First-inning HR the difference for Mize, Tigers in series finale

May 15th, 2024

DETROIT -- Casey Mize didn’t need to look back to the fence to know the fate of his hanging curveball to Bryan De La Cruz, though he eventually did anyway. The look on his face detailed the frustration with the pitch and a 2-0 deficit two batters into his outing.

That was the last hit Mize allowed over six innings. He retired 18 of his final 19 hitters from there, tied his season high with six strikeouts and found 12 swings and misses. He couldn’t do anything about the other side of the scoreboard.

Mize left the mound with the same score. It was still 2-0 when Marlins closer Tanner Scott fanned Riley Greene to finish the rubber match of the three-game series Wednesday at Comerica Park, giving the Tigers a 2-4 homestand and a losing record (21-22) for the first time this season.

“I threw the ball well after the first two [hitters],” Mize said. “Just made a mistake that cost us the game. Obviously disappointed in that.”

That’s a harsh verdict to make about a two-run homer in the first inning, but it sums up where the Tigers have struggled so far. They scored in two innings in the entire three-game series, a three-run second and three-run eighth in Monday’s comeback win, then went scoreless over the final 19 innings. They put up more traffic against Trevor Rogers and Miami’s bullpen Wednesday, including a runner on base in seven of nine innings, than they did in 10 innings against Ryan Weathers and two relievers on Tuesday. They still went 0-for-3 with runners in scoring position and left 10 on base, including the bases loaded when Rogers fanned Gio Urshela on three changeups to end the third inning.

Low-scoring games are what Detroit expected. The Tigers built their team around strong pitching to keep games close and give a lineup of young hitters a chance to come through while enduring growing pains and learning on the job. Play enough nailbiters -- 24 of their 43 games have been decided by two runs or less, and three others went to extra innings -- and the margin between victory and defeat becomes agonizing. After winning five of their first six one-run games, they’re now 8-9 in that category, and 3-4 in two-run margins.

The Tigers have breakouts -- six runs Monday, eight against Houston last Saturday, 11 on May 7 at Cleveland and in the second game of an April 30 doubleheader against St. Louis. But they’ve struggled to sustain momentum. They put together three four-game streaks of four or more runs in April, but have done so in back-to-back games just twice since April 30.

“We’ve had a hard time being consistent,” manager A.J. Hinch said. “But then you like those days when we knock out 10 runs or 12 hits or a bunch of hits. So it’s frustrating when it’s this rollercoaster ride of success and failure, and we have to pull ourselves out of it again, because back-to-back games where you don’t score isn’t good enough. It’s not that we’re not trying.”

The pitchers are strong enough to stand the pressure; even Reese Olson has remained stalwart through an 0-4 start. The tricky part is waiting out an offense that is more complex than one hitter or one aspect.

“It’s not one size fits all for 13 hitters, or 14 or 15 guys that have come up here,” Hinch said. “So it would be unfair for me to sit here and give an analysis on a team when you’re talking about 15 different swings. It could be pitch selection on some. It could be not elevating. It could be a little bit of bad luck. It could be not hitting with two outs. …

“We generally hit the ball hard. We generally don’t chase as a team. But then somebody will point to a player and say, ‘This guy does.’ So I don’t really subscribe to this [one thing] is the answer. Otherwise, we would’ve done it 30 games ago.”

Wednesday’s end says as much about the Tigers’ situation as the beginning. Back-to-back two-out hits -- the first string of hits for Detroit since Monday -- put the tying run on base for Greene, arguably the ideal scenario. But while Greene was the Tigers’ hottest hitter for April, he’s batting .200 (10-for-50) with 17 strikeouts in May. Thus, while catcher Carson Kelly had three of Detroit’s seven hits Wednesday, he never advanced past first base.

The Tigers’ struggles might be simple, but fixing them -- aside from patience -- is more complicated than it seems.