The 2018 Tigers season wasn’t supposed to be this interesting. On the heels of a 6-23 September in 2017, prognosticators predicted a 100-loss season. The Tigers have been anything but lapdogs. In fact, they have kept Tigers fans engaged with five walk-off wins and a gritty effort on most nights.
So why have the Tigers been better than expected? Here are five reasons why.
Next Man Up
It has been a challenging first two months for the Tigers in terms of fielding a healthy club. Injuries to Jordan Zimmermann, Daniel Norris, and Francisco Liriano have jolted the rotation. Miguel Cabrera missed a month with a hamstring injury and the bullpen has taken a couple of hits with DL stints for Alex Wilson and Daniel Stumpf. The Stumpf injury left the Tigers without a lefty in the bullpen. Yet, the Tigers have persevered with a “Next Man Up” attitude.
John Hicks stepped in to ease the pain of the Cabrera injury. Hicks hit .304 with 14 RBI’s in 27 games in May and filled in nicely at first base in Cabrera’s absence. Utility man Niko Goodrum has utilized every glove in his locker, playing seven different positions. Goodrum has also provided a little bit of pop in the lineup, hitting five homers.
As for the rotation, Blaine Hardy has done a solid job of filling a void while Zimmermann and Liriano rehab. Hardy has posted a 2-1 record with a 3.81 ERA in five fill-in starts. Ron Gardenhire has done a terrific job of keeping everyone involved and contributing.
Earlier this year, Nicholas Castellanos described Gardenhire as the “Captain of the ship.” From day one, it was clear that Gardenhire’s leadership style was a perfect fit for a young, rebuilding squad. Beyond displaying a good dose of patience, Gardenhire has a good grasp of what he has to work with. This team plays aggressively and with energy.
These are not the Tigers teams of the recent past that depended on the three-run homer to win. Gardenhire knows that he has to win games in other ways. This club has run more and pushed the envelope when other Tigers teams simply slugged. He has a keen understanding of how to motivate players and instill confidence.
Eighth Inning Lockdown
The Tigers bullpen has been up and down for much of the season but the eighth inning has been a source of consistency. Joe Jimenez has emerged as the Tigers most dominant reliever two months into the season.
Jimenez has flashed the arsenal that made him nearly un-hittable in the minor leagues. With a fastball that has touched 99 MPH and a slider that disappears in a blink, Jimenez has emerged as one of the best late-inning relievers in the game. The confidence that his manager has displayed by trusting him in late game situations has helped Jimenez flourish.
In his last 15 appearances, Jimenez has logged a 0.63 ERA.
Nick Has a Knack
Nicholas Castellanos entered the 2018 season coming off a career year in 2017. Castellanos has settled into the two spot in the lineup and he has not disappointed. Analytics suggested that the Tigers right fielder would best serve the team by batting second, and the numbers don’t lie.
Castellanos is hitting .348 with an on-base percentage of .363 batting second and his 26 multi-hit games are pacing the Tigers offense.
He has clearly emerged as a leader in the clubhouse as well and moving forward, the Tigers will go as far as Castellanos will take them
Jeimer’s a Gamer
Although he has battled a balky wrist this season, Jeimer Candelario is showing why he was the Cubs top prospect when he was acquired in a deadline deal last season. Candelario was leading the club in homers through the early part of June and has been one of the Tigers top run producers this year. Saturday’s walk-off homer in the 12th inning against Cody Allen and the Indians was one of the highlights of this season.
Candelario has displayed poise beyond his age and has the innate ability to slow the game down in big spots. While his patience at the plate has made him a candidate to hit leadoff, he is more suited for the middle of the order.
“I think for this team, he is better batting ln the middle of the lineup,” said hitting coach Lloyd McClendon. “He has great poise in RBI situations.”
Candelario has also provided a steady glove at third base. The move of Nicholas Castellanos to right field last season was accelerated by Candelario’s arrival.
This Tigers squad has certainly benefited by residing in a less than stellar Central Division, but it’s clear that the rebuild is farther along than most realized.
More evidence of the Tigers progress is the amount of one run games they have played. Through the first 67 games, 22 have been decided by one run. In those games, the Tigers are 12-10.
Perhaps the season to this point can be summed up by a hashtag that Jimenez uses on Twitter: #WeCompete