Detroit Tigers dig deeper into hole with every loss. Here’s how things went south so quickly

Detroit Free Press

The Detroit Tigers celebrated Miguel Cabrera’s 3,00th hit in a team win.

The offense scored 13 runs and tallied 20 hits in a 13-0 victory over the Colorado Rockies at Comerica Park. Left-hander Tarik Skubal pitched six scoreless innings. The bullpen did the same for the final three frames. The defense posted a zero in the error column.

“We showed up today,” A.J. Hinch said. “It was our best collective game across the board. We all had a lot of fun.”

That was April 23.

A lot has changed since then.

“When we’re winning, the clubhouse has a different energy,” Jonathan Schoop said Tuesday, after the Tigers split a doubleheader with the Oakland Athletics. “When we’re losing, it’s not fun. … I hope that we’re going to start winning. We got to put it together.”

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Since Cabrera’s big hit, the Tigers have dropped 16 of 19 games. They went from 6-7 to 9-23, the worst record in the American League and 9½ games back of the first-place Minnesota Twins in the AL Central. The offense scores the least in baseball: 2.75 runs per games. Slugging is down league-wide, and the baseballs aren’t flying the same as they used to, but the Tigers sit in last with 12 home runs. The defense hasn’t met expectations, costing the Tigers several chances to win during the frustrating 19-game stretch. The highlight is the pitching department, especially the bullpen.

The Tigers may not be  a bad team, but they’re playing bad baseball.

“We should be better and we will be better,” Hinch said after Wednesday’s 9-0 loss to the A’s. “It feels like it’s never going to end because of how long this has lasted. … We have not found solutions. Rather than talk about problems, we got to try to find some solutions.”

For some reality: The Tigers’ goal — after rebuilding since 2017 — is to make the postseason this season. General manager Al Avila has said it. Hinch has said it. The players have said it. To get there, a team usually needs about 90 wins. For the Tigers to get to 90 wins, they need to finish 81-49, a .623 winning percentage.

After last year’s 9-24 start, the Tigers finished 68-61 for a .527 winning percentage. They weren’t even within striking distance down the stretch, eliminated from the playoffs Sept. 19.

Just like last season, it’s mid-May and the Tigers need to start winning — only at an even higher clip than 2021 for the final four months to make the playoffs. Following Wednesday’s loss, Hinch focused on Thursday’s series finale.

“We need to win tomorrow’s game,” Hinch said Wednesday. “All that matters is tomorrow’s game.”

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On Thursday, the Tigers lost, 5-3. Swings from Jeimer Candelario and Miguel Cabrera produced back-to-back extra-base hits in the sixth inning. Candelario, who tripled, scored on Cabrera’s 601st career double to tie the game. In the eighth, the ever-reliable Michael Fulmer allowed a two-run homer.

The Cincinnati Reds own the worst record in baseball, at 7-24. The Tigers are 1½ games ahead.

“We’re going to try to win tomorrow,” Hinch said Thursday. “That’s what’s important. I don’t care about last year. I don’t care about the comparing. I get it. Everybody wants an analysis. I got to figure out how to beat the (Baltimore) Orioles tomorrow. We’re tired of losing.”

How Tigers got here

After the Rockies won the final two games of the “Miggy 3,000” series, the Tigers traveled for a six-game road trip against the Minnesota Twins and Los Angeles Dodgers. The Tigers lost both series: 0-3 vs. the Twins and 1-2 vs. the Dodgers, outscored 29-14 in the six games.

Losing the first game April 26 in Minneapolis stung; the Tigers handed a win to a team from their division.

A line-drive single from Miguel Sano clipped Robbie Grossman’s glove and rolled to the wall. Two runners scored on the play, as catcher Eric Haase made a crucial throwing error. He sailed the ball into left field during a rundown. The Tigers lost, 5-4, in walk-off fashion.

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Two days later, the Tigers’ defense made three errors — two in a four-run fifth inning — and let the Twins to complete the sweep.

“I don’t think anybody in here is talking about the weather,” catcher Tucker Barnhart said April 28 . “That’s not for us to talk about. We got to play baseball in whatever conditions we’re given. They’re playing in the same things we are, so the weather isn’t really the problem. We just got to play better, all the way around. I hate to say that and give you a bad answer, but it’s God’s honest truth.”

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Warmer weather kicked in when the Tigers arrived in Los Angeles.

“I just think we’re happy to not be wearing parkas and long sleeves,” Hinch said April 29.

The Dodgers shelled Tyler Alexander for four runs on two home runs in the first game. It was Alexander’s most recent outing, as he landed on the 15-day injured list with a left elbow sprain. The Tigers snapped a six-game losing streak with a 5-1 win in the second game, only to lose (with two errors) in the May 1 rubber match.

“Our reality is we make a critical mistake or two every game,” Hinch said May 1, “and it’s costing us right now. Day off tomorrow, got a quick little home stand and we’ll get back at it.”

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The Tigers split two games May 4 with the Pittsburgh Pirates at Comerica Park. Questions about the offensive production from Candelario and Schoop intensified. At the time, Candelario was hitting .188 and Schoop had a .136 average. The Tigers still weren’t swinging on all cylinders.

A trip to Houston, Hinch’s home city, didn’t spark a fix.

The Astros swept the four-game series.

A two-run home run from Candelario injected life into the Tigers, down to their final strike, on May 5 in the first game of the series. But closer Gregory Soto gave up a walk-off single to Kyle Tucker in the bottom of the ninth.

Beau Brieske started the second game. He has proven he belongs in the big leagues, but in his third MLB start, the Astros’ three-run second inning was enough to beat the two-run, two-hit Tigers. In the third contest, Fulmer blew a one-run lead in the eighth inning.

All three losses were 3-2.

In the finale, the Astros one-hit the Tigers for a 5-0 win.

“Schoop and Candy, they’re going to hit,” Haase said after the sweep. “We need those guys to get hot. There’s no secret. I know they’re sick of lining out at people, as well. Once those guys start clicking, it takes a little pressure off Tork (Spencer Torkelson) and some of the other guys further down the lineup.

“But I don’t think anybody’s pressing the panic button. We know it’s a long season, and those guys are going to hit. It’s all they’ve ever done. Trying to lean on that a little bit.”

By this point, the Tigers already had the worst record in the AL.

“We need to play better,” Hinch said Sunday. “We’ve got to try to fix this over the long haul. It’ll start with one game. We have not played a really good, clean game where we’ve come out on top in a while. This was a terrible series. We have not played well consistently.”

In the past four days, the Tigers lost four of five to the Athletics, second to last in the AL West, at Comerica Park. The offense has been blanked in three of the past six contests, and in the first game against the A’s, Hinch and Javier Báez were ejected for arguing balls and strikes in the ninth inning.

Frustration seemed to boil over.

The problem was and still is the offense.

“There’s growing frustrating across the board,” Hinch said Monday. “We’re getting beat in relatively close games, for the most part, and we expect more of ourselves. We’ll come back tomorrow.”

‘Everything is contagious’

The results of 10 series are in the books this season.

The Tigers ended up on the winning end once, finishing 6-11 in April and off to a 3-11 start in May. A 79 wRC+ (weighted runs created plus), entering Thursday, ranks the offense 28th in MLB; the league-average is 100.

For an idea of individual performances, two players with more than 90 plate appearances are above league average: Austin Meadows (130) and Robbie Grossman (101). The Tigers acquired Meadows on April 4, four days before the regular season, in a trade with the Tampa Bay Rays.

“It is what it is,” Meadows said Monday. “We’re definitely scuffling up there, but that’s part of it. It’s a long season. I think we’re starting to see better at-bats from guys, seeing more pitches, working better counts, working better at-bats. Hopefully, that’ll flip the script for us, and we’ll be able to start doing some damage and scoring some runs.”

Five players are below average: Cabrera (92), Báez (83), Candelario (70), Torkelson (67) and Schoop (26). The Tigers have a .080 isolated power percentage and a .301 slugging percentage, at the bottom of baseball in both categories.

Torkelson, the 2020 No. 1 overall pick, is hitting .146 with three home runs, 14 walks and 35 strikeouts in 29 games. His strikeout rate, 33.7%, is uncharacteristic for his talent. He needs to escape his slump soon to avoid a demotion to Triple-A Toledo.

But Torkelson leads the team in homers, despite not hitting one since Cabrera’s 3,000th hit game. After Cabrera’s milestone hit, the rookie Torkelson homered to drive in the 20-year veteran.

“Everything is contagious,” Torkelson said Wednesday. “Hitting is contagious. Defense is contagious. Pitching is contagious. Winning is contagious. It’s just about finding our stride. Once everything starts clicking, everyone’s going to get going at the same time.”

Candelario is hitting .211; Schoop lingers behind at .147.

The good news for the Tigers: Candelario is hitting .313 with one triple, three doubles and two home runs in his past 13 games. Schoop has a .227 batting average with one double and one homer in his past six games.

“You got to look at the guy in the batter’s box,” Hinch said Tuesday about Schoop. “Don’t look at the numbers. The numbers aren’t going to correct for a while. But the batter’s box is telling us that he’s doing a lot better things. … These guys need hits. You can encourage them, you can hug them, you can love on them. What they need is hits.”

With hits, runs will follow.

And the Tigers desperately need both. There are 130 games remaining, so a comeback is possible, but to the advance to the postseason, the Tigers probably need to win about 63% of their schedule the rest of the way. The hole they’ve dug is only getting deeper with every loss.

“We have a goal,” Candelario said April 27, “and the goal is to clinch.”

Contact Evan Petzold at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold. Read more on the Detroit Tigers and sign up for our Tigers newsletter.

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