September 21, 2012
On the Beat
Trouble in Tiger Town
Jim Leyland watches the scoreboard every night. Yet, to the Tigers manager, that isn't a big deal. He starts watching the scoreboard on Opening Day.
"It's not that you look at them more now, it's just that they have a little more significance this time of year," Leyland said.
They certainly have significance for the Tigers, who are trying to catch the White Sox in the American League Central with two weeks remaining in the season. The Tigers are two games back.
"We're definitely looking at how the White Sox are doing," Leyland said. "If I had to predict, I would say that most everybody knows how the White Sox are doing every night in our dugout. If they say they don' t then they probably aren't being truthful. Heck, with those mega-scoreboards or whatever they call them, you can know the score, the time and temperature, the weather report for next week. It's beautiful. It's like people say they don't read the papers. Trust me, we read the papers. Everybody in baseball knows what's being said about you, just like everybody knows who's winning and who's losing. What's wrong with that?"
There is nothing at all wrong with it, because having interest in baseball keeps websites like this going. In fact, the only thing surprising is that the Tigers are in a position to be scoreboard-watching this late in the season. Many pundits thought the Tigers had the easiest road to a division championship as anyone after winning the AL Central by 15 games last season. They added first baseman Prince Fielder as a free agent in the offseason after learning that designated hitter Victor Martinez would miss this year to recover from reconstructive knee surgery.
With that in mind, it could be said that the Tigers are among the game's biggest underachievers this season. Leyland doesn't disagree with that assessment.
"I would say up to this point of the season that we are underachievers," Leyland said. "I would also say let's wait until the season is over before saying for sure it winds up that way. The season isn't over, and a lot of things can happen. I know the expectations were set high when we signed Prince, and I'm sure there are people who feel we haven't reached those expectations. That's OK, though. That's just what it is. That's all part of it."
One thing Leyland did take exception to back in spring training was so many people tabbing the Tigers as the heavy favorites in the AL Central. It wasn't so much that Leyland was worried about the expectations weighing on him, but how it seemed to disrespect the other teams in the division.
"Last year, everyone predicted us to finish fourth, so you take it with a grain of salt," Leyland said. "You don't win a pennant in the wintertime. I think the natural reaction was to pick us first because of Prince, but I knew the White Sox would be good. They're good every year. I certainly didn't leave spring training thinking we had the division in the bag. If you think like that in this game, you're crazy."
Leyland passed up the opportunity to sign a three-year contract last season and instead took a one-year deal. At 67, he prefers to take things season by season.
"I'm not going to comment on my contract status until the season is over," Leyland said. "The only thing talking about my contract can do is be a distraction, and that's the last thing we need in the middle of the pennant race."
There is a growing sense around the Tigers that Leyland won't be asked back for another season if they fail to reach the postseason. Even if they do get to the playoffs, Leyland is likely to be asked to jettison his two most-trusted coaches, third-base coach Gene Lamont and hitting coach Lloyd McClendon. Leyland has always been very loyal to his coaches and would likely move on rather than fire Lamont and McClendon.
Meanwhile, Leyland is trying to enjoy what might be his last pennant race and the roller coaster of emotions that come with it.
"It's nerve-racking, but it's fun," Leyland said. "Every game is a big game at this time of the year, and you've got to be able to not let one game wash into the next game. Win or lose, you've got to put it behind you and stay focused on the next one. It's what you play for, though. We're where everyone in the game wants to be—in a pennant race. I don't know how it's going to turn out but it'll be a fun couple of weeks. It's really a great time to be a sports fan. You've got the NFL going on, college football season in full gear, and a lot of pennant races. What more could you want?"
A few minutes with Brewers left fielder Ryan Braun
On his chances of repeating as the National League Most Valuable Player: "I don't even think about it unless someone brings it up. It's always so much easier to focus on team goals than individual goals. We're fighting to get back to the playoffs, so that's enough to occupy my mind right now. My total focus is on helping get to the postseason. I want to do that and then let everything take care of itself.
On if he feels winning a second MVP would be vindication after he tested positive for a performance-enhancing drug only to have a suspension overturned because his specimen was not handled properly: "I don't feel I have to be vindicated or prove anything because I have never used performance-enhancing drugs. The suspension was rescinded, as it should have been. To me, the MVP last year was not tainted and because of that, if I were fortunate to win it again this season, I don't think it would be validation or vindication or whatever word you want to use."
On the Brewers rebounding from being 12 games under .500 on August 19 to being in contention for the second NL wild card: "We just kept believing. We never gave up. We knew we didn't play as well as we were capable of during the first couple of months of the season. We knew we were eventually going to play better. It took longer than we hoped for it to happen, but we're playing well now and the second wild card has given us—and a lot of teams—hope. We're playing well in all three phases—we're pitching well, we're scoring runs, and we're playing good defense. Of course, if we don't play well these last two weeks of the season, then what we've done this last month or so isn't really going to matter."
On how the Brewers' offense has evolved following the offseason loss of slugging first baseman Prince Fielder to the Tigers in free agency: "I think people have always perceived us as a team that relies on the home run. Well, we really don't. We're pretty good at running the bases. We've got a lot of guys who can steal bases, and if you rely on the homer, you really get yourself in trouble, so you try to find a way to manufacture runs sometimes, too."
Reds right-hander Homer Bailey: "He's pitching better than I've ever seen him. He's commanding his fastball to both sides of the plate, and he's getting ahead in the count. No one has ever questioned his raw talent, but he's finally learning how to channel it.
Cubs second baseman Darwin Barney: "He should win the Gold Glove in the National League. He makes one good play after another. and he's very consistent. He can play the hell out of second base."
Mets first baseman Ike Davis: "I don't get all this talk about his nightlife habits. I've never seen the kid do anything but play the game hard, and I've never heard a bad word about him."
Red Sox left-hander Felix Doubront: "He has the chance to be a pretty good starting pitcher, but he needs to cut down the walks and have better mound presence. He gets rattled very easily when things don't go his way."
White Sox first baseman Adam Dunn: "He is the no. 1 example of why batting average just doesn't matter."
Marlins right-hander Nathan Eovaldi: "He's really starting to kick it in gear. He's throwing 97 mph consistently and he looks comfortable now in the big leagues. It seems like he might be over the adjustment period."
Yankees outfielder Brett Gardner: "Even if he can only pinch-run, he'd give them an extra dimension in the postseason."
Athletics right-hander A.J. Griffin: "I know he got killed in Detroit (on Tuesday night), but I like him. He's a painter. He paints the corners and puts the ball where he wants. I like him."
Rangers center fielder Josh Hamilton: "He's a great player, but he also has one nagging injury after another. That's why I would be very hesitant to go long-term with him as a free agent this winter."
Royals right-hander Luke Hochevar: "I know he's been a disappointment, but I still see enough signs that lead me to believe he is going to be a very good major-league starting pitcher at some point. His stuff is good, and he's slowly figuring out how to pitch."
Diamondbacks right-hander Ian Kennedy: "He might not ever win 20 games like he did last year, but he will eat innings and keep you in games. There is value in that, especially in today's game."
Dodgers left-hander Clayton Kershaw: "If I'm the Dodgers, I shut him down right now for the rest of the season. I realize that will kill their playoff hopes, but they cannot mess around with this kid. You're talking about a potential Hall of Fame pitcher."
Giants right-hander Tim Lincecum: "He's finally got himself on track, and that's going to make the Giants very dangerous in October."
Cardinals right-hander Kyle Lohse: "Nobody seems to talk about him, but he's set himself up to make a bundle on the free-agent market this upcoming winter."
Twins catcher Joe Mauer: "If you come to the understanding that what he did in 2009 from a power standpoint was a fluke, he's back to being the same old Joe Mauer. He's been healthy all season and productive."
Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins: "He looks totally re-energized the last few weeks. He's playing better than he has in years. He's turned back the hands of time."
Rockies catcher Wilin Rosario: "He has shown he can definitely hit big-league pitching, but I question whether he can stay behind the plate. He has a lot of work to do defensively, a whole lot of work."
Padres left-hander Eric Stults: "He's been one of the season's biggest surprises for me. He's resurrected his career. I'm not saying he's a top-of-the-rotation guy all of a sudden, but he should be in somebody's rotation at the beginning of next season.
Angels: "I think they've got to change managers if they don't make the playoffs. It's nothing against Mike Scioscia. He'll go somewhere else and do a fine job if he does get fired, but sometimes you get stale, and he's been there for a dozen years now."
Astros: "I would not be stunned if they elevated Tony DeFrancesco to the full-time manager's job. That club is playing a lot better lately, and he's done a nice job in a really tough situation."
Blue Jays: "How did they let Yunel Escobar play an entire game with a homophobic slur written on his eye black? Somebody has to catch that. You can't let that happen."
Braves: "They are one hard team to figure out. Sometimes, I look at them and think they might win the whole thing. Other times, I look at them and figure they won't make it past the wild card knockout game."
Indians: "They might be the worst team—from a fundamentals standpoint—in the big leagues. They kill themselves with silly mistakes."
Mariners: "It's going to be very interesting to see what they do in the offseason. Once and for all, they have to fix the offense, even if it means trading Felix Hernandez to do it. I know pitching and defense wins championships, but you also can't win a game 0-0."
Nationals: "I'm curious how they are going to handle all the hype in the postseason. They've got a number of key guys like Ryan Zimmerman and Bryce Harper and Gio Gonzalez and Tyler Clippard who have never been to the postseason. It's a whole different world."
Orioles: "I shake my head and marvel at what they're doing. They are the epitome of a team's sum being of a greater value than its parts. This has been Buck Showalter's finest moment."
Pirates: "If they would have gotten some help at the trade deadline—and I'm not talking Gaby Sanchez and Travis Snider, but a legitimate big-league hitter—they would be going to the playoffs. How do you not win for 20 years then balk at the chance to win?"
Rays: "They've completely collapsed in all the phases of the game down the stretch. It's very unlike a Joe Maddon-managed team."
This week's Must Read is a touching story by the Cincinnati Enquirer's John Erardi about how a bat boy helped change the Reds' outlook.