Shut out 19 innings, Tigers are learning how ugly the realities of a young lineup can get

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DETROIT — Detroit Tigers starter Casey Mize had a terrific performance Wednesday at Comerica Park. He incorporated a sinker to right-handed batters and dispatched hitters with both his splitter and his curveball. He retired 18 of the final 19 hitters he faced. He did not allow a hit after the second batter of the game. That second batter, however, was Bryan De La Cruz, who destroyed a hanging slider for a two-run home run.

That was pretty much the game. Miami Marlins 2, Tigers 0.

“I threw the ball well after the first two,” Mize said. “I just made a mistake that cost us the game.”

That has been a common theme lately. This is the burden Tigers pitchers have to bear. Day after day, it seems a Tigers starter throws well. Day after day, the run support is lacking. Take Reese Olson, who just one day earlier shut out the Marlins for eight innings. The Tigers lost 1-0 in extras. Those sort of tough-luck outcomes have been a recurrence for Olson, who became the first pitcher since the advent of ERA in 1913 with a sub-2.25 ERA and a record of 0-4 or worse through eight starts, according to OptaStats.

Read that one again: A sub-2.25 ERA. An 0-4 record. A historic anomaly.

“Any time you put up zeros like that, I’m going to feel good about it,” Olson said. “I just focus on throwing strikes and being competitive in the zone. And our guys have been scoring runs, so I believe in them.”

This has happened, too, to Jack Flaherty, who has a 3.88 ERA and averages 11.65 K/9 but has an 0-3 record.

Detroit’s offensive performance in the final two games against the Marlins was particularly brutal. Miami entered Wednesday with the worst team ERA in baseball. The Tigers, though, were shut out for 19 consecutive innings in back-to-back losses to finish the three-game series. After an encouraging start to the season, the Tigers are now 21-22 overall and 4-9 in May.

These can be difficult emotions to reconcile. The inconsistencies and the struggles are baked into the cake of fielding a young team that is no longer rebuilding but not yet contending.

“It’s frustrating when it’s this roller-coaster ride of success and failure,” manager A.J. Hinch said, “and we’ve got to pull ourselves out of this again because back-to-back games where you don’t score isn’t good enough. It’s not that we’re trying. It’s not that we’re not trying to make tweaks. It’s about execution, and that’s the hardest thing to do at this level.”

Colt Keith was a good example of the difficulty of process vs. execution Wednesday. In the sixth inning, he hit a ball 99.2 mph. It was a fly out to center field. In the eighth inning Keith got ahead 2-0 and saw a pitch over the middle of the plate. It was a cutter that got in on Keith’s hands just enough. Broke his bat. Turned into a whimper of a groundout.

“Hitting is hard,” Hinch said. “Anything that we say comes across like an excuse. Actions, really, is what we need.”

There is no one-size-fits all solution coming. The Tigers have had four different hitting coaches in six seasons. They could call up prospects and face the reality they will likely struggle at the onset like so many before them. In Detroit, Spencer Torkelson struggles to get on time for fastballs. Matt Vierling struggles to lift the ball for power. Parker Meadows, before he was sent down, was flabbergasted by breaking balls. Javier Báez is a constant riddle.

“I don’t really subscribe to, ‘This is the answer,’” Hinch said, “otherwise we would have done it 30 games ago.”

So here’s yet another reminder that Scott Harris, the Tigers’ president of baseball operations, foretold much of this in spring training. “We should expect these young hitters to struggle at times,” he said. “We should be expecting the offense to sputter at times.” He talked of giving runway to young position players, of leaning on pitching to keep games closer. “We wanted to be self-aware about the team that we’re about to run out there in 2024,” he said.

Sputtering and being unpredictable is one thing. Being downright bad is another. But where’s the line? What’s the difference? This is what we’re trying to decipher in real time.

“I’ve got to pick and choose when to play the heavy hand, when to be the encourager, when to say results are all that matters,” Hinch said. “If you start to say results are all that matter, they’re going to go up chasing hits, and then they start chasing pitches and it’s just a perpetual struggle. But obviously we need to figure it out to get these guys in a better place.”

This is the path the Tigers have chosen. It was never promised to be pretty. On days like Wednesday, we see just how ugly it can get.

(Photo of Colt Keith: Brian Bradshaw Sevald / USA Today)

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