DETROIT -- Ron Gardenhire was in the Twins’ dugout 16 years ago when the 2003 Tigers avoided a historic 120-loss season with a win in the finale at Comerica Park, ending with a celebration among players for eluding infamy. Fifty-eight of that team’s American League-record 119 losses came at home.
As Gardenhire watched from the Tigers’ dugout on Thursday while first baseman John Hicks fired across the infield to an uncovered third base, trying to nab a baserunner who was taking advantage of the infield shift, he could appreciate the feeling on the other side. He walked down the dugout steps at inning’s end, hands atop his head, and pondered the upcoming end to a long season.
“I think he thought he was playing the Green Bay Packers, and he was throwing a down-and-out route,” Gardenhire said, providing a badly needed moment of levity amidst a disappointing home finale. “There was no reason to throw the ball there. That was silly.”
While the Tigers did not become baseball’s first team to lose 60 games at home in a season, their 10-4 loss to the Twins tied the 1939 St. Louis Browns for the modern Major League record with 59. The Browns had a lower winning percentage, since teams played 154 games back then instead of 162.
It wasn’t just the losses but the lopsided nature of many of them. Thursday marked the 21st time the Tigers have allowed double-digit runs in a game this season; 16 of them have been at home. Though they won a 12-11 slugfest against the Yankees on Sept. 10, they still finished with a negative-221 run differential at home. Even if the Tigers had played exactly even on the road, that run differential would’ve been worse than every other Major League team but the Orioles. They won one home series after Mother’s Day, taking two of three from Kansas City in August.
Detroit’s struggles at home have been a thorn in Gardenhire’s side all season as he tries to mold a team that can reward fans with entertaining baseball, but Thursday’s loss was particularly frustrating.
“We didn’t play well at home. We stated that all summer long,” Gardenhire said. “When we started the season, as I always preach, you have to take care of your home. You try to play .500 on the road and take care of your home. And we were terrible at home. We didn’t play well for our fans. It’s not like they didn’t try, but we really played bad at home. Hopefully, we can turn that around.”
On an afternoon when the Twins were on short rest after celebrating their AL Central title deep into the morning, and rested many of their regulars as a result, the Tigers couldn’t take advantage, instead trading runs until a four-run fifth inning sent the Twins cruising to a series sweep.
Six of those runs (four earned) came off Jordan Zimmermann (1-13), who finished the season as the first Tigers pitcher since at least 1908 to earn fewer than two wins in a season with at least 20 starts. Two of his runs were unearned thanks to an error by shortstop Willi Castro.
“The pace of the game was slow, really slow,” Gardenhire said. “There were a lot of balls thrown. That opens the door for misplays and all those things when the pace is that slow. It was time-consuming, to say the least. We were sloppy. Jake [Rogers] had a rough time behind the plate, missing some balls.”
The pace was apparently by design.
“I really slowed my tempo down,” Zimmermann said. “I felt like the last couple starts I was rushing, and my arm wasn’t able to catch up. So I tried slowing everything down today.”
Though the Twins sat much of their home-run power on the bench with Nelson Cruz, Miguel Sanó, Jorge Polanco, Mitch Garver, Eddie Rosario and C.J. Cron rested, Minnesota hitters picked apart Zimmermann off sliders and curveballs until Jake Cave’s two-run triple sent the Twins surging. They swung for the fences eventually; Jonathan Schoop’s two-run homer off José Cisnero made Minnesota the first Major League team ever with 300 home runs in a season, breaking a tie with this year's Yankees.
The Tigers showed more offense off Twins spot starter Devin Smeltzer than they had the previous two nights, including two runs and an RBI in a three-hit game from Castro. But their energy seemed to wane and their youthful mistakes increased as their deficit ballooned.
The Tigers wrap up their season in Chicago this weekend with four games against the White Sox, starting with a doubleheader on Friday. By the time they take the field at Comerica Park again next March 30 against the Royals, they’ll have a different-looking club. Ideally, their youth movement will be further along thanks to Spring Training, bringing more prospects to track.
One familiar face, however, will be Miguel Cabrera, who will pick up his climb up Major League Baseball’s offensive leaderboards. His fifth-inning single Thursday was his 2,813th career hit, pushing him past Hall of Famer and former University of Michigan great George Sisler for 51st place on MLB’s all-time list. Next up will be another Hall of Famer and UM standout, former Tigers great Charlie Gehringer at 2,839.
Unless Cabrera is injured, he should pass The Mechanical Man sometime next season as he tries to creep closer to 3,000 hits. The Tigers hope that climb isn’t their only highlight for home fans.
"Something has to change,” Gardenhire said. “You have to take care of home. You have to play well in front of your fans. We’re going to try to do a better job of that and make sure they understand that.”