DETROIT — If the season had ended Friday night, the Detroit Tigers would be packing their bags and going home for the winter. And the team that inflicted a 7-2 defeat on them, the Seattle Mariners, would be headed to Anaheim to play the Los Angeles Angels in a wild-card playoff game.
"I’d much rather be in first place and up by 15 games," Detroit manager Brad Ausmus said. "But there’s a lot of baseball left to play."
True, there are 42 games to play, including a pretty exciting one Saturday night (6 p.m. pregame, 7:08 first pitch on FOX Sports Detroit) with David Price and Felix Hernandez in a matchup of former Cy Young Award winners.
But how can this possibly be? How can the Tigers, the odds-on favorites to win the American League pennant entering the season, be bobbing up and down in the same playoff stream with Seattle?
The Mariners, coming off a 71-91 record and a fourth-place finish in the tough West Division, went out and signed All-Star second baseman Robinson Cano for the next decade at $240 million.
And Seattle general manager Jack Zduriencik hired a new manager, Lloyd McClendon, whom Detroit also interviewed for its vacancy before hiring Ausmus. Zduriencik also signed the last viable free-agent closer standing, ex-Tiger Fernando Rodney, who’s converted 35 of 38 save opportunities.
But the rest of the lineup, aside from rising star third baseman Kyle Seager and catcher Mike Zunino, is forgettable. It appeared to be another Seattle team that would waste its brilliant starters, Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma.
Yet, here they are, with a 66-55 record and playing purposefully and confidently.
"Mac is a guy who just tells you to go out and play hard, and that’s what we are doing," Cano said.
Austin Jackson — traded by Detroit to Seattle two weeks ago in the three-team deal that brought Price to the Tigers from the Tampa Bay Rays — got a standing ovation in the first inning, then went 0-for-5 and never hit the ball out of the infield.
Still, he sat at his locker after the game, smiling that electric A-Jax smile and talking about what a great night it had been.
"That was awesome, a special moment like that," Jackson said of the ovation. "I wasn’t sure what to expect. It was just them saying, ‘We miss you.’ That hits you. It tells me I definitely touched some people."
He noted that McClendon, whom he grew very close to in Detroit, is doing a great job.
"We’re playing really good baseball right now, with a lot of fire and intensity," Jackson said. "Everything’s clicking at the right time."
McClendon was asked about his players complimenting his managerial approach.
"It’s how they react that matters," he said. "But we got them to buy into accountability and being accountable to one another. And that goes a long way.
"But my staff has played a bigger role than I have. I do not know where I’d be without them."
Mariners hitting coach Howard Johnson, outfield coach Andy Van Slyke and bullpen coach Mike Rojas also are former Tigers.
"It’s always nice to come back to the place we called home," McClendon said. "But you have to put it behind us, the emotions."
Seattle has learned how to win, while Detroit has found that past accomplishments matter not.
The Tigers — coming off a third consecutive Central Division title and looking like a 100-win team after their 27-12 start — are 65-55 and have struggled to find the magic ever since breaking so fast, and are 38-43 since May 18.
There are some obvious questions that arise from all of this:
McClendon or Ausmus?
Detroit GM Dave Dombrowski interviewed McClendon, who was Jim Leyland’s long-time batting coach and had managed before with the Pittsburgh Pirates. But Dombrowski opted for Ausmus, who’s long on potential but short on managerial experience.
Had Dombrowski hired McClendon — often the object of disdain from fans and media critics when the team wasn’t hitting well — it would’ve been a highly unpopular move. Ausmus’ hiring didn’t trigger cartwheels down Woodward Avenue by Tigers fans, but they’ve been willing to see how his reign plays out. And it’s too early to make a call either way.
Then there’s this question: Rodney or Joe Nathan (24-for-30 in save chances)?
Choosing Rodney over Nathan, coming off 80 saves the previous two seasons for the Texas Rangers, also would’ve been jeered on sports-talk radio. But hindsight is 20-20, and there’s no turning back. It is what it is.
By the end of September, Dombrowski could be nodding his head and smiling. His team is 1 1/2 games behind the Kansas City Royals, and there’s just as good a chance to win a fourth straight division title as there is of missing the playoffs completely. And talented, veteran teams tend to get going when the going gets tough.
But that time and challenge is upon the Tigers, who must play in the final 42 games as they did in the first 39 games or face a humiliating end.
CABRERA INJURES THUMB
Tigers first baseman Miguel Cabrera injured the thumb on his left hand in a collision with former teammate Austin Jackson in the second inning. But Cabrera stayed in the game after a visit from head athletic trainer Kevin Rand.
Cabrera hit two doubles, walked and struck out.
Ausmus said Rand "manipulated" the thumb, and Ausmus didn’t feel it was cause for major concern.
"It may have come and gone," Ausmus said. "After a good swing, it feels fine."