Gardenhire eyes long run as Tigers take lumps

August 29th, 2019

DETROIT -- The question began with another witty retort from manager Ron Gardenhire, who was asked on MLB Network Radio on Wednesday morning about tracking the Tigers’ collection of top pitching prospects at Double-A Erie.

“I hope I don't get fired before they get here,” Gardenhire joked. “Pretty soon, it's going to be fun around here."

Yes, he was kidding about being fired. But yes, there’s a twinge of truth in the punchline, in the fact that he doesn’t know for sure if he’ll be back, or if this long season will send the Tigers in a different direction.

Even as the Tigers approach what would be their first 100-loss season since 2003, a season the 61-year-old Gardenhire admitted has been “probably as tough as I’ve ever gone through,” he wants to come back. He has not been assured by general manager Al Avila whether that will happen**,** though a phone call later seemed to put that more to ease.

“When you start something, you want to finish it,” Gardenhire said after Wednesday’s 4-2 loss to the Indians at Comerica Park. “You want to see [through] the rebuild. It’s a rebuild, and they told me that from the get-go. I’m happy they’ve given me this opportunity to run with these guys.

“Yeah, it’s tough. It’s tough on them, too. They’re trying to get us players. Al and I talk all the time. We try not to talk about contracts or anything like that during the course of the season. Those things take care of themselves after the season’s over with. We’ll talk about me eventually. … I don’t worry about that right now. I worry about these kids getting better by the end of the season and feeling really comfortable about who’s coming back with us next year.”

Wednesday was another example. The Tigers, paced by six innings of two-run ball from Jordan Zimmermann in his third effective start in a row, took a 2-2 game into the eighth inning before Francisco Lindor sent a Buck Farmer pitch to the deepest part of Comerica Park’s left-center field. The ball hit off the top of the fence and bounced over as Victor Reyes, getting a rare start in center field with Harold Castro out, watched helplessly. Jason Kipnis led off the next inning with a home run off Joe Jimenez, assuring the Indians’ 13th consecutive win over the Tigers this season.

“They’re playing good baseball, and they’re playing for a playoff spot,” Gardenhire said, “and we’re fighting just to survive out here in the games and get better with a lot of young guys.”

Next year is the final season of the contract Gardenhire signed when the Tigers hired him in October 2017. He knew when he interviewed for the job that the team was headed into a difficult rebuilding project, much like in his final few seasons in Minnesota. This has largely become a teaching season for Gardenhire and his staff, who have had players on the field to work on fundamentals before batting practice nearly every game day this month.

After Tuesday’s 10-1 loss, Wednesday looked more like the close, competitive baseball that the Tigers played for much of their last road trip to Tampa Bay, Houston and Minnesota, the kind of ball that gave Gardenhire some reason for optimism. It did not net them a much-needed win at Comerica Park, where the Tigers need five more victories to avoid becoming the first team in modern Major League history to lose 60 home games in a season.

“We’re not swinging like we did on the road,” Gardenhire said. “When you’re playing all these playoff teams, you’re going to face some pitching that we haven’t seen before. I’d like to us to obviously put more hits together and have a big inning. We did a few of those things on the road, and now we have to carry it here at home.”

Gardenhire is not the first Tigers manager to go into the final weeks of the season without his future announced, contract or not. Brad Ausmus was rumored to be on his way out after Avila became GM in August 2015, then was told in September he’d be back for the third year of his deal. When the Tigers took their Wild Card chase into the final weekend of the 2016 season, the team waited until after the season to announce it was picking up the option on Ausmus’ contract. A year later, as the Tigers began their rebuild, they let Ausmus’ status linger before announcing with two weeks to go that Ausmus wouldn’t be re-signed.

Even with the Tigers’ struggles this year, Gardenhire is expected to stay. Both Avila and Tigers owner Christopher Ilitch praised Gardenhire’s work earlier this year, especially his teaching of younger players. Avila just signed a multi-year contract extension earlier this summer. The Tigers have begun promoting prospects who are projected to play key parts in the rebuild, such as catcher Jake Rogers and shortstop Willi Castro, but the pitching prospects at the heart of the effort aren’t expected to arrive until at least next summer.

Gardenhire isn’t thinking that far ahead. He’s just trying to lead his club through this season and look for signs of improvement. Detroit’s runs Wednesday -- one on a Dawel Lugo homer, the other on a Castro sacrifice fly -- were glimmers of hope.

“[Hitting coach] Lloyd [McClendon] has been working with our guys about staying back behind the ball a little bit better,” Gardenhire said. “That [home run] was one of the cases. If he got out any farther in front of it, it would’ve probably been a popup. He stayed back with his hands just good enough, and he’s a strong young man.”

Castro’s sac fly, after strikeouts in his first two at-bats, was his first Major League RBI. He batted third with Miguel Cabrera out.

“He stayed in the zone a little better that time,” Gardenhire said. “That was a big at-bat for us.”