June 2nd, 2014

Game 53: The Flat Game, or the Hangover

Ask Tigers fans about Jim Leyland’s shining moment as Tigers manager, and you’ll probably get a few different answers. The World Series trips, of course, will be up at the top of the list. The way he set the tone for the team’s conduct after Jim Joyce’s blown call cost Armando Galarraga his bid at a perfect game was a display in classiness. That moonwalk through the visiting clubhouse at Target Field last September following the Tigers’ third straight division title has to be a late addition to the list.

However, a surprising number of Tigers fans still remember that getaway day game early in 2006, his first season as Tigers manager, when he blew up at an anemic performance in a lackluster loss.

“We stunk, period,” Leyland said after a 10-2 loss to the Indians. “Stunk, and it’s not good enough. It’s been going on here before, and it’s not going to happen here [now]. It’s not going to go on here.”

These quotes, of course, came after Leyland met with players immediately after the game and yelled and screamed at them. It was technically a closed-door meeting, but that term was irrelevant because Leyland’s screaming and yelling could be heard outside the closed doors.

“The whole ball of wax was lackluster,” Leyland went on that day. “It’s just not good enough. We had a chance to take the series, and we came out here like we just brought our luggage to the park and we’ve got a game and then we go on the road. That’s not good enough.”

It’s impressive how many people remember this game, because of how many have brought it up in light of Sunday’s Tigers loss in Seattle, and how first-year manager Brad Ausmus handled it. It was the first time Ausmus really took a cut at the team’s effort, and he navigated it like he knew it was going to be examined.

He couldn’t come at it like Leyland, because he’s not in that situation. His team is not in the situation it was then, either. But he had to come at it somehow.

Leyland was a veteran manager trying to teach a perennially mediocre team how to win, though it was a team that had winners on it. Ausmus is a first-time manager, a recently retired player, who took over a team full of guys who have won before. And while he clearly wasn’t happy with what he saw on Sunday, he wasn’t going to yell and scream about it.

“I just thought we were flat,” Ausmus said. “It was just one of those days where we made quick, easy outs and didn’t really put up much of a fight.”

The setup was a similar — a team preparing to travel, a series that hung in the balance, a chance at a fairly good trip. Though all the Tigers struggles over the past couple weeks, they nearly had a winning trip on the West Coast. They split against the first-place A’s, which should have given them momentum going up against the Mariners. It didn’t.

Asked how he would describe the trip, Ausmus said, “It was disappointing. You come into here after a split in Oakland and you hope to take the series, maybe win two out of three. We end up losing two out of three and it’s a losing trip as opposed to a winning trip. So I’m not real excited about that.”

There was a hint of the former player in Ausmus when he talked about how it happens. Sunday was more than the culmination of a week-long West Coast trip. It was the final leg of a three-week stretch of 20 games over 21 days in six different cities, including a four-game homestand that felt like just another stop on the trip.

There was a hint of the new manager in saying that’s not a good enough reason.

“There’s a little truth to road weariness, but there’s no excuse there,” he said. “That’s the schedule.”

And there’s the line Ausmus is currently navigating, and probably will have to do so again at other times this year. He’s a manager who knows the modern athlete because he played so recently. Because of that, he’s also a manager who surely remembers how his former managers handled stretches like this, whether it was Phil Garner or Larry Dierker or Bruce Bochy or Joe Torre. He’s in their seat now.

“You know what, teams are going to be flat, whether it’s road weariness or fatigue or the dog days of the season,” Ausmus explained. “You’re going to have flat days. Sometimes you get through the flat days until something happens in the game that sparks a rally. Today, really, we never got that spark. Yesterday we almost did, but today we didn’t.”

They didn’t have a whole lot of fizzle in Saturday’s game either, he subtly referenced, until the later innings. The clubhouse was eerily quiet after that game Saturday night, like that game was there for the taking and they let it get away. This team is very good at turning the page the next day, but that quietness was still there Sunday morning.

The way they lost that game, falling just short, seemed to linger into Sunday. They were flat, all right, but they also seemed to have a hangover, so to speak.

“We had a tough loss last night. It was very emotional,” Rajai Davis said. “A lot of energy was spent trying to win that game. We weren’t able to transfer that over today.”

Today’s off-day should help clean the slate. Considering the teams coming into town this week, it had better.

What gets forgotten about that tirade Leyland had his first year was the way he reacted after it happened. When he walked around the clubhouse the next night in Oakland, there was no sign that anything had happened. It was over before he left Comerica Park, he said later.

Instead of still being angry, he was happy about it.

“I’m glad it happened,” he said. “Because if it wouldn’t have happened, then I shouldn’t have come back. If I don’t get ticked off when you’re supposed to get ticked off, then I should be home.”

At which point, Leyland made a point that he repeated at various times the rest of his Tigers tenure: Wins, he said, are golden.

“You have to learn how valuable certain things are,” he said. “You have to be able to at least attempt. … You get a chance to take three out of four, you’ve got to smell it and say, ‘Man, we’ve got to go get this one.’ That can’t be me. It’s got to be their attitude.”

It was his tirade, but it was up to the players to set the tone. Which is interesting to note now.