Although the Detroit Tigers are not any further off-pace this season than they were at this point a year ago, the excitement and expectation that were placed on a team put together to make a run at a World Series title is souring quickly.
The excitement is being replaced by feelings of angst and frustration at the under-achieving through the first quarter of the 2012 season, and with this week's road trip sweep at the hand of division rival Cleveland, things aren't shaping up any better inching toward the All-Star Break and 2012's mid-way point.
Detroit left Cleveland after an early season series in 2011 four games back of the Indians and have nearly mirrored that this season, sitting at six games back headed to Minnesota for their second divisional series of a 10-game road trip.
Yes, it's early and there are still over 100 games to play—anything can happen. One hot streak and it's all smiles again, but for now the dark cloud continues to hover.
At 20-24 the Tigers have lacked the type of difference-making contribution to get their Motor City machine going. If Justin Verlander's effort to stop their recent skid wasn't enough yesterday in Cleveland, it is almost inevitable that the finger-pointing will become more noticeable.
Verlander threw his second straight complete game and held the Indians to just two runs on six hits over eight inning of work, but the Tigers faltering offense continued to struggle, leaving 10 runners on base. Verlander did all he could do to give his team a fighting chance, reaching all the way up to 102 on the gun in an effort to light a fire under his team—even that heat wasn't enough.
Detroit left 30 runners on base in their three-game set with the Indians and went a paltry 3-28 at the plate with runners in scoring position. A lack of timely hitting is creating increasing pressure in a dugout full of players that should be getting it done better.
Once the pressure boils too high someone is going to catch the heat.
The question is, who?
No doubt that the Tigers manager Jim Leyland will start to feel the walls closing in and to a certain extent rightfully so. In fact, Leyand has seemed to shoulder the brunt of frustration to this point anyway.
Honestly, Tigers owner Mike Illitch put considerable money on the table to ensure that this team was a winner and anything less than that will be unacceptable to fans and to Leyland. Leyland, however, isn't where the finger should be pointed. As easy as it might seem to simply blame the manager, Leyland isn't that guy—players have to play.
When a team doesn't invest in their success that makes the excuse for a lack thereof pretty simple, but the Tigers have made the investment and it's the players not getting it done, not the manager. Leyland is fully vested in Detroit and deserves to see this through, so if not him than who?
No doubt the bullpen has cost the Tigers a handful of games already this season, some of lack of staunchness can be blamed on injury and inexperience but not enough to make it better. Detroit's pen has been one of the worst in the league, posting a collective ERA above 6.00 and blowing multiple save opportunities.
Can the Tigers escape their current funk and still win the division?
Absolutely they'd be in different company right now had the bullpen been up to the same snuff they were a year ago when the Tigers were basically unstoppable if leading after the seventh. Joaquin Benoit and Jose Valverde were fully automatic, now it seems they have to stop and reload much too often. A winning streak and a few clean innings would go a long way to getting both hurlers returned to top form.
It's difficult to put too much of the blame on the bullpen either as inexperienced arms typically inheriting runs on a nightly basis during hotly contested games can be a recipe for disaster. It's a bit like setting them up for an inevitable failure—unfortunate but all too true this season. The maturation of those young arms will come but at what price to their confidence?
Detroit's starting pitching has also been strong enough for the team to be in better position than they are right now. Even with the position they've put the bullpen in from time to time—too many inherited runners—nearly all of them have pitched with little to no run support which also plays on the psyche of individual players and an entire team if allowed to fester.
Again, the onus of blame must be placed elsewhere.
Where, you ask?
Look no further than the plummeting batting averages of a less-than-lethal offense and you'll have your answer. Look even closer under the microscope and a lack of timely hitting is the area of greatest concern for the Detroit faithful right now.
The offense just isn't producing at the dish and the domino affect of this lowly production is eating at the core strength of a wonderfully assembled group of talented players. To add further insult to the situation, the Tigers are now without the most consistent spark plug they've had in their lineup all year with the shipment of center fielder Austin Jackson to the disabled list.
An offense that should have been as sharp as a gauntlet is instead as dull as a butter knife right now, it's time to start pressing the panic button a bit, especially when backup catcher Gerald Laird (.286) is hitting better than the vast majority of the rest of the team. Nothing against Laird, but he isn't the guy the Tigers paid to produce.
Prince Fielder's .286 average would be fine if it were coupled with twice as many home runs and RBI but it isn't. Fielder has driven in only 25 runs and has hit only seven home runs in nearly 200 trips to the plate. When you are being paid a five digit figure per at-bat the level of expectation rises a whole lot and Fielder has yet to meet the tide.
Outside of Andy Dirks' .321 average and Miguel Cabrera's .305, as well as the previously mentioned Fielder and Laird, the rest of the lineup is hitting sub-.250 and has faltered in nearly every run-scoring situation. The Tigers lack of timely hitting is the reason they are chasing the divisional lead instead of sitting at the top protecting their place on the mountain.
So, who's to blame? The answer is becoming all too clear for a team that needs to find their way in a hurry before the season goes awry and time begins running out. Start hitting like you did in Lakeland, and really for the most part like you did all last season, or suffer the consequences.
Good hitting will lead to more confident pitching and less stressful late-inning situations which should ultimately give way to more wins and a ton more fun and confidence in a dugout that seems to be greatly lacking either right now.
Sooner or later the finger-pointing will give way to much worse if the ship isn't righted and that would be disappointing to all.
Statistical data provided by mlb.com
Bleacher Report Featured Columnist J. Cook is a member of B/R's MLB Coverage Team and contributes to B/R's MLB content and Detroit Tigers page. He also covers key sport interest stories for all of Detroit's major sports teams.