DETROIT — After facing the Detroit Tigers 10 days ago, Washington Nationals starter Jordan Zimmermann expressed that every opposing pitcher would ideally like to do — and, at the same time, knows is a nearly impossible task.
“They have one of the best lineups in baseball. You have to be careful with every one of their hitters,” said Zimmermann, the Nats’ best pitcher this season, lamenting the hit by Miguel Cabrera that shot through the hole, accounting for the Tigers’ only run in a 3-1 loss, snapping his own personal 20-inning scoreless streak.
“The plan tonight was not to let (Prince) Fielder and Cabrera beat me and he got that ball through the hole. He’s a great hitter and you’re going to give up hits like that once in a while.”
Trust me, though — pitchers would much rather take their chances that they can get guys like Jhonny Peralta, Alex Avila, Omar Infante and even designated hitter Victor Martinez out, rather than tempt fate by pitching aggressively to Fielder or Cabrera.
Through the first 40 games of the season, though, most of those bottom-of-the-lineup guys have been holding their own.
That fact is why the Tigers’ offense has been so much better — vastly more balanced, at least — than it was a year ago.
They’ve done well enough that the Tigers went into Saturday night’s game tops in the majors in runs scored (212), hits (407), RBI (208), team batting average (.280), on-base percentage (.348) and second in OPS (on-base plus slugging, .790).
Detroit also has a streak of at least one extra-base hit in 34 straight games, the second-longest active streak in the big leagues.
Sure, a ton of that can be attributed to Cabrera and Fielder, who rank first and fifth respectively, in the big leagues in RBI. Cabrera is leading the planet in hitting (.376), connecting for a sickening .509 (27-for-53) average with runners in scoring position.
No question those two are deadly.
Tigers manager Jim Leyland’s called it the best combination of No. 3 and No. 4 hitters he’s ever managed. Pitcher Max Scherzer went a step further.
“That’s the best 3-4 hitting combination, maybe in the history of the game. You can put some other guys in there — if they’re not better, they’re right there with them,” said Scherzer (5-0), who basked in the offensive support to push his win streak to five games. “It’s just special to watch what they do, every single night. You see them every single day, and they come up with big hits, in clutch situations, and it just shows you how good they are, just how difficult it is to face our lineup.”
But two men cannot do it alone. Nor can three.
That’s what we saw last year, when Fielder, Cabrera and Austin Jackson had sensational years, only to have the Tigers score more than 60 fewer runs than a season prior, at a rate of nearly half a run less per game.
The reason? No support from the bottom of the lineup.
Peralta fell off from his All-Star pace of 2011. So did Avila.
Brennan Boesch was MIA. Delmon Young was no Martinez.
And nobody plugged into the holes in left field and second base produced consistently.
This year, when healthy, Andy Dirks has been contributing in left. Infante’s been there all year at second base, and Peralta seems to have rediscovered his stroke. And Martinez, who missed all of last season with a knee injury, may have more hard-hit balls for outs than anyone in baseball.
Now, as an opposing pitcher, there’s no breather once you get past Fielder, no letdown in the pressure you’re facing.
You have to worry about the bottom of the lineup, almost as much as the top, because those guys can beat you, too.
“It’s a team game. The big guys do it a lot, but they can’t do it every time,” said Dirks, who hit sixth most of the season, before getting the majority of the at-bats in the injured Jackson’s leadoff spot. “Sometimes, you gotta score in the bottom part of the order to win games.”
You can’t take the bottom-feeders, the ‘Catfish’ as Torii Hunter calls them, for granted.
“I’ve been around a long time. You hear about catfish, we call them bottom-feeders. That’s the bottom, they’ve been doing a great job,” Hunter said. “Great job.”
But won’t your big guys carry the team 80 to 90 percent of the time?
“A lot of times they won’t. I say less than that. I’d say about 60 percent, for the big guys. Nobody wants them to beat you. We don’t want them to beat us. They’ll put those guys on and get to the bottom feeders. And they’re the ones that make a big impact. In my career, that’s what I’ve seen. Playoffs, they’re important. In the playoffs, your big guys don’t do nothing, because they’re not going to let you beat them,” Hunter said.
“Those are the guys that are very important, very important. Cuz they’re going to pitch to those guys.”
This year, they’re beating people.
Entering Saturday, Peralta (.319) and Infante (.316) both sat just outside the top 10 in the American League in hitting. They rank just behind the Tigers’ Big Two in slugging, with a combined 22 extra-base hits.
Frequently a slow starter, Peralta was hitting around .260 at this time last year, before finishing the season in a slump, and with a .239 average.
“He’s using all fields a little bit more than normal, even though he’s a pull hitter,” Leyland said. “He’s having a real nice year.”
Infante’s doing better than that, helping the Tigers rank first in the AL in production from the No. 9 spot in the order, with a .299 average, 46 hits, 22 RBI and 16 extra-base hits from the final spot. He’s been doing well enough that he was the best option for Leyland to plug in at the injured Jackson’s leadoff spot against a left-handed pitcher.
It’s a big difference from last year, too, when Infante hit just .257 in 64 games with the Tigers last year after being traded by Miami.
Those two have done well enough that there’s been virtually no time for reserve infielder Ramon Santiago, who has started just eight of the Tigers’ 40 games, and just four this month.
“Yeah, Jhonny and Omar, they’ve been unbelievable. Hitting the ball every day, and coming through with the bottom of the lineup,” said Santiago after he started Tuesday, and contributed an RBI double.
“Skip, what’s he supposed to do? Those guys have been doing the job. I don’t complain about it. I don’t have much AB, but when I have a chance to play, I try to contribute. When those guys are hitting the ball, you gotta keep them in the lineup. ...
“I know I want to play, but sometimes you gotta think about the team. That’s the most important thing.”
It’s been the same thing with Matt Tuiasosopo, who has already almost doubled his career RBI total in just 24 games, and is hitting .375. Same thing with backup catcher Brayan Pena, who has chipped in eight RBI in 12 games played. Don Kelly already has as many home runs (and home-run robbing catches, too) as all of last season.
“Everybody here knows that I’m a big believer in playing everybody and getting everybody out there, and having everybody contribute,” Leyland said.
“One thing about it: When guys don’t play too much, you know for sure they’re really hungry, and they want to be in there, and they’re going to be bearing down and concentrating. Not that the other guys don’t, but when you play every day, it’s not easy to get out there every single day and be at your best. Doesn’t mean you’re not giving your best, but it’s hard to be at your best.”
When the top-of-the-lineup guys aren’t, the Catfish have been there to pick them up.
“You can’t expect Cabrera and Fielder to do it every night,” Leyland said. “On the nights they don’t do it, if the other parts of the order don’t help out, then you probably lose that game. ... Just chip in. ... You don’t have to carry us — just chip in.”