer Turnbull not expected back off the injured list until after the All-Star break, the Tigers were hoping Urena could provide some stability. But it’s not happening.
Lefty Tyler Alexander, who replaced Urena, could be an option to start but Hinch only used him for 1.1 innings and 42 pitches. Not exactly stretching him out.
Another option could be veteran right-hander Erasmo Ramirez, who is in the middle of a rehab assignment at Triple-A Toledo. Another veteran, right-hander Drew Hutchison, is not on the 40-man roster but he has been pitching well in the rotation at Toledo.
“Obviously, Jose is trying his best to navigate some of these lineups,” Hinch said. “But it’s been a struggle.”
Tigers fans (crowd announced at 12,656), some of whom apparently have been waiting almost two years to voice their displeasure with the Astros for stealing signs in 2017, saved all their ire for Correa. They booed him, and only him, lustily every time he came to the plate. He responded with three hits, a walk and three RBIs. His two-out, two-run bloop single plated two runs off Alexander in the fifth.
The Tigers’ head-scratching plays weren’t limited to defense. They loaded the bases with one out against Astros starter Luis Garcia in the fourth inning. Harold Castro, grinding through an eight-pitch at-bat, took a ball in the dirt. It caromed off catcher Maldonado and then hit Castro in the bill of his helmet and stayed near the batter’s box.
Nomar Mozara, though, lost track of the ball and was halfway to third base when he realized Jeimer Candelario was still there. Maldonado threw him out trying to scramble back to second. Rally thwarted.
The lone positive for the Tigers was rookie Akil Baddoo. Hitting in the leadoff spot for the second straight game (Miguel Cabrera was not in the lineup and Robbie Grossman hit third), he singled in the first and then doubled in the Tigers first run in the third, extending his hitting streak to 10 games.
He added another double in the fifth. He’s 15 for 36 in his last 10 games.
Former Astros prospect Daz Cameron, who came to the Tigers with catcher Jake Rogers in the Justin Verlander trade in 2017, dropped an RBI double into shallow left field in sixth inning for the Tigers’ second run.
The Tigers ended up using Harold Castro to get the final two outs in the ninth after Yordan Alvarez bashed a grand slam into the visitor’s bullpen off Bryan Garcia. It was Castro’s third scoreless relief appearance this season.
Hinch said after the game that lefty Daniel Norris had been sent home. He is battling a non-COVID illness.
Watching this one, it seems unfathomable the Tigers swept a three-game series from the Astros in Houston back in April. Since then, though, the Astros have been on a 40-18 tear.