Monday, June 29, 2009

Monday Morning Manager

My weekly take on the Tigers, also known simply and affectionately as "MMM."

Week of 6/22-28: 4-2

This week: 6/29-7/1: at Oak; 7/3-5: at Min

Goat of the Week

It was a pretty good week for the Tigers, so it's hard to find a true goat.

But a couple things happened on Friday night in Houston that were troubling, because they flare up from time to time.

First, the Tigers' uneven offense was at full bloom.

They jumped off to an early 4-0 lead, thanks largely to Placido Polanco's three-run homer. They had Justin Verlander on the mound. Their seven-game winning streak looked good at being extended to eight.

But the offense began stranding runners, exhibiting its ill-timed flare for not being able to move runners along. The 4-0 lead just sat there, as the Astros pecked away at it.

The Astros got to within 4-3 going up against Verlander, and then the Tigers' bullpen stepped into the fray.

Then, the other season-long, nagging thing the Tigers occasionally do reared its head.

Issuing free passes.

This time the culprit was Joel Zumaya, who walked three straight in the eighth inning, including the tying run.

Tigers pitchers' inability to throw strikes at precisely the wrong moment has been an Achilles' heel kind of thing all season. Even closer Fernando Rodney has been a transgressor at times.

So all those runners the Tigers left on base, combined with handing out walks, essentially cost them the ballgame on Friday. It was a giveaway, pure and simple.

You can't give ballgames away in the big leagues--especially when you're trying to maintain a lead in the division.

The Astros had no business winning Friday, but the Tigers let them off the hook.

Hero of the Week

Just as the Tigers had no business losing on Friday, they stole one on Sunday.

Brandon Inge was so the hero.

Inge, the brilliant third baseman-turned-deadly power hitter, pulled the game from the fire Sunday, blasting a two-run home run off Astros closer Jose Valverde in the top of the ninth to turn a 3-2 deficit into a 4-3 lead.

Valverde now is an unsightly 6-for-10 in save chances.

The impact of Inge's home run was like that of a meteor slamming into Earth.

With one swing, Inge saved the Tigers from a sweep, won them a game on a day in which everyone else in the division also won, and maintained their lead in the AL Central at four games, instead of it slipping to three.

Valverde walked Marcus Thames, who had a marvelous at-bat, before facing Inge with two outs.

And here's how Inge has matured into such a dangerous hitter.

"I saw him throw a lot of split-fingered pitches to Marcus, which missed," Inge explained afterward about his blast on a 1-0 pitch. "Then he started me off with a splitter, missed, and so I thought he might go fastball because he wouldn't want to fall behind 2-0."

So THAT'S how it's done, eh?

The Tigers swept the Cubs, thanks in part to Ryan Raburn's pinch-hit, two-run, walk-off homer on Wednesday night. But Inge's homer was one of those "huge" hits that playoff teams get during the course of the season.

Yeah, you heard me -- playoff teams.

More on that later.

Quick scouting reports: A's, Twins

The Tigers have been on the road an inordinate amount of time during the first half, so it's no wonder that they're off on another extended trip.

This week it's off to Oakland and Minnesota.

The A's are scuffling. The Tigers swept them in Detroit in May. The biggest name right now, at least as far as Tigers fans are concerned, is Matt Holliday.

Holliday, the right-handed hitting slugger, has been mentioned as a possible trade deadline acquisition for the Tigers. Certainly, he would qualify. The A's figure to be sellers come July 31, and Holliday is having an off year, with just 8 HR in 270 AB, plus a .274 BA that is way below where he's used to being.

But July 31 is the inter-league deadline, as far as players being traded without having to go thru waivers. Teams within the same league don't have such restrictions come August 1. So if Holliday is to be dealt to the Tigers (or any AL team), it doesn't necessarily have to be by July 31.

Aside from Holliday, the A's are 31-43, fading fast, and coming off a gruesome 5-13 spate of interleague play.

The return of Jason Giambi to Oakland has been mixed in its results. Giambi has 10 HR, but is only hitting .203.

Ah, the Twins --- and that lovely Metrodome. My favorite place, as all my faithful readers would attest.

Yes, the sarcasm drips.

Another reason why Inge's homer was so big on Sunday was that it maintained the Tigers' lead over the Twinkies at four games. Anything less than four when the Tigers invade Minnesota this weekend puts the Twins a sweep away from tying or surpassing the Tigers for first place.

The Tigers were swept away in the Dome in May. Which was hardly the first time that's happened.

Speaking of the Twins, the usual suspects are at it again: Justin Morneau, Michael Cuddyer, Jason Kubel, Joe Crede, and Joe Mauer all have double digits in homers, and Mauer is batting .394 in nearly 200 AB.

The Twins have a feeling of invincibility at home, where they are 24-15, but where they play at a much higher percentage, it seems, against the Tigers.

It's never fun when the Tigers play in the Metrodome. Fans of the team will concur that it's a place where you close your eyes, grab on to whatever you can, hold on tight, and hope for the best.

Even when the Tigers get swept, you're still left with a feeling of "I'm glad THAT'S over with."

Going into the Metrodome is like going to the dentist, in that regard. Even if the doc finds nothing, you're still glad to hop off the chair.

Under the microscope

MMM is placing Zumaya under the scope.

Talk amongst yourselves.

OK, the reason why is that Zoom Zoom has been the biggest offender of bullpen wildness. For every 102 MPH fastball, there's a curve ball missing the strike zone. For every "blow 'em away" strikeout, there's a trouble-inducing walk.

And, for every big out, there's an ill-timed home run surrendered.

Zumaya is still a presence, but he's been unreliable, if you want to talk honestly.

His ability to put out fires consistently in the 7th and 8th innings is just as important, maybe more so, then anything Fernando Rodney has to do in the 9th.

A more consistent, reliable Zumaya is imperative for the Tigers in the second half of the season.

Hence, him under the scope.

Bottom line:
The Tigers will have the benefit of playing tons of home games after the All-Star break, where they have a very impressive record. But it's also why they need to finish this latest road trip strong.

Puffing up the road record -- and there's no better place to do that than in Minneapolis this weekend -- would really put pressure on the teams below the Tigers. This, of course, assumes that they continue their stellar play at home.

It's been a grind, this first half has, with all the travel. But these six games in Oakland and Minnesota are the kinds of games that test a team's attrition. You can see the light at the end of the tunnel, but you have to keep grinding it out. No more giveaways, like what happened in Houston on Friday.

That's all for this week's MMM. Join me every Monday!



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