Next two weeks will determine whether Tigers are champs or chumps

Joe Nathan and a few other key players have failed to perform at their expected level in 2014 for the Detroit Tigers.

Joe Nathan and a few other key players have failed to perform at their expected level in 2014 for the Detroit Tigers.

A long baseball season will come down to a few short numbers:

Eight — the number of games the Detroit Tigers will play over the next seven days.

Two — the number of games the Tigers will play on Saturday in the midst of a 15-day stretch when they will not have a day off and will play 16 times.

One — the number of games the Tigers trail the Kansas City Royals in the loss column.

Kansas City is not going anywhere

In the last six weeks the Tigers have squandered a seven-game lead inn a division they were supposed to own. A division they have won three straight seasons. The Royals are the young up-and-comers, while the Tigs are the Might Cats. Pay attention, Tiger Nation, because the next two weeks will decide whether this team will continue to reign, or whether we’ll be talking about how the Mighty have fallen.

Early season rain and snow has kept the Tigers a few games off pace schedule-wise with the rest of the league. That’s been good and bad. The bill eventually had tom come due, and now in the dog days of August the team is being put through a grueling stretch. But it’s also meant that Detroit has had fewer losses on their mark and the loss column is the most important thing to look at. More wins can he had, losses can’t be taken away. As of today the Tigers have 60 losses and the Royals have 59. That simple one-game difference is what matters as the Tigers chase the Royals.

On September 8th the Tigers will open a three-game series against the upstart Royals at Comerica Park with an afternoon tilt. If the current rotation holds, Justin Verlander will be on the mound, and lest you worry that JV will be 2014 JV instead of 2011-12 JV, remember that he has a 17-7 career record against KC. Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello, who currently are tied for the AL lead with 15 wins, would start the next two games of that series.

But what the Tigers do over the next nine days (when they will play ten games and be forced to trot out a rookie starter probably twice) will determine whether that KC series will be crucial or whether it’ll be anti-climactic. The Tigers have to win six or seven of those games to hope that they can face off with the Royals with a chance to sweep them and assume first place in the AL Central.

First place – that’s where they belong, right?

Right. But this team has their fans nervous. We’re not sure if they’re the 2012 Tigers, who pushed past the White Sox to win the division with a hot streak in September, or whether they’re the 2009 Tigers, the club that famously blew their lead and lost in Game 163 in heartbreaking fashion to the Twins. You can feel it in Detroit and in the state of Michigan — fans are bracing themselves for the bad news. They have lots of practice for this type of stuff — the Lions performed a nosedive last year to squander what looked like a surefire playoff spot. But we’ve come to expect these Tigers to come through. But the Royals have acquired something that’s dangerous to the team trying to stay on top — the Royals have hope. They’re playing like a team using house money. They’re playing like a team that wants to exorcise the demons that come with a three-decade long postseason drought. KC is shaking the woe off themselves like barnacles off the bottom of a rusty boat. Detroit has six games total with the Royals in September, and like the 1987 division race with the Blue Jays, it could come down to the wire for Detroit.

The keys to salvaging this season

Complicated is the 162-game baseball season, there are lots of parts and personalities and ups and downs. However, it’s really this simple: three players have failed the Tigers in 2014 and they each need to step up if the team is going to capture a fourth straight division title.

Verlander has seven starts this season in which he’s allowed five earned runs or more, and that’s not counting the start he lasted one inning and gave up four before being removed with a sore arm. After missing two starts he came back and pitched okay the last time out, but he has to pitch better than that. He’s the top dog on this staff (he’s paid like it anyway), and it’s time to start performing like it. I’ve defended him against critics in the past, but there are no excuses now. I don’t want to hear about mechanics and tweaking things and so on, it’s time for JV to figure out what he needs to do and do it.

For some reason (more for fan relations than anything else, in my opinion), the Tigers extended Miguel Cabrera’s contract for nearly a decade a year earlier than they had to. Theyn will regret this contract because no one can perform at the level Miggy was in 2011-13 forever. He’s gradually slowing down and he’ll have to transition into a phase of his career where it’s smarter for him to play 145-150 games and be more effective than to play 160. Having said that, in the short term, for 2014, Miggy needs to do better. The big guy hasn’t hit a home run since August 2, and he’s hit just two in the last two months. His slugging percentage for July and August is .415. That isn’t getting the job done. The easiest way the Tigers could win this division would be for Cabrera to get on a three week tear like we’ve seen him do before.

The bullpen has been atrocious, we don’t have to revisit every nightmare out there, but one man in particular has been terrible in 2014. Joe Nathan has blow six saves this season, four of them resulting in losses. All closers blow games, but Nathan’s six blown saves have crippled the Tigers efforts to take a firm grip on this division. At 1 1/2 games out right now, just a few of those saves could have made the difference. Like it or not, Average Joe is our closer, Brad Ausmus is going to follow the script. All the other moves made by Dave Dombrowski to bolster the pen have failed, so this is what we’re left with. There will be games during this dog day stretch when Ausmus will wave Nathan into the game. He’ll need to keep runners off the bases in order to secure wins for the Tigers. Nathan’s stuff isn’t nasty anymore, he survives by fooling batters with junk in the dirt, he walks a tightrope hoping to survive his inevitable mistakes.

Is a wild card spot a death sentence? 

Entering this four-game weekend set against the White Sox, the Tigers are in the second wild card spot, tied with Seattle but winning a tiebreaker. If the Tigers do settle for a wild card spot, are they built to win a one-gamer against either the Angels or Athletics? Well, they beat the A’s in a one-game-takes-all scenario in both 2012 and 2013, Verlander vanquishing the bearded scrubs from the Bay Area each time. The Tigers have Scherzer, David Price, or Porcello to roll out for a one-game wild card playoff, or maybe even Verlander gets hot and earns that nod. A wild card isn’t necessarily a death sentence for Ausmus & Crew, but it’s not the path the team wants to take. The second wild card team would most likely have to defeat the A’s and Angels in the playoffs, and that’s a tough task.

The 2013 postseason ended disappointingly when the Tigers failed to close out a Game Two in in the ALCS against Boston and eventually fell in six games. Expectations are high for this team, but Tigers fans would accept a trip to the LCS again or the World Series. That would keep them tuned to this team. But if the Tigers end up on the outisde of the playoff scene or lose a wild card game, the 2014 Tigers will be remembered as chumps.