The Tigers hit the road a week ago as a surprise contender, lifted by a winning streak that eventually hit six games and brought them within a game and a half of a playoff spot. They return home with a more difficult path to the postseason, but with lessons coming out of meaningful September games well ahead of schedule on their rebuild.
"When you can play in meaningful games, you take a lot out of them. You grow," bench coach Lloyd McClendon said after Monday afternoon's 6-2 loss in Minnesota closed the trip with a 2-5 record. "You'd obviously like to win them, but I just believe if you're not working hard, you're not learning on a daily basis, you're not getting better. I think this club is getting better. We're getting after it pretty good."
Detroit's seven-game trip to the Upper Midwest ended Monday with the lone relatively suspense-free game of the week. A four-run third inning fueled by Ryan Jeffers' 437-foot home run off Michael Fulmer and Eddie Rosario's bases-clearing double off Daniel Norris proved too much to overcome. The Tigers lost minimal ground on the trip, but they now also have the Orioles to battle with as well as the Yankees and Blue Jays with 20 days to go.
For long-term development, the trip was a learning experience in a lot of areas for a team that keeps getting younger. Here are three big factors:
1. Youth movement accelerates
JaCoby Jones' season-ending fractured left hand and Niko Goodrum's oblique injury left Detroit's lineup younger by week's end. Victor Reyes, who finally became an everyday player with Cameron Maybin's trade to the Cubs last Monday, is now the Tigers' everyday center fielder and leadoff hitter. His 0-for-3 game Monday was just his second hitless performance in his past 16 games, though he drew an eighth-inning walk.
Goodrum's injury accelerated Willi Castro's ascension to everyday shortstop. Castro's hitting, in turn, moved him into a run production spot behind cleanup hitter Jeimer Candelario. Castro went 10-for-26 with seven RBIs on the trip, including a two-run homer that began the Tigers' comeback Sunday and a game-tying RBI single.
"He's a hungry young guy," Candelario said. "It's fun to see him growing. He's trying to be aggressive in the zone, kind of like me, [hitting] middle to the other way, and he's doing a really good job."
Castro's shift to short also means an everyday role for third baseman Isaac Paredes, whose encouraging start cooled with an 0-for-15 trip.
"To get here and have a little bit of success and then struggle as of late, from a mental standpoint, you have to be tough," McClendon said. "I think you have to rely on your teammates to pick you up. The coaching staff has to grind it out with him, make sure he stays up and continues to work hard."
2. Bullpen roles shifting
Gregory Soto looked like a blossoming young closer when the Tigers hit the road following back-to-back saves over the Twins in Detroit following Joe Jiménez's removal from the role. But Soto's blown save Friday with two walks and a single might have paused any plans as a full-time closer. He pitched the seventh inning Saturday in a lefty-lefty matchup before Jose Cisnero lost a save opportunity with a leadoff walk and three singles.
The only save of the trip came Sunday from Bryan Garcia, whose first big league save resulted from four unavailable relievers. Still, Garcia's poise in the ninth as well as back-to-back bases-loaded situations he inherited in Milwaukee could put him among the late options as manager Ron Gardenhire continues to play matchups.
3. Inconsistent starts
The Tigers had a couple gems from their rotation, from Fulmer's six-strikeout performance Tuesday in Milwaukee to rookie Tarik Skubal's six innings of one-run ball with six strikeouts Saturday in a hard-luck no-decision at Minnesota. Matthew Boyd overcame back-to-back leadoff homers to go six strong innings Friday.
Other starts proved aggravating. Spencer Turnbull walked five batters over 4 1/3 innings Wednesday in Milwaukee, a game that featured 10 walks and 192 Tigers pitches. Casey Mize struggled without an effective splitter Sunday, lasting one batter into the fifth inning. Fulmer had two strong innings Monday before falling apart in the third.
"It's not really two steps forward, one step back," Fulmer said. "I think it's definitely on me that I need to learn and reacquire a strike breaking ball, and I think it changes all my outings going forward, not just this one."