Poor defense hurting the Tigers

BY foxsports • September 17, 2012

The Chicago White Sox haven’t sprayed champagne or passed out American League Central championship T-shirts, but that day will arrive soon enough. The Detroit Tigers have the bigger payroll and more superstars, but the White Sox are playing a better brand of baseball, and, frankly, seem to want it more.

The White Sox won Monday’s much-hyped matinee, 5-4, increasing their lead to three games with 16 remaining — an arduous deficit to overcome even for a hot team, which the Tigers are not. And one play in the bottom of the fifth illustrated why the underdog South Siders are about to slap an “underachiever” label on the supposed division heavyweight.

Detroit clung to a 4-3 lead, as Dayan Viciedo dug in against reliever Al Alburquerque with one out. The bases may have been loaded, but the Tigers were a double-play grounder away from escaping the threat. Sure enough, Viciedo rolled the 2-1 slider to short. “Uh-oh,” Hawk Harrelson intoned on the White Sox telecast. It was time for Jhonny Peralta and Omar Infante to make like Trammell and Whitaker.

But for this team, this year, there’s no such thing as a routine double play.

Infante was awkward on the turn, and the charging Alex Rios took him out with a hard, clean slide. Infante skipped his throw to first base, reeling like a quarterback who had been leveled by a blitzing defensive end. Still, the ball arrived in time for Prince Fielder to scoop it and keep the runs from scoring.

“I just didn’t,” Fielder said.

The ball slipped below Fielder’s glove and shot into the dugout. Adam Dunn and Paul Konerko ran home. The makeup-day crowd of 29,130 went bonkers. The Tigers’ lead was gone — and maybe their season, too. Once the inning was over, the Detroit infielders sauntered toward the dugout. Their heads were down. They looked defeated. And they were. The last 12 Tigers hitters went down in order, with only one hard-hit ball among them.

Defense, defense, defense. Extra outs are lethal at this time of year, and they are absolutely killing the Tigers. They have turned only 118 double plays this season, the fewest in the league. Monday’s unearned run — which happened to be the game winner — was Detroit’s 68th this year. Only the woeful Cleveland Indians have allowed more.

Infante, in particular, has been surprisingly uneven defensively since arriving from Miami in a midseason trade. He acknowledged after Monday’s game that he’s been putting excessive pressure on himself in the field. “I don’t know (how) to explain it,” said Infante, who wore a bandage on his left ankle where Rios’ cleat caught him. “I practice a lot in BP. I do everything, (work) on double plays, throw to the bases. I don’t know what happened. Last year, I played great defense. I get here to Detroit, and I think maybe my confidence (is down). I’m a little tight. I don’t make excuses. I have to do the little things.”

In related news: The White Sox, with 22, have permitted the fewest unearned runs in the American League.

Clearly, the hardball punditry underestimated the Pale Hose this spring. First-year manager Robin Ventura imbued his team’s clubhouse with an easy confidence — a welcome change from his grating predecessor, Ozzie Guillen. Adam Dunn is hitting for power. Kevin Youkilis has revived his career. Rios, the team MVP, is playing with a purpose he hadn’t displayed in years. (Hard takeout slides weren’t his thing in Toronto.)

Contrast that with the Tigers, who have two of the top 10 hitters in baseball (Fielder and Miguel Cabrera), two of the top 10 pitchers in the AL (Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer), a high-priced setup man and closer (Joaquin Benoit and Jose Valverde), and All-Star center fielder in the making (Austin Jackson) . . . but not nearly enough speed, defense and athleticism to round out the roster.

If they miss the playoffs, what is the explanation?

Aside from Victor Martinez’s season-long absence — which was offset by the Fielder signing — the Tigers haven’t encountered many roster-related hardships this season. Jackson was the only everyday player in their Opening Day lineup to spend time on the disabled list. They have had three pitchers make at least 29 starts and another (Doug Fister) with 23. When they needed a reinforcement, owner Mike Ilitch authorized the payroll increase to get Anibal Sanchez.

Detroit’s Jim Leyland has more wins than any active manager — not to mention a World Series ring — in part because of the strong loyalty he has for his players. But that same trait has become counterproductive this year. He’s played Ryan Raburn and Brennan Boesch too much, Quintin Berry and Avisail Garcia not enough. Even after a wobbly infield cost the Tigers consecutive games — including Sunday’s loss in Cleveland — Leyland doesn’t sound like a manager who’s willing to adjust on the fly.

Peralta’s lack of range has hurt the Tigers’ ground-ball pitchers, and his bat (a .176 batting average this month, two GIDPs Monday) isn’t helping. I suggested to Leyland on Monday that the nimbler Danny Worth might be a better option than Peralta right now. He did not agree.

“The guy (Peralta) has a track record in the major leagues of 75-80 RBI with 20 home runs a lot of times,” he replied. “He’s made five errors all year. That’s not a very good question.”

Peralta, an All-Star last year, indeed has reached 20 home runs and 80 RBI four times each in his career. But that’s not going to happen in 2012. He’s at 11 and 58, respectively. With two weeks left in the season, what good is a track record when there is no present production to go along with it?

In the end, this isn’t about Peralta, Infante or even Leyland himself. This is about a team that, collectively, is neither what it was in 2011 nor what it was supposed to be in 2012. The White Sox deserve to go to the playoffs. The Tigers don't. It really is that simple.