Wednesday night’s 7-5 loss against the Seattle Mariners symbolized everything that is wrong with the Detroit Tigers. With all the blunders and missteps the Tigers have emitted since April, nothing could have driven a nail into the coffin quicker than a perfect game spiraling into a fifth consecutive loss.
Tigers’ starter and former ace Justin Verlander was having a sensational performance. He pitched 5.1 innings hitless. No errors. No walks. Nothing. With the Tigers up 4-0, the only question was whether JV could add a perfect game to his already impressive career.
So it seemed.
Jarrod Dyson bunted for the first Seattle hit of the game. Verlander proceeded to walk the next batter and surrender a second base hit on a poorly defended blooper to shallow left field.
A base hit up the middle by Ben Gamel scored Dyson. Verlander responded with striking out Robinson Cano, but Nelson Cruz hit a 2 RBI double one at bat later. That was the end of Verlander’s night.
Shane Greene, Detroit’s most reliable reliever, immediately replaced Verlander. But it did not matter. Greene only survived one inning, coming at the price of four earned runs—the most he has given up all year. The Tigers progressed to lose the game 7-5.
2017 has been nothing short of gut wrenching for the Tigers, and it’s not just because they are losing. It’s the way they are losing. How is it that such a talented team, who has the fourth-highest payroll in the MLB, is crawling further away from the .500 mark by the second? More specifically, how can the Tigers can turn a perfect game and four-run lead after 5.1 innings into yet another loss?
To say that the Tigers blew an opportunity would be a total understatement. Verlander was not simply pitching a good game. He was in absolute command. 11 of his 17 outs were strikeouts. His fastball was in the mid-upper 90’s and the depth on his breaking ball was off the charts. Verlander was single-handedly taking on the entire Seattle offense, and he was winning.
But Dyson’s bunt, which some considered to be “gutless,” changed everything. At the time, it was simply the Mariners’ first hit of the game. But it represented much more. That bunt gave a glimmer of hope to a defeated Mariner offense. More importantly, it gave the Tigers a chance to blow the game. It gave each team a new role to play.
Suddenly, the Tigers turned into a AAA club. Verlander went from perfect to punchless by this single bunt. But it wasn’t just Verlander.
The Tigers’ offense, who was having a field day against the great Paxton Lynch, went lifeless. Detroit still had a 4-3 lead following Verlander’s departure. But it was inevitable that the Tigers would crumble. They had already given up.
Shane Greene’s fantastic season was suddenly nowhere to be found upon relieving Verlander. His killer slider and cutter typically make him a nightmare, especially for righties. But when the Tigers needed him the most, he broke down.
The Tigers had a brief resistance down 7-4 in the ninth inning. Ian Kinsler hit a two-out solo home run, followed by a Nick Castellanos hard hit infield single. But Miguel Cabrera, in all his splendor, walked up to the plate with nothing but a game tying home run on his mind. The result was a medley of big, but ugly swings leading to a groundout to shortstop.
Verlander’s sixth inning blunder was unexpected. But these things are not unheard of. Had Verlander’s struggling sixth been the only major mistake the Tigers made, they would have likely walked out with a victory.
But that was not the only mistake. The bottom of the sixth marked a complete and utter breakdown of Verlander, Greene and the Tigers’ offense, each of which were extraordinary heading into that inning. And it all started with a bunt.
Missing the perfect game/no-hitter is not what’s important. Verlander still had a long way to go before that would happen. What’s important is that the Tigers yet again turned a favorable situation unfavorable.
There are a lot of problems with the Tigers. Their pitching is not quite where they want it to be, their bullpen has regressed since its stellar month of May and their defense and base running are complete jokes.
Still, with solid sluggers and a few dependable pitchers, the Tigers have enough upside to stay competitive in the AL Central. But what they lack is mental toughness. They are like a quarterback that can’t handle the blitz. When rattled, they shrivel up into a ball. They invent ways to lose.
It is not particularly uncommon for teams to falter under pressure. A home run, for example, can easily fluster opponents and change the flow of a game. But for the Tigers, it wasn’t a home run. It was a bunt. That’s all it took to transform a perfect game into yet another demoralizing loss.