Greg Eno

Archive for August, 2012|Monthly archive page

Monday Morning Manager: Week 21

In Baseball on August 27, 2012 at 2:34 pm

Last Week: 5-1

This Week: at KC (8/28-30; CWS 8/31-9/2)

So, What Happened?
It’s what didn’t happen that was rather frustrating.

The Tigers had a fine 5-1 week at home, but lost ground in the standings, because what didn’t happen was a White Sox loss—not a single one. Chicago had a 6-0 week.

Even manager Jim Leyland appears to be scoreboard-watching.

“We have to try to figure some way to play better than the White Sox,” the skipper said after Sunday’s 5-2 win over the Angels. “They’ve been answering every bell so far.”

Indeed.

MMM isn’t panicked, because there are still about six weeks left in the season, and a 2.5 game lead isn’t very big at this stage, but a White Sox loss on occasion would be rather nice. They haven’t lost since being swept in Kansas City a week ago last weekend.

As for the Tigers, pitching was the key to just about every victory last week—that, and two-out hitting.

The offense wasn’t exactly prolific, but it was enough to support one solid start after the other from Tigers starters. Even rookie Drew Smyly got into the act, making a spot start for Doug Fister on Saturday and going six strong.

The Angels had been hot coming into Detroit, their offense humming. But Tigers pitching shut down rookie sensation Mike Trout and slugger Mark Trumbo. The Angels were without Albert Pujols, out with an injured calf.

The week began with a low-scoring three-game sweep of the reeling Toronto Blue Jays, a team ravaged by injury and with only five wins in their past 27 games. The third victory was an exciting 3-2 walk-off win in extras, thanks to pinch-runner Quintin Berry’s stolen base and race home on Alex Avila’s single.

The only loss of the week was a tough 2-1 decision Friday night, a game in which Ricky Porcello pitched well and only had one “bad” inning.

A 5-1 week ought to have produced a gain in the standings, but last week it didn’t. All the Tigers can do is keep pitching and winning and maybe the Chisox will hit a cool spell.

Oh, and Anibal Sanchez even had a good start, so have faith, Tiger Nation!

Hero of the Week
MMM believes that Jhonny Peralta delivered one of the biggest hits of the season when he doubled home two runs in the eighth inning, with two outs, giving the Tigers a 4-3 lead on their way to a 5-3 win.

The White Sox were cruising to victory, as usual. The Tigers had fallen behind 3-0—thanks partially to Austin Jackson’s first error of the season—and were still trailing 3-2. A loss would have extended Chicago’s lead in the division to 3.5 games.

Two were out and earlier in the inning, Miguel Cabrera’s long drive to right center had been chased down by Torii Hunter. That appeared to be a bad omen.

Then Peralta struck, scoring Prince Fielder and Andy Dirks (from first base), and just like that, the Tigers were leading. Avila added an insurance run with a single, scoring Peralta.

Jhonny’s hit was huge.

MMM thinks it was huge enough to make him HotW, despite a week in which several Tigers chipped in to forge a 5-1 mark.

Honorable mention: Max Scherzer, who picked up two wins and keeps blowing hitters away, threatening to wrest the MLB strikeout crown from Justin Verlander.

Goat of the Week
It is with a heavy heart that MMM select fan favorite Austin Jackson as the GotW, but don’t worry—it’s mainly because it’s hard to find a Goat in a 5-1 week.

But AJ did go 0-13 in the Angels series, and his error (yes, first of the season, MMM gets that) could have put rookie Smyly on the ropes on Saturday. Regardless, the Tigers had to claw back thanks to Jackson’s dropped fly ball.

While MMM is nitpicking Jackson, he would be remiss if he failed to mention that Jackson was batting at a .332 clip at the All-Star break, and is at. 302 now. That’s a 30-point drop, and while not catastrophic, it’s something that MMM feels you need to remember.

It’s not enough, right now, to put Jackson UtM, but a 30-point drop in six weeks is a cause for concern, wouldn’t you agree?

Under the Microscope
If you thought that MMM had a tough time naming AJ the Goat, that’s nothing compared to placing Miguel Cabrera Under the Microscope. Actually, it’s Miggy’s right ankle that’s under the scope.

Cabrera’s bum ankle caused him to miss a game on Sunday—his first in about a year—and forced manager Jim Leyland to DH Cabrera the previous two games. This, after Miggy was pulled from Thursday’s game in the second inning.

MMM wasn’t crazy about Miggy’s gait in the two games he played after being pulled, and thus wasn’t shocked when Leyland scratched him from Sunday’s game. Monday’s off day gives Cabrera two days off in a row, essentially.

MMM thinks Cabrera’s ankle bears scrutiny because this is an MVP candidate and if he tweaks it and has to miss any significant time…

No need to finish that sentence.

Yes, Cabrera is a gamer and yes, he’s never been on the disabled list in his 10-year (yes, 10 years) career. MMM gets that. And MMM knows that being hurt isn’t the same as being injured. That said, Cabrera goes UtM anyway because he’s just too damn valuable to mess around with.

Upcoming: Royals, White Sox
“Spoiler” is a double-edged word. You really don’t want to be one, nor do you want to be the victim of one.

The Tigers play a spoiler this week—the Kansas City Royals. The same Royals team who swept the White Sox out of Missouri a couple weekends back.

The Royals, as usual, are out of the race. They have, as usual, a young and somewhat talented roster that hasn’t jelled yet. And they, as usual, are in a position to mess up a playoff contender’s plans.

The Tigers can’t afford to look past the Royals and set their sights on the White Sox, who come to town for the weekend.

The Royals are either feast or famine, it seems, when you play them. You either sweep them, or get swept. They laid a licking on the White Sox with a combo of good pitching and timely hitting. But then they can look so awful just one day later.

MMM wants 2-of-3 in KC. The pitchers: Sanchez, Justin Verlander (only 12 wins despite an ERA of around 2.50), and Porcello.

On Friday, the White Sox come calling—the Tigers’ last shot at them in Detroit this season (barring a playoff matchup).

Just like the Tigers of 2011, this year’s White Sox are getting career years from secondary players like Alex Rios and AJ Pierzynski, to support the Paul Konerkos and Adam Dunns of the world. Role players like Gordon Beckham and Tyler Flowers have chipped in with key hits recently.

Lefty rookie starter Chris Sale has been lights out, though with a 2.79 ERA in 71 IP last year, he definitely showed some promise in 2011 so this year’s season shouldn’t be a total shocker.

MMM doesn’t have to tell you how important the series against Chicago is, though the division will not be decided based on it. Repeat: WILL…NOT. No series on Labor Day weekend has the ability to win a division when the distance between two teams is as short as that between the Tigers and the White Sox.

Tigers pitchers: Fister or Smyly, Scherzer, Sanchez. If it’s Smyly on Friday, all three Tigers starters’ last names will start with S.

S, for Sweep?

Sorry.

That’s all for this week’s MMM. See you next week!

With Stafford & Co., OK For Lions to Be Pass-Happy

In football on August 26, 2012 at 5:05 pm

Wayne Fontes, the moon-faced, chubby Lions coach from 20-plus years ago, had been on the job for only a few months in early-1989 when he had a plan.

Fontes had taken over the Lions from Darryl Rogers, which was like taking over Japan after Hiroshima.

The Lions were a sickly, offensively challenged platoon in 1988, when Rogers was given the ziggy in November and replaced with Fontes, his defensive coordinator.

It was Bill Ford, the owner, who levied the stinging indictment against Rogers after announcing his cashiering.

“We’re boring,” Ford complained to the media guys.

No one argued.

Fontes had five games with which to prove himself in 1988; the Lions were 2-9 at the time of Rogers’ dismissal. Fontes was saddled with that tag of “interim,” which was usually code for “after the season, you’ll never see this chump again.”

But that didn’t stop Fontes from trying his hardest with his five-game contract.

He brought in former NFL quarterback Lynn Dickey to work with the offense and impart his pass-happy wisdom to Lions’ starting signal-caller Rusty Hilger.

The Lions won two of their final five games, and even though both wins were over awful Green Bay, the Lions played the very good Bears very tough in Chicago, and it was all enough to show Ford that Fontes didn’t need the interim label any longer.

Fontes returned Ford’s generosity with a big old bear hug in front of the local TV cameras and ink-stained wretches.

Not long after being named the real coach of the Lions, Fontes went to work on that whole “boring” thing that his owner crabbed about in discussing Darryl Rogers.

First, Fontes drafted a running back, Barry Sanders from Oklahoma State. As good as Barry was in college, no one could have predicted the greatness that he would embody for the next 10 years.

His running back in place, Fontes went against NFL form and decided that he would build an offense not necessarily around the running game, but around the pass.

A strange idea, indeed, considering Fontes had the best running back on any college campus in America set to don the Honolulu Blue and Silver in 1989.

Undaunted, Fontes looked at the Houston Oilers, a pretty good NFL team, and became enamored with the Oilers’ offense, which placed one runner in the backfield, four receivers spread out and eschewed a tight end.

Fontes, a defensive coach to the core, thought through the prism of an opposing defensive coordinator. With someone as dynamic as Sanders in the backfield, what would be nightmarish?

So, Fontes decided to copy the Oilers’ pass-happy offense, leaving Sanders to do his thing against defenses spread out to guard against all those pass receivers.

They called it the “Run-n-Shoot,” and while Sanders took care of the “Run” part, the Lions weren’t nearly as good at the “Shoot.”

 

Fontes had his receivers, but they weren’t exactly Pro Bowl in quality like the Oilers had in Houston. And Fontes’ quarterback, rookie Rodney Peete, was no Warren Moon of Houston.

But, Fontes tried. He did succeed on one point: The Lions weren’t boring any longer. Peete and the other QB, Bob Gagliano, flung the football all over the field, with various degrees of success. And Sanders was a one-man highlight reel; never before did fans ooh and ahh over a three-yard loss, as they did with Barry.

The Lions scored as never before, but their leaky defense turned many games into shootouts. Still, the Lions made the playoffs four out of five years between 1991 and 1995. They weren’t boring; that’s for sure.

The Lions ran various versions of the Run-n-Shoot for most of Fontes’ tenure as the Lions coach (1988-96). Not only were the Lions not boring anymore, some folks even worried that they scored too fast, thus not giving the defense time to catch its breath.

The Lions under Fontes had a supreme running back and a few good receivers here and there, but never could come up with “that” quarterback, the same old refrain four decades running.

Today’s Lions are just a few weeks away from opening Sunday 2012. They are the exact opposite of Fontes’ Barry Sanders’ teams.

The Lions of today are a premier passing unit, among the best in the league. And, they have more question marks at running back than the Riddler’s costume.

In the Run-n-Shoot days of the 1990s, the Lions tried to be a high-octane passing team, sometimes at the expense of their best weapon—Sanders.

 

If I was an opposing defensive coordinator back then, I’d have looked to the heavens and said thank you every time Sanders didn’t touch the football.

It’s called playing to your strength, no matter what the Pro Football Handbook might say about striking a balance between running and passing.

The football handbook people are wringing their hands over is this year’s Lions. They look at the running game and worry that it can’t crank out enough yards to keep defenses honest.

Ha!

With Matthew Stafford throwing and Calvin Johnson catching, plus all the other competent receivers on the roster, it really won’t matter if the Lions run the football well or not.

The Lions’ fortunes, make no question, will ride on Stafford’s golden arm and Johnson’s Velcro hands. They are the best QB/receiver tandem in the NFL, bar none.

Why force-feed a cache of questionable running backs the football, just for the sake of laying claim to running and passing balance?

It makes no sense.

It makes no sense to suppress Stafford and Co. because great players make great plays, whether the other team is stacked to stop it or not.

The Lions ought to play to their strength. They ought not to worry so much about running the football.

 

In a perfect football world, you’d gain four yards on a first-down running play, all game long. But, life isn’t perfect, and neither is any football team.

The Wayne Fontes’ Detroit Lions force-fed the Run-n-Shoot when they didn’t really have the proper personnel, other than the best running back on the planet.

The Lions of today would be foolish to run the football for the sake of running it, when they possess a passer like Stafford and receivers like Johnson, Nate Burleson, Titus Young and Brandon Pettigrew.

It makes no sense.

Monday Morning Manager: Week 20

In Baseball on August 20, 2012 at 3:10 pm

Last Week: 3-3

This Week: TOR (8/21-23; LAA 8/24-26)

So, What Happened?
Never has the above question been so apt.

MMM is still trying to figure out what happened, especially over the weekend, when a series against the Baltimore Orioles turned from promising to regretful and, perhaps, damaging.

MMM is also wondering what they’re putting in the baseballs these days. Baltimore’s Chris Davis seemingly flicked his bat at a Ricky Porecllo pitch in the seventh inning Saturday night and the ball flew into the Tigers bullpen—an opposite field, three-run shot that broke a scoreless tie and sucked the life out of Comerica Park.

But nothing was more stunning, or staggering, than Sunday’s loss.

A 5-0 first inning lead under sunny skies and with Doug Fister on the mound led every Tigers fan to believe that it was going to be a frollicking, happy-go-lucky day at the yard. A series win and a possible half-game deficit in the division looked imminent.

How many times does a pitcher give up five runs in the first inning and even stay in the game for five innings, let alone qualify for and get the win?

That’s exactly how Baltimore’s Wei-Yin Chen picked up a victory on Sunday. If a bloop single looks like a line drive in next day’s box score, then Chen’s win must look like a gem this morning in agate type.

MMM wonders, Why Win Chen? Or, rather, HOW Win Chen?

Chen win because the Tigers put together one bad at-bat after the other. Maybe they thought Chen would roll over. Maybe they thought everything would come easy after the first inning.

The only thing that came easy after the first inning was Chen and the O’s drum-tight bullpen’s ability to get Tigers hitters to pop up and ground into double plays.

A loss in Minnesota started the week, before the Tigers rebounded with a mini three-game winning streak leading up to the grisly weekend games against Baltimore, a team that leads Detroit by two games in the Wild Card race.

The Tigers missed a great chance in the division race because the White Sox were swept by the Royals over the weekend, though Detroit did pick up a game and trail by just 1.5 games.

Hero of the Week

Forgive MMM but he is choosing Miguel Cabrera for an unprecedented third week in a row.

It’s like going to a favored restaurant and saying you’re going to order something different, but you end up choosing your favorite dish yet again.

MMM had that feeling as he perused the menu before choosing the Hero.

How can you go against Miggy, who went 10-for-21 with a couple of big flies and six ribbies? You can nitpick and say he didn’t do much on Saturday and Sunday in two close games, but that would be, well,nitpicking.

MMM wanted to choose Prince Fielder, whose two homers—including a tie-breaking, two-run moonshot in the eighth inning—on Friday led directly to victory. But a .476 BA for the week (Cabby’s) was too hard to overcome. Again, Prince finishes a close second in the HotW race. He was 6-for-20 last week.

The problem with MMM tabbing Cabrera three weeks in a row is that it means no one else (save Fielder) is really having big weeks lately. Believe MMM when he says he would love to have Cabrera’s streak end next Monday!

Goat of the Week

Before the season, MMM showed his brilliance by actually suggesting that the Tigers insert Brennan Boesch into the lead-off spot, usurping Austin Jackson, who was coming off a disappointing 2011 season.

Even MMM gets it wrong sometimes.

But he isn’t getting it wrong this morning, because Boesch is, without question, the GotW.

BB was hitless for the week and looked like a hitless player. Let’s just say he wasn’t robbed, wasn’t the victim of bad luck. He was just…bad.

MMM had high hopes for Boesch. MMM envisioned Boesch being a gap-to-gap hitter whose swing and game was perfectly suited for Comerica Park’s expansive outfield. Not a power hitter, per se, but a guy who would hit 15-20 home runs and 30-40 doubles, if he played every day. Maybe even 5-10 triples.

Not happening this season.

Boesch has turned into a weak-hitting lefty swinger who rolls over the baseball, driving the ball into the ground, usually in the form of a 4-3 on your scorecard. His hits, anymore, seem to be only occurring if his grounders bleed into the outfield.

He is overpowered by even mid-90s fastballs and has a swing that is so long, if it was a book it’d be War and Peace.

Boesch is confounding. What’s worse, he’s part of the Tigers’ problem on offense, not any part of the solution.

Under the Microscope
Anibal Sanchez was acquired from Miami in late-July to solidify the no. 5 spot in the rotation. He wasn’t expected to be Doyle Alexander, 1987 vintage, or Doug Fister 2011. All Sanchez was expected to do was to provide veteran presence so the Tigers wouldn’t have to rely on a rookie like Drew Smyly or Jacob Turner every fifth day in a division race.

Instead, Sanchez has, so far, thrown gas on the fire that is the fifth rotation spot.

Sanchez’s next start was bumped from Sunday to this Wednesday, an indicator of his struggles. In four Tigers starts, his ERA is well over 7.00.

MMM doesn’t believe that the Tigers’ chances of winning the division rest on how Sanchez performs. The team has bigger issues, frankly, than Sanchez. But Anibal is UtM because if he continues to pitch poorly, Jim Leyland will be left scrambling. And with 41 games remaining, scrambling is the last thing a manager wants to do when it comes to his starting rotation.

Upcoming: Blue Jays, Angels
The Tigers’ nine-game home stand continues and concludes this week as the Toronto Blue Jays and LA Angels visit.

The Blue Jays are a funny team. You don’t really know what you’re going to be facing each day you play them. They have the talent to make you look bad, but they can also look awful themselves.

Hey, sound familiar, Tigers fans?

When talking Blue Jays, two names pretty much stick out: 1B/3B Edwin Encarnacion and left-handed pitcher Ricky Romero.

Encarnacion leads the team in BA (.289), HR (31) and RBI (82). He’s the Jays’ Triple Crown guy.

Romero leads the team in wins (8) and in strikeouts (104). He starts in the series opener on Tuesday as the Tigers continue to see lefty starters in streaks.

Romero’s ERA is a high 5.47, but that is good enough for second among the starters, which tells a lot about why Toronto is in last place in the AL East.

Tigers starters against Toronto: Max Scherzer, Sanchez, Justin Verlander.

The Angels were losers of three of four games in Detroit a week after the All-Star break, and they are a desperate team right now. Their season of high hopes is in danger of crashing, thanks in part to the surprising Oakland A’s. Even rookie sensation Mike Trout has been showing signs of fatigue, though he rebounded with a five-hit weekend against Tampa.

The Angels always scare MMM, no matter how they’re playing at the time. It’s a team that can beat you in a lot of different ways, and they keep the pressure on from innings 1-9 with their speed and manager Mike Scioscia’s aggressive style.

Tigers starters: Porcello, Fister, Scherzer.

That’s all for this week’s MMM. See you next week!

McClendon Deserves Credit for Jackson’s Revival

In Baseball on August 19, 2012 at 4:32 pm

January is a safe time to talk about baseball. There are no games on the schedule, no performances to track. The dead of winter makes a very comfortable backdrop against which to make declarations, bold predictions and lofty promises.

Few are the wintertime bon mots that get remembered much past spring training. Even fewer are those that actually come true.

The Tigers winter caravan was about to get into full swing last January. The annual tour through the state, designed to warm the hearts of the baseball fans and to attempt to break up winter’s cold and doldrums with an opportunity to wax about the National Pastime.

Nothing better than some baseball talk in mid-January to put the cold temps and chilled bones on hold, or at least in the background, if even momentarily.

As the caravan was about to rev up, there came a news item from Tiger Land.

Austin Jackson, the center fielder who just completed his pockmarked sophomore season, was the center of the news item.

Jackson was a riddle wrapped inside an enigma. He was the Churchill’s Russia of the Tigers. After two seasons, most followers of the team were scratching their heads.

He belonged on To Tell the Truth, playing the two impostors and the real guy, all by himself.

In 2010, his rookie year, Jackson batted .293. Even though he struck out a lot, he wasn’t out of place in a big league batter’s box. His fielding was exemplary, loping around in the majors’ vast center fields like a gazelle with a mitt.

Hi-res-145832927_crop_exact
McClendon’s January tweak of Jackson’s swing has paid rich dividends 
Leon Halip/Getty Images

 

In 2011, Jackson still patrolled center field like an Irish cop does the Bowery, but his hitting tailed off dramatically. The average sunk to .249 and the strikeouts became more viral—and less tolerable, thanks to the 44-point drop in his BA.

In the playoffs, Jackson batting leadoff seemed to help torpedo the Tigers more than helping them win. He seemed to be regressing as a big-league hitter, especially when the spotlight’s glare was brightest.

So that was the situation with Jackson when the January announcement came that hitting coach Lloyd McClendon was working with Jackson on the young hitter’s batting stance.

You could almost see the collective eyes of Tigers fans rolling.

If you’d like to get into a business where the adulation is rare and the bitching from the populace is constant, you might want to consider becoming a big league team’s hitting coach—that is, if you can’t make it to manager.

The slumps are all yours. And the success stories?

Don’t hold your breath waiting for the credit.

McClendon, we were told, had seen something he didn’t like with Jackson’s stance. Something caught on that new standby, videotape. Of course, it’s not even tape anymore—it’s all digital.

McClendon didn’t like Jackson’s high kick before the swing. There were other things, stuff that only hitting coaches see, and McClendon went to work on those, too.

Some of it, McClendon said he had tried to correct on the fly during the 2011 season. Clearly those fixes didn’t take; Jackson was a shell of the offensive player he displayed in 2010.

Last offseason, brilliant bloggers such as the one you’re reading right now suggested that Jackson was no longer suited for the Tigers’ leadoff role. We keyboard bangers declared Jackson and his .249 batting average were No. 9 material in the batting order, not No. 1.

I showed my genius by pushing for the Tigers to use Brennan Boesch at leadoff in 2012.

Of all the things that can make you smarter, a keyboard isn’t necessarily one of them.

So McClendon did his thing with Jackson’s mechanics, whether the fan base or the media or the wretched bloggers bought into it or not.

It’s been one of the most shameful parts of this rollercoaster 2012 season that McClendon has been given no credit—zero, zilch, nada—for the resurgence of Austin Jackson.

Jackson is even better than he was in 2010, when he burst onto the scene as the kid from the Yankees organization who would replace Curtis Granderson in center field for the Tigers, and who put together a season worthy of Rookie of the Year status.

This year, whatever McClendon did with Jackson has been Midas in nature.

Jackson still strikes out more than the average, but he is doing so less frequently, mainly because he’s cut down on swinging at pitches that aren’t strikes.

Sounds simple, but if hitting were simple, everyone would be Ted Williams.

The biggest improvement has been Jackson’s laying off the pitches high in the zone—pitches which ate him up nightly last year. Gone is the high leg kick, which McClendon suspected was throwing everything off in Jackson’s swing.

A baseball swing is not unlike a golf swing. The hitter moves more parts of his body than an exotic dancer during a businessman’s lunch.

Just like in golf, the baseball swing is a precision instrument of hips that either open or close too much, hands that either stay in or fly out, shoulders that are balanced or not, and eyes that either stay on the ball or don’t.

And that’s before the bat even makes contact with the baseball—if it does at all.

The result of McClendon’s tutoring of Jackson is that the Tigers have one of the premier center fielders in all of baseball. They have a triple threat at leadoff: a guy who can hit, hit for power and run. Jackson can take you deep or take you shallow. He can pull you down the line or shoot you up the gap.

Jackson is, simply, a complete hitter who is light years ahead of where most thought he’d be in 2012 after last year’s struggles.

Austin Jackson is the poster boy for the phrase, “Sometimes you have to take one step backward to take two steps forward.”

Think of that the next time a TV shot of Lloyd McClendon in the Tigers dugout causes you to hurl invectives.

But don’t worry—I’m not holding my breath.

Monday Morning Manager: Week 19

In Baseball on August 13, 2012 at 2:59 pm

Last Week: 3-4

This Week: at Min (8/13-15; BAL 8/17-19)

So, What Happened?

*Sigh* MMM had such high hopes for last week. It started so promising.

Two wins over the vaunted New York Yankees to kick things off, and in the third game, another huge come-from-behind win looked to be in the offing. That failed, and another promising rally in the fourth game was snuffed out as well.

Then it was off to Texas and that series got off to a flying start as well before the ninth inning became unkind to the Tigers once again in game two. Game three? More on that later.

So a 2-0 start turned into a 3-4 week, and with the games increasing in importance, that kind of penthouse-to-outhouse week isn’t welcome.

By the end of the week, the bullpen seemed in shambles and Brayan Villarreal revealed that his elbow is “tired.” Phil Coke and Joaquin Benoit are imploding nightly. MMM is concerned!

Miggy Cabrera continues to be really good at playing baseball, which is the only thing keeping the Tigers afloat, it seems. Even a Justin Verlander start isn’t the automatic win it used to be.

Hero of the Week

Does MMM dare to pick the same Hero two weeks in a row?

Of course he does!

MMM again tabs Miguel Cabrera, who was 8-for-26 with two bombs and seven ribbies last week, as he continues to keep the team propped up on his broad shoulders.

MMM is underwhelmed, however, by Cabrera’s minimal range at third base, which seems to be getting smaller as the season goes on, maybe due to his bad left ankle. But he does, as he says in the commercial playing on FSD Detroit, “Like to hit.”

It just seems to MMM that if a hit needs to be gotten, if a run needs to be driven in, Cabrera is the Man. Prince Fielder is no slouch, either, but Cabrera batting third is so nice to see.

Honorable mention: Andy Dirks, who is keeping his BA around .340 even after his long layoff due to his Achilles injury.

Goat of the Week

Joaquin Benoit is throwing beach balls to the dish and it’s making MMM get sweaty palms—and a splitting headache.

Benoit, the Tigers’ set-up man, is setting them up, alright—setting them up for opposing hitters, who are taking him deep more than a batting practice pitcher.

Benoit has surrendered 10 homers in his last 15 innings, which is a streak that MMM wonders is unmatched in MLB history.

He also has a fetish for giving up back-to-back bombs, and it’s costing the team some games. Benoit struck again on Thursday afternoon, when he turned a 3-2 lead into a 4-3 deficit with two pitches to Mark Teixeira and new Tigers killer Eric Chavez.

Benoit’s sudden (well, not so sudden; this has been going on since the All-Star break) penchant for throwing home runs is a killer, and it is, sadly, just a symptom of the team’s bullpen woes, which are growing every week in seriousness.

There’s Benoit and a shaky Phil Coke and a sometimes shaky Jose Valverde and an imploding Villarreal and it’s just not looking too rosey out there.

Under the Microscope

MMM hates to say “I told you so,” especially when it doesn’t mean good things for the Tigers, but here’s an excerpt from MMM Week 14:

“This is a dark horse, outside-the-box UtM this week.

Relief pitcher Brayan Villarreal.

And it’s not so much an UtM for just this week as it is for the second half of the season.

Villarreal is this year’s Al Alburquerque: high strikeout guy who blows people away with a slider. Seemingly unhittable at times.

But AA had a second half in 2011 that was pocked with inconsistency then an unfortunate incident in Baltimore, when he was hit in the head by a baseball during batting practice, giving him a concussion from which he never recovered.

MMM is watching Villarreal to see if he continues to make hitters look silly out of the bullpen in the sixth and seventh innings, over the season’s crucial second half.

So consider this MMM’s mid-season UtM for 2012, Part II.”

Ugh.

Looks like MMM was right to put Villarreal UtM, because in his last three appearances he has looked lost.

Now we find out why, perhaps. Call it Daniel Schlereth Syndrome.

Villarreal told Tigers officials that his elbow feels “tired.” There are going to be tests on it soon.

Great.

GM Dave Dombrowski might have to scour the waiver wires again to see if he can bring in a veteran arm for the bullpen, which suddenly looks a mess.

So this week’s UtM is the bullpen in general, and Dombrowski specifically, as MMM wonders if DD will find another arm. Those kinds of deals can often be the difference between making the playoffs or not. They’re not sexy trades, but many championship teams have brought in veteran bullpen guys for the stretch run, and it has often worked.

Upcoming: Twins, Orioles

The Tigers have found Target Field in Minnesota much more to their liking than that damn Metrodome.

The Tigers’ record in Minnesota lately is pretty good, and they swept the Twins there in May. They’ll need more of the same this week, to recover from their current 1-4 streak, which began after beating the Yanks twice to start last week.

The rotation in Minny: Anibal Sanchez (who was rocked Wednesday against the Yankees), Doug Fister, Max Scherzer.

After an off day, the Baltimore Orioles, still in the playoff race, visit Comerica Park, where the Tigers are 15-3 lately.

The Tigers won 2-of-3 in Baltimore in the first series after the All-Star break. The game they lost was because Benoit (surprise!) gave up two homers in the same inning to serve up a walk-off loss.

The Orioles have switched back to the cartoon-style bird on their cap, and while their lids now smack of the days of Rick Dempsey and Kiko Garcia and John Lowenstein, today’s Orioles are a young, talented squad that can hit. Their pitching may be suspect, but the Tigers’ bullpen stinks so it’s a push.

The Orioles series kicks off a nine-game home stand. The first-place White Sox don’t seem to be in the folding mood, so it’s important to keep protecting CoPa.

That’s all for this week’s MMM. See you next week!

Second Guessing of Leyland Not Always Fair (or Accurate)

In Baseball on August 12, 2012 at 5:43 pm

Russell Martin, a good baseball player having a bad year, almost poisoned the Tigers earlier this week.

Martin, the New York Yankees catcher, is hitting below .200 for the season—well below his career mark (going into this year) of .272. But despite his failure to get a hit rate of over 80 percent, Martin shot the hearts of Tigers fans into their throats on Tuesday night.

It was the ninth inning, the Tigers clinging to a 6-4 lead, and closer Jose Valverde was having one of those ninth innings that all closers sometimes have—the kind where he leads the fans, like a demented pied piper, to the gates of Hell and back again.

Valverde was as wobbly as a punch-drunk prize fighter. And even the weak-hitting Martin wasn’t an antidote.

With runners on first and second and two outs, a run already in, Martin laced a Valverde fastball deep into the left-field corner. For sure, it was a double; the only question was: Would the hit score both runners and tie the game?

Raul Ibanez scored easily from second base. Chugging around second and heading for third at full speed was the recently acquired, future Hall of Famer Ichiro Suzuki.

Would Ichiro round third and dare try to score the tying run?

He would have, without question, had it not been for one very well-timed defensive replacement.

Quintin Berry, so fleet of foot, had been sent to play left field in the eighth inning by manager Jim Leyland, bumping the competent but slightly slower Andy Dirks over to right field.

And it was because Berry, not Dirks, was the one who raced to field Martin’s double, that Ichiro was unable or unwilling to try for home plate.

Even the fact that Berry is left-handed, which meant he’d have to turn his body after scooping up the baseball before throwing it, didn’t sway Ichiro toward going for it.

Even though there were two outs, and baseball axioms say that making the final out of the game at home plate in a one-run contest is not without honor, Ichiro still wasn’t convinced to lower his head and try to score the tying run.

All because the sprinting Berry was upon Martin’s batted ball as if he was wearing a red cape and a big “S” on his chest—for Speed.

Ichiro stayed at third base. The score stayed 6-5. And that’s where both stayed after Valverde managed to strike out the next batter—Curtis Granderson, the kewpie doll center fielder for the Yankees, who still makes the women swoon in Detroit.

After the game, the dunderheads who call into the sports talk radio shows lit up the switchboard with venom.

The Tigers had won a big game over the vaunted Yankees—two in a row to open the four-game series—and better yet, they kept the pressure on the first-place Chicago White Sox.

You wouldn’t know it by the cranks with their cell phones.

The Tigers won, but it was all about Leyland—as usual.

A baseball season allows for Monday morning quarterbacking 162 times a year—and more if your team gets into the playoffs. It’s part of the fun—I get that.

 

But sometimes, those calling into the talk shows ought to press their phone’s mute button before opening their mouths. They’d save themselves some embarrassment.

The Tigers won Tuesday, and right away the callers to the postgame show on 97.1 The Ticket started laying into Leyland.

Why didn’t Leyland leave Octavio Dotel, who pitched a perfect eighth inning, in for the ninth inning? Why does he keep using Valverde at all, for that matter? The Tigers won despite Leyland! Why is Leyland even around to make these decisions to begin with?

And so on.

I listened to the drivel for about 30 minutes and not once did a caller chime in and say, “Thank goodness Leyland put Berry in the game! If not, Ichiro would have scored and maybe the Tigers would have lost!”

Heaven forbid someone give the skipper some credit.

It may have been Managing 101 to some, to insert the lightning-quick Berry into the game as a late-inning defensive replacement, but Leyland did it and it worked, no matter how elementary of a decision some may think it was—and upon further review, it wasn’t all that elementary.

Because, with someone like Dirks, who’s not a slow poke, already playing left field, some managers might have stayed with the status quo. They may have figured they had enough speed and range out there with a player of Dirks’ caliber. Berry might have been on the bench instead of chasing down Martin’s double.

 

Yet there was Quintin Berry, bless his jackrabbit soul, pouncing on Martin’s hit and doing it so fast that Ichiro, another non-slowpoke, was forced to remain at third base.

The decision to put Berry into the game kept the tying run 90 feet from home plate. It was instinctive, thinking-ahead managing at its best.

But again, not if you listened to the blowhards talking into their cell phones after the game.

Leyland is fired everyday in Detroit. The fans have been firing him for years. He was fired even last year, when the Tigers ran away with their division with a second-half blitzkrieg that folks (like me) had been bitching hadn’t occurred in the Leyland Era prior to 2011.

There’s a Facebook page devoted to firing Leyland. Entire blogs exist with firing Leyland as their theme.

Few of the wannabe Leyland executioners have any replacements in mind, but that’s another column for another day.

To the manager’s credit, Leyland not only doesn’t mind the monotonous second-guessing, he actually seems to like it.

Speaking to Mike Stone on The Ticket Thursday morning, Leyland said, “We’re in a pennant race. Everyone’s into it. Everyone’s a manager. I think that’s great, I really do. I have no problem with that whatsoever.”

Leyland knows, too, that the second-guessing is only going to get worse and more pervasive—and, in a lot of cases, more asinine, as the race heats up down the stretch.

Another longtime baseball manager once summed up second-guessers thusly.

“A second guesser,” legendary Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda once said, “is someone who needs two guesses to get it right.”

Leyland needed just one guess Tuesday night with Quintin Berry. It’s one reason why Leyland has 1,649 big league wins—and counting—as a manager. And not one of those 1,649 wins came with the crutch of a second guess.

Monday Morning Manager: Week 18

In Baseball on August 7, 2012 at 2:52 am

Last Week: 4-2
This Week: NYY (8/6-9); at Tex (8/10-12)

So, What Happened?

The Tigers put the brakes on a skid that could have made it an ugly week and turned it into a wonderful four-game winning streak—punctuated by perhaps the most thrilling victory in years.

First, MMM would like a moment of silence for the Cleveland Indians, who are now officially in “Wait till next year” mode. Oh, and a moment of silence for Tribe closer Chris Perez’s big mouth.

Remember when Perez spouted off, back in May, that the Indians were a better “team” than the Tigers, despite Detroit’s star power? He made those comments after Cleveland swept Detroit in late May, not long after calling out the Indians fans for not coming out to the ballpark in droves.

MMM thinks Perez talks a lot for someone who hasn’t won anything.

So who’s the better “team” now, Chris?

As for the Tigers, the week began with the usual nonsense in Boston (two losses), which has become the Tigers’ new House of Horrors now that the Twins have moved out of the Metrodome.

But they salvaged the third game of the series in Fenway Park, then victimized Perez’s Indians with a three-game sweep that sent the Tribe packing with a nine-game losing streak (all on the road).

Sunday’s win, a game in which the Tigers never led until the final pitch, was a classic. A stunning five-run 10th off Perez, who’s vexed the Boys seemingly forever, capped it off. Mark that one down, because the White Soxwon, so the difference between being 1.5 and 2.5 games behind at this stage of the season is huge.

The sweep was all the more important considering the mighty Yankees are in town for four games.

The Tigers also designated Don Kelly for assignment, activated Andy Dirks from the disabled list and then traded for utility man Jeff Baker from the Cubs. Ryan Raburn was (conveniently, MMM thinks) placed on the DL to make room for Baker.

 

Hero of the Week

This is a tough call.

When in doubt, go with one of the Big Boys.

So MMM tabs Miguel Cabrerawho keeps being ridiculous.

Miggy is playing like he’s on a mission and, in the process, is wresting the MVP lead from Texas’s Josh Hamilton, IMMMHO. Sunday’s walk-off homer was just the latest big hit by Cabrera, who had another strong week. He’s a well-oiled RBI machine.

MMM watches Cabrera and feels like he’s watching a Hall of Famer. There is no pitch he can’t handle. There’s no situation that dwarfs him. There’s no pitcher he fears. There’s no base runner he can’t plate.

Last week, Cabrera went 8-for-24 with two homers and eight RBI. And there’s this: In the Tigers’ two losses, Miggy was 1-for-6; in their four wins, he was 7-for-18. Hence the MVP talk.

Honorable mention (by a hair): Prince Fielder, whose week was about as good as Cabrera’s, and who continues to drive in key runs as well.

Goat of the Week

 The tagline years ago used to be, “Have a Coke and a smile.”

MMM hasn’t been smiling very much when the Tigers’ version of Coke, aka lefty Phil, has been on the mound as of late.

Coke was miserable in Boston last week, because what good is a situational lefty who can’t get out…lefties?

Coke gave up two home runs in Boston, and one of them was to lefty-batting Carl Crawford, who had just two dingers prior to Coke’s offering.

Coke nearly blew the game the Tigers actually won in Fenway, and by his own admission, he isn’t on his game right now. But admitting you stink doesn’t mean MMM won’t name you as GotW.

And that’s what Coke is—the Goat for Week 18.

Whatever is the matter with Coke, MMM says get it fixed, pronto. All relievers go through tough stretches. MMM gets that. But if Coke cannot get left-handed batters out consistently down the stretch, then the Tigers are in trouble. Rookie Darin Downs cannot expect to be counted on to fill that role during a playoff race.

 

Under the Microscope

With the return of Dirks from the DL, the Tigers’ outfield is suddenly very crowded.

Quintin Berry, Brennan Boesch, Delmon Young and Dirks are all corner outfielders who need playing time. Granted, Young is more of a DH nowadays, but that still leaves three guys battling for two positions in the field. Whittling it down even more, if you want to concede left field to Berry, manager Jim Leyland still has a quandary: Boesch or Dirks in right field?

MMM is putting right field UtM, and not just for this week. Keep this UtM in your back pocket for the rest of the season, because how Leyland handles it will be very interesting.

Example: Dirks came off the DL on Friday and had a couple of hits. The next night, he was on the bench in lieu of Boesch. Why? Because Leyland is desperately trying to get Boesch going, and he hopes that someone will take the baton and run with it among his three run-producing corner outfielders/DHs (Berry excluded from that group).

But it boils down to Dirks or Boesch in right field. Berry figures to be the LF against righties, with possibly newcomer Baker moving to left field against southpaws. Baker’s track record against lefties is solid, which made him attractive to the Tigers, because the team is among the worst in BA against left-handed pitching.

But it’s RF that will prove to be the skipper’s biggest challenge, position player-wise. It is simply between Dirks and Boesch, two lefty-swinging cats. Dirks’s BA is over .300 and Boesch’s is hovering around .245, but Boesch is more explosive (potentially).

MMM says, look out to your right down the stretch.


Upcoming: Yankees, Rangers

Nothing like seven games against two first-place teams to remind you that the imploding Indians have left town.

 

The Yankees are coming! The Yankees are coming!

Actually, the Bronx Bombers have been coming for quite some time. They are running away with the AL East, thanks to an outstanding record since the beginning of May.

The Tigers have been pretty good against the Yankees in Detroit in recent years, though New York did take two of three here in May, when the Tigers were wobbly.

MMM is restlessly anxious, because this week could make or break the Tigers, ultimately.

A bad showing (read: 2-5 or, gulp, worse) could turn the current 1.5 game deficit against the White Sox into somewhere between the four-to-five game range. With mid-August approaching, that makes MMM’s tummy queasy.

These teams aren’t chopped liver, but neither have the Tigers been since the All-Star break (14-8).

The Yankees now have Ichiro Suzuki, of course, and even though the Seattle Mariners went 7-0 after the trade of Ichiro, there’s no question his presence in an already slugging New York lineup makes that batting order look uncomfortably like that of an All-Star team.

Yes, MMM knows that Ichiro is having an off-year, batting around .261 with an OBA of well under .300. But don’t you think that going from awful Seattle to great New York just might re-energize the 38-year-old RF?

As for the other first-place team the Tigers play this week, the Texas Rangers are withstanding the hard-charging LA Angels and—wait for it, wait for it—Oakland A’s, maintaining a rather comfortable five-game lead in the AL West.

 

The Rangers are not infallible, and that includes MVP candidate Josh Hamilton, who was even benched for a game last week because he was scuffling so badly. The fans haven’t been kind to him, either.

Thumpers like Mike Napoli and Nelson Cruz have also been in horrendous slumps in recent weeks. Still, the Rangers are damn good, and they had an impressive come-from-behind win over the Angels last week that turned a possible two-game lead into four games, just like that.

The Tigers will have their paws completely full this week.

That’s all for this week’s MMM. See you next week!

Lions’ Hanson Still Kicking After All These Years

In football on August 5, 2012 at 4:46 pm

It’s fitting, really, that the Detroit Lions, lovers of tumult for decades, should have stability at a position that doesn’t even really qualify as a football player.

Since Jimmy Carter was president, the Lions have employed two full-time place kickers. Two.

Eddie Murray arrived as a rookie in 1980, and 12 years later, Murray was usurped by Jason Hanson, a rookie from Washington State.

Today, Hanson is 42 years old and is about to begin his 21st season of sidewinding his right leg toward an oblong pigskin for the boys in Honolulu Blue and Silver.

Not that he’s a football player, any more than Henny Youngman was a violinist or Elvis Presley was an actor.

Hanson isn’t a football player, but in twisted irony that proves God has a sense of humor, he has been the most consistent of anyone wearing a Lions uniform since first suiting up in Chicago back in September 1992.

You want proof that Hanson isn’t a football player? Just look at his face.

With the exception of a hairline that has retreated more than the Italian Army, Hanson looks pretty much now as he did when he was a rookie 20 years ago.

A real football player, had he been able to survive in the NFL for two decades, would have facial skin as tough as a dime steak, a beard like sandpaper and would creak when he walks. He’d have more concussions than teeth.

Yet there Hanson is during Lions games and practices in his football costume, holding his helmet absently and sighing, acting like an adolescent bored at his grandmother’s house, and whether you choose to believe it or not, he’s a paid NFL player.

Hanson is not only not a football player; he’s an exception to the rule.

Few kickers in league history have enjoyed the job security that Hanson has since 1992 with the Lions.

More times than you can count, the shelf life of an NFL kicker is shorter than a gallon of milk. It’s the ultimate what have you done for me lately? job in sports. Kickers make hockey goalies look as entrenched as Supreme Court Justices.

A kicker can find himself in several training camps—in one month. He can be signed on a Thursday, flown in on a Friday, kicking in a game on Sunday and, if the wind doesn’t go his way or the laces aren’t spun just right or the snap is a little low, can be back in his hometown on Monday night, jobless yet again.

Have leg, will travel.

But not J Hanson.

Hanson not only has been the Lions’ kicker since 1992, he hasn’t had any serious competition for his job since then. The guys who have kicked in Hanson’s stead have done so only because injury has necessitated the Lions bringing in an understudy.

Even when Dave Rayner kicked for the Lions in 2010 and did a fine job filling in for the injured Hanson, who was then 40 years old, there wasn’t really any serious threat to Hanson’s job.

Usually, when the Lions have brought in a kicker during training camp, that guy’s job amounted to little more than giving Hanson a fellow kicker with whom to talk. By the end of camp, the other guy was sent packing, his chances of unseating Hanson about as good as you hitting the lotto.

It’s a great gig Hanson has had since 1992, so it’s no wonder that he’s in no hurry to give it up.

“I’m working so that my goal is, if I’m going to play, to show up and have them be like, ‘He’s the same’,” Hanson told the Free Press’s Carlos Monarrez this week. “And if ever that day comes where it’s not, then maybe I’ll be fishing in the fall. But it’s not going to be this year. And that’s always just been my goal, to make sure I can still kick like I always have.”

Let’s be clear—Hanson’s job security hasn’t been charity by the Lions. Kickers don’t stay in the league for 21 years, much less for the same team, unless they can kick the stuffing out of the football, with accuracy. Hanson has earned his keep.

And he has a message for those who think his leg has lost too much of its thump.

“I still have the distance we need, I think,” he told Monarrez. “(My length) won’t limit us in any way. I can still hit the long ball when we need it.”

He hit it last year, when Hanson connected on 5-of-7 from 50-plus yards, a 71.4 accuracy rating that put him in the top 10 in the league.

The problem with Hanson has been that there’s been too much Hanson.

Actually, you don’t mind seeing Hanson trotting onto the field, except that it’s too often been to kick field goals instead of extra points. That changed dramatically in 2011, when the Lions’ Silver Bullet offense emerged as one of the most lethal in the league.

Hanson kicked a lot of extra points last season—54 of them, by far a season high for him. It was the Year of the Anomaly.

Usually, Hanson has been the symbol of both the Lions’ ineptitude and his own success. The more the Lions offense has sputtered, the more we saw Hanson, kicking field goals. And the more he kicked field goals, the more we marveled at his consistency and cursed his teammates’ deficiencies.

For years during the Black Hole of the Matt Millen years, Lions fans looked at Hanson and saw the best player on the team—which is ironic because, as has been determined, he’s not a football player. No kicker truly is.

Now, with the offense finally coming around, maybe the Lions won’t need all those 50-plus-yard kicks. But Hanson doesn’t want to turn into some sort of short-yardage specialist, kicking style.

“I’d rather have them cut me than have them have me do that,” he told Monarrez of being looked at as a short-distance kicker. “That’s my attitude. If it came to that, I don’t know, maybe I’d be like, ‘Well, I can still kick under 45.’ But I don’t want any part of that.”

Spoken like a true football player—even if he isn’t one.