Niyo: Despite momentum, makeover, Tigers still stuck in frustratingly familiar territory

Detroit News

Detroit — It had been nearly two full weeks — 12 days, to be exact — since the Tigers felt good leaving the ballpark. Not since the calendar still said April, in fact.

That was the last time AJ Hinch and his team were able to win a game and actually quit while they were ahead. Prior to Thursday’s series finale with Oakland, the Tigers had two wins in their last 11 outings, but both of those came in the first half of a doubleheader.

So you can understand how they might’ve gotten their hopes up this time, after Miguel Cabrera clobbered a first-pitch fastball to the wall in right field for a double in the bottom of the sixth inning, scoring Jeimer Candelario from third base to tie a game the Tigers had trailed, 3-0, before their first at-bat.

“At that point, I mean, all of us felt a ton better,” said Hinch, the Tigers’ manager. “We’ve got good pitching at the end of the game, and we’ve got an opportunity to put some pressure on them a little bit. … But we didn’t.”

No, instead, it was the Tigers that would feel the pressure in the late innings. Michael Fulmer — the reliever who’d been nearly perfect in April — served up a two-out, two-run homer to the A’s Seth Brown in the top of the eighth. And the Tigers’ bats fell silent once more, set down in order with eight straight outs — from leadoff man Robbie Grossman to rookie Spencer Torkelson in the No. 8 spot — to end the game.

“So, again,” Hinch said, in a very brief postgame summation, “just a different way to lose.”

And, again, the Tigers find themselves in this painfully familiar spot, one-fifth of the way through their season and just one loss away from matching last year’s abysmal 9-24 start.

It’s a start that no one could’ve — or should’ve — expected after the way the Tigers rallied last season, with a 68-61 record after the first week of May. Or after the way they upgraded the roster over the winter: signing Javier Báez in free agency, trading for Austin Meadows, promoting top prospect Spencer Torkelson and so on.

Yet inexplicably, it’s one they’ve managed to duplicate, with an anemic offense that has scored just 88 runs (the fewest in the league) and ranks at or near the bottom in a mind-numbing list of team batting categories.

Not looking back

They also sit in last place in the A.L. Central, already nine games behind the division-leading Minnesota Twins, the same hole they dug behind the White Sox a year ago.

Not that Hinch cares to relive any of that, mind you.

As he put it prior to Thursday’s game, “I’m not interested in looking in the rearview mirror.”

Afterward, having watched his team lose for the 15th time in 18 games, he was saying much the same, only with a little more bite.

“I don’t care about last year,” Hinch said. “I don’t care to compare. And I get it: Everybody wants an analysis. But I gotta figure out how to beat the Orioles tomorrow. We’re tired of losing.”

They should be by now, with just one series win in 10 tries this spring, including this five-game set to open a get-well homestand against the league’s two lowest-payroll teams in Oakland and Baltimore.

The A’s came in riding a nine-game losing streak, and yet even with their strip-mined roster they managed to take four of five from the Tigers, pitching two shutouts and nearly a third.

All of which made Thursday’s start even more daunting as Beau Brieske, one of the rookie arms filling in for injured starters Casey Mize and Matt Manning, struggled out of the gate. He allowed three singles and a walk, and he compounded things with his own fielding error in a 35-pitch first inning that stakes the A’s to a 3-0 lead.

But that’s not exactly new territory for the Tigers, who’ve been outscored 19-6 in the first inning this season (also worst in the league) and didn’t muster a hit until the third inning Thursday.

And while the fans are busy looking for scapegoats — hitting coach Scott Coolbaugh’s a popular choice of late — Hinch doesn’t want to hear any of that.

“We all have a part in this,” he said Thursday during his weekly appearance on 97.1 The Ticket. “And we all are gonna have a part in getting us out of this.”

Short on solutions

Hinch keeps saying he’s focused only on “finding solutions.” But watching the Tigers flailing at the plate these days, it sure doesn’t feel like are many to be found here. Same goes for Toledo, where infielder Kody Clemens is probably the only viable option at the moment.

Hinch did offer some encouraging news on Riley Greene’s injury rehab Thursday, saying the rookie outfielder was headed for a checkup in the hopes of resuming baseball activity this weekend, 40 days after suffering a broken foot at the end of spring training. But Greene’s MLB debut is still at least a month away, and the Tigers can’t wait much longer to find a spark here.

Nor can they expect one roster move to make a huge difference. Not when the team’s combined OPS is under .600 and so many of the veterans are struggling like this. As Hinch noted Thursday, “I caution everybody to not say this guy’s the savior, whether it’s Kody or anybody else.”

Likewise, Hinch, who owns a World Series ring from his time in Houston and a psychology degree from his days at Stanford, also keeps cautioning his players not to try to save the team with each at-bat. But he knows that’s easier said than done, and Thursday’s loss provided one more example.

Fulmer hadn’t allowed a home run since last August, a streak that covered 29 relief appearances as a reliable late-inning stopper. But pitching on back-to-back days for only the third time this season, he didn’t have the same life on his fastball when he came in from the bullpen to pitch the eighth inning. And after following two quick outs with a walk, Fulmer then made one bad pitch that ultimately cost the Tigers the game.

Later, in the Tigers’ clubhouse, I asked him if he sensed the tension rising amid all this losing, particularly these last two weeks.

“I think it’s a little bit of added pressure, some unwarranted pressure,” he said. “We don’t need to add any pressure. But sometimes games like that, with the way that we’ve been playing, you want to go out there and put up a zero. And today I wasn’t able to do that. …

“I just feel like the pressure today wasn’t what I needed to put on myself, and I did ultimately try to be a little too perfect. It just didn’t work out.”

As for whether they can work things out, though, Fulmer didn’t flinch.

“I think it’s a little tougher (to take) this year than it was last year,” he said. “But we’ve got the names, the team, the guys to do it. … Nobody’s counting this team out in this clubhouse.”

Maybe not, but as the losses keeping piling up in the rearview mirror, it’s getting harder for everyone else not to.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @JohnNiyo

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