Do Al Avila and A.J. Hinch deserve a mulligan for this Detroit Tigers season?

Detroit Free Press

Let’s not forget where all this started — with playoff talk from just about everyone, but most notably from Al Avila and A.J. Hinch.

The Detroit Tigers’ general manager and manager, respectively, were coming off a promising 2021 season bolstered by free-agent additions and the promise of two potential rookie stars. They didn’t shy away from the p-word. In fact, they leaned into it.

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“We expect to go to the playoffs,” Avila said in March. “That’s our goal. A.J. has stated it very clearly — we expect to be in the playoffs. We’re setting the bar high.”

On Thursday afternoon at Comerica Park, before the Tigers started their final 100-game stretch of the regular season and shortly after Hinch conducted his pregame availability, Avila walked into the dugout. I kidded Avila that he had waited until almost every reporter had left, then I asked him how he was.

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Then I asked him how he was. He looked out at the field, with players taking batting practice on a hot but beautiful day. Then he let out a little groan. I felt for the guy.

It was 92 degrees, but Avila, Hinch and the entirety of this club is probably feeling a lot more heat than that these days.

If playoffs were the expectation in March, it’s hard to tell what it is now. The Tigers entered Thursday at 24-38 before starting a four-game series at home against the Texas Rangers, followed by a slate of eight road games in 10 days.

I was about 90% accurate in predicting what Hinch’s answer would be when I asked him what a reasonable goal is for the next 100 games.

“To win today,” he said, making me regret I didn’t place a bet on his answer. “That’s it. That’s all we’re worried is about today. I know I get asked that a lot, and we’ll continue to urge everyone to accept the answer. Like we’re not consumed with how many games are left. We’re going to try to win today.”

It’s fair because that’s baseball. It’s a pitch-by-pitch, game-by-game, seven-month slog over 162 games. No one can afford to look too far ahead or behind.

“I think you just want to continue to put good games together,” catcher Tucker Barnhart said, “good stretches of baseball together, clean baseball.

“Putting a number, win-loss total, I think it’s a lot of games to kind of do that. I mean, if you were talking 10 games, I think that would be a little different. But with 100 games, I think you’ve just got to figure out a way to approach each game. It’s as cliché as it gets and everybody says each game is its own season in a way and you have to be able to do whatever you can to win that day.”

Things are tender around the Tigers these days, especially on Thursday, about 24 hours removed from a shameful 13-0 loss to the Chicago White Sox that Hinch called “the low point for a lot of people, including myself.”

The players called a 30-minute team meeting after the game and talked it out. Thursday afternoon, you wouldn’t have guessed there was anything amiss inside the clubhouse. Justin Bieber’s “Yummy” was playing on the speakers and an epic ping-pong tournament was raging.

“We just were all talking,” Barnhart said of the meeting. “It was very chill. It was just kind of checking in with everybody.

“It wasn’t anything — there was zero angst or anything like that. We all left the cage laughing. We’re in a good spot with everybody in this room. We all believe in each other and excited to play.”

If you’re a frustrated Tigers fan — OK, is there another kind? — chill dudes vibing on Bieber and ping-pong is probably the last thing you want to hear about. You want blood. You want accountability. You want these overpaid, millionaire, so-and-so athletes to feel your pain and act like they give a damn.

The problem is this is baseball. It’s a marathon of metrics and hot streaks and success but mostly failure. Getting angry, flipping tables and throwing chairs really doesn’t do anyone any good. Calm, controlled focus is the only way the game can be played. Hinch went so far as to say he was proud of the players taking the initiative to talk things through.

“Yeah, I think it’s great,” he said. “I think anytime players bounce things off of themselves it’s a good thing. When I came in after the media (news conference on Wednesday) they were (gathering) together and talking things through. That’s good. I’m proud.”

There’s another side to the way the players handled the meeting. It demonstrated a maturity that has also been evident on the field, where players have handled their failures and frustrations well. No one has pouted, failed to hustle or responded to the jeering at Comerica Park — even Javier Baez, who has become a favorite target of the boo birds.

“It’s one of those things where we get it,” reliever Michael Fulmer said. “It’s not unexpected. It’s not we don’t think we don’t deserve that. It’s none of that.

“I think the group of guys in this clubhouse, from a personality standpoint, is really something special, and we know that we aren’t playing like we can and like we should. We’re all disappointed here as well.”

I asked Hinch who deserves credit for the players controlling their emotions, and his answer revealed something about what his true expectations are for this team.

“Well, the players know that we have more talent than what any record would indicate or any number on a scoreboard would indicate,” he said. “We have a group of guys that can win today’s game and leave today better than we were yesterday. So I’m proud of the players.

“Our team is tight and we have a good group, we have a group that’s together. We’re not pointing fingers, no one’s blaming coaches, manager, players. We’re all responsible. So I think the makeup of this team is one of the strengths that has to pull us out of this performance that none of us are happy with.”

It’s clear Hinch still believes there’s enough talent on the team, even through all the injuries, to win more consistently. And he isn’t the only one. Fulmer went a step — if not an entire leap — further in the belief in his teammates.

“This team obviously has been decimated by injuries and stuff,” he said. “But you look around this clubhouse, you see the names, you see the faces, you see the players; we’ve got more than enough talent to go get these things done. And we should.

“And I think that’s the mindset in the clubhouse is that we’re just not playing our best ball right now. But our goal is still the same. I think we’re in a spot that’s attainable to go, and go for playoff contention, and who knows what happens from there?”

Yep. He said it. He said the p-word. And I swear I didn’t lead him there. And yes, it’s a little far-fetched, though not impossible.

Maybe if they get some key players back from injury and the offense starts clicking, there’s a slight chance they could threaten for the sixth and final playoff spot. Going by last year’s standings, that would require 91 wins, which means they would have to win a .670 clip the rest of the season.

Not impossible, but highly, highly improbable.

I think a more realistic and modest goal would be to match last year’s record of 77-85. They would only have to post a .530 winning percentage. It wouldn’t add up to a great season, but a team at .530 is good and competitive most of the time. It would at least be a face-saving finish after a disastrous start.

To be fair, we should note that the Tigers entered Thursday with 769 days lost to injury, fourth-most in the majors according to Spotrac. Two of the three teams ahead of them have worse records. Last year, when the Tigers took a promising step, they had the 10th-fewest days lost to injury.

Yes, the team has definitely underperformed this season, but injuries come down to luck. I won’t go as far as to say Avila and Hinch deserve a mulligan for this season — yet — but we should take into account something that’s beyond their control. You don’t have to forget where this all started, but you should also remember that.

Contact Carlos Monarrez at cmonarrez@freepress.com and follow him on Twitter @cmonarrez.

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