Detroit — Reduce their first nine games to the numbers that count and the Tigers have done just fine 10 days into the 2010 baseball season.
They are 6-3 and will live with a .667 winning percentage any time, any year.
But the schedule gets tougher for a team that has developed a couple of soft spots, one of them a surprise, as manager Jim Leyland acknowledged Wednesday following the Tigers’ 7-3 loss to the Kansas City Royals at Comerica Park.
“Starting pitching has to get better with fewer pitches,” said Leyland, who never expected Tigers starters to be getting the hook so early, often after only five innings. “And, getting more offense out of our catching.”
Leyland would agree pitching and a catcher’s hitting aren’t on the same plateau, but his second point stands. Gerald Laird and Alex Avila have been a combined 3-for-33 as the team gets set for a rugged 11-game road trip against the West Division.
Laird is batting .120 in seven games and by his own admission had “a rough day” Wednesday, going 0-for-3 with a walk. He struck out in the second inning after a leadoff double by Brandon Inge, failed to get a bunt down in the sixth, and dropped a throw from Magglio Ordonez in the seventh that would have cut down David DeJesus with what ended up as the winning run.
Those boos Laird later heard from some of the irked Comerica customers? They didn’t miss their target.
“No,” Laird said, with a weary smile, “but it’s all right. It comes with the territory. You’ve got to earn their (the fans’) respect. You’ve got to meet it head-on.”
Laird hit .225 in 2009 and vowed reform. He would bat in 2010 along the lines of those .296 and .276 seasons he put together when he played for Texas.
He lowered his old upper-cut swing during spring camp and hit .269 with three home runs. He was on his way. At least until a cold start temporarily knocked his comeback off-kilter.
“It’s nine games in, and I’ve had 25 at-bats,” Laird said, bringing some perspective to a 162-game season. “I’m gonna do fine.”
The Tigers hope so. They have been getting dynamite offense from the heart of their order — Magglio Ordonez, Miguel Cabrera, Carlos Guillen — not to mention surprising help from rookies Austin Jackson and Scott Sizemore.
But a team that gets minimal run-production from its shortstop, Adam Everett, can hardly afford to go light at two up-the-middle positions.
The antidote there was supposed to have been rookie Avila. But “rookie” tends to be an unforgiving term in baseball. Avila has pretty much confirmed it, although he has had a measly eight at-bats, good for a single.
“I know I’m a good hitter,” he said, and, in fact, so do the Tigers. “Any chance I get I’m going to do exactly what I’ve been doing: trying to provide a little spark for the offense. If I haven’t played in five days, I still feel I should have four quality at-bats and get some hits.”
The Tigers are nonetheless in a quandary with Avila. They need him to catch more regularly than he possibly will catch in Detroit. He is not yet two years out of college, and not even three years into his conversion from the infield to a demanding new position.
They need him to work behind the plate, refining his skills, and teaming with pitchers on a regular program of calling pitches and supervising a nine-inning game.
It is why the team was so torn during spring training on where to place Avila: In Detroit with the big team, or interning at Triple-A Toledo?
Detroit won out, but it is very possibly a short-term assignment. As unfair as it is to a 23-year-old rookie, he is the Tigers’ future at catcher, and if he doesn’t quickly bring the pop Leyland needs from Avila’s bat, he could be placed on a regular shift at Toledo in a swap for catcher Robinzon Diaz.
That, like the Tigers’ fortunes on a tough West Coast trip, is yet to be determined. The Tigers might be 6-3, but they know how fast those numbers can change, particularly when people at important positions aren’t flourishing.