Almost two months ago it seemed unthinkable the Detroit Tigers would net the first overall draft choice for a second straight year.
But now the club is in a nose-dive that may only end when the season does.
Detroit has played its last 42 games with just 11 victories, a .262 clip, entering its weekend series against the Minnesota Twins.
The Tigers stood 36-37 after games of June 17, playing scrappy, energetic ball and finding ways to pull out games despite spotty pitching at both ends.
But in the 42 games since, Detroit has averaged just 3.02 runs-per-game and been shut out eight times.
Detroit will send out right-hander Jordan Zimmermann (4-4, 4.31 ERA) seeking to snap a four-game personal losing streak in his Friday night start against the Twins.
He has not faced Minnesota this season but over his career he has started against the Twins seven times with a 3-3 log and 6.87 ERA.
Minnesota just finished losing three out of four at Cleveland and will counter with right-hander Ervin Santana (0-0, 6.14 ERA), making his fourth start of the season since coming back from finger surgery. He is 10-5 with a 3.39 ERA lifetime against Detroit, though, in 22 starts. This will be his first start against Detroit this season.
Detroit remains third in the American League Central, but that’s a division with the only two teams in baseball winning less than 40 percent of their games.
The Tigers entered Thursday 5 1/2 games ahead of the Chicago White Sox and 11 1/2 up on the Kansas City Royals, but seven more weeks of .262 percentage baseball could net Detroit the first or second overall choice in the 2019 draft.
“We’ve just got a lot of guys struggling at the same time,” manager Ron Gardenhire said following an 0-6 West Coast trip in which the club scored just eight runs in six games (five in one of them). “A lot of younger players (are) fighting it. You know what, we play better at home, so it’ll be nice to get home.”
The Tigers are loaded with inexperienced players, and teams have discovered they will swing at just about anything, particularly breaking balls or off-speed pitches on the fringe of the strike zone.
“They’re going to go through ups and downs,” Gardenhire said. “We just have a lot of people going through the downs right now, all together, and it’s just kind of a cloud over the lineup. They’re trying to get hits. They’re trying to drive in runs. It’s a struggle.”
The Twins’ scheduled Sunday starter, southpaw Adalberto Mejia, is dealing with a left wrist problem that may keep him from starting that game.
If that’s the case, manager Paul Molitor is dropping hints Minnesota may copy Tampa Bay and open with a relief pitcher for one or two innings. The Twins have done that a couple of times in the minors to test its effects.
“He’s doing better,” Molitor said of Mejia at mid-week. “(Head trainer) Tony Leo has asked to buy a little more time. He’s really encouraged about the opportunity for him to go ahead and throw on Sunday.”
Mejia has a 2.01 ERA with 13 strikeouts and nine walks while allowing one home run in 22 1/3 innings with the Twins.
If he can’t go, right-hander Fernando Romero is scheduled to start for Triple-A Rochester on Sunday and could be recalled, possibly to pitch after a reliever opens.
Romero threw eight scoreless innings for Rochester last Sunday, striking out eight and scattering four hits, but it technically came in relief after reliever Alan Busenitz started the game but allowed three runs in the first.
“They used the ‘opener’ in that game, so you look at the numbers and read the report,” Molitor said. “The attacking, the command of all his pitches. He’s always on your radar as a guy you can dip down and get if you need someone.
“I think there’s enough curiosity for us to see how it plays. There are lot of factors on who you are going to open and it depends on who you’re going to follow. What constitutes the other team’s lineup as far as if it’s left/right, all those types of things. This thing has a chance to pick up legs across the game, but you know, as we get more data in return, you can’t argue with Tampa’s success. That’s for sure.”
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