Houston — This was before the Tigers were swept in Tampa. Manager Ron Gardenhire was in his office at Comerica Park, and he was talking about the challenges of playing the final weekend before the All-Star break.
“Yeah, it’s tough,” he said, equating it to trying to teach the final class of the day before Christmas break. “Guys are talking about where they are going, their plane flights. Those things can come into play. That’s what my job is, and my coaches, to keep them focused.”
Given what happened in Tampa, given who they are playing this weekend and given the Tigers’ are suddenly in a freefall, focus should not be an issue.
“Going into that hot box in Houston, that’s going to be a great challenge for us,” Gardenhire said. “You better be ready when you go there. That is a very good team. All I can say is, we need to finish off the first half of the year on a good note and we are going to have to play really well to do that.”
They are going to need to stop the bleeding first.
On June 19, the Tigers were one game under .500 — 36-37. Since then, they have gone 4-18 — 4-16 in a just-completed stretch of playing 20 games in 20 days in six cities (counting two four-game home series which seemed, in effect, part of the same trip).
Typical with young teams, winning on the road has been problematic. The Tigers have lost 12 of their last 14 road games. Only the Orioles (12) and White Sox (14) have fewer road wins than the Tigers (15) in the American League.
The Tigers are the second-worst road hitting team (ahead of only the Orioles) — hitting .237 and scoring 164 runs in 47 road games. They have hit the fewest number of home runs on the road (36).
Typical with young teams playing without its most experienced and productive hitter (Miguel Cabrera), the Tigers are also struggling to score runs. They have scored three runs or less in 15 of the last 22 games.
Since sweeping the White Sox and closing to within a game of .500 on June 19, the Tigers have been outscored 113-74. In that 22-game span, they are hitting .232 with a .291 on-base average and a .344 slugging percentage — all near the bottom of the American League charts.
They have also struck out 188 times in those 22 games.
It’s not all been negative, though. In that same 22-game stretch, Nick Castellanos has hit .299, with a .623 slugging percentage and a 1.010 OPS. He’s hit six home runs and knocked in 15.
Niko Goodrum, who has taken over the everyday second base job, his hitting a robust .413 in July, with a .426 on-base and .652 slugging, with a 1.078 OPS.
Shortstop Jose Iglesias is hitting .294 in this last stretch and playing some of the best defense of his career — which is saying a lot.
They have also gotten some strong starting pitching from Michael Fulmer, Jordan Zimmermann and Mike Fiers in this stretch, and out of the bullpen, Alex Wilson, Buck Farmer, Blaine Hardy and Joe Jimenez have combined to allow just three runs in 13⅓ innings in July.
And, this weekend, closer Shane Greene returns after 10 days on the disabled list.
This is where the Tigers as they head into Houston to face an Astros team that is second in the American League in hitting and has allowed the fewest runs in baseball, a team that is 30-20 at home.
The Tigers will face Dallas Keuchel on Friday and Justin Verlander on Sunday. It will be the first time Verlander has faced the Tigers since he was traded last Aug. 31. The Astros have not named a starter for Saturday.
“We better be ready to play,” Gardenhire repeated.
Tigers at Astros
Series: Three-game series at Minute Maid Park
First pitch: Friday — 8:10 p.m.; Saturday — 4:10 p.m.; Sunday — 2:10 p.m.
TV/radio: Friday-Sunday — FSD, 97.1.
Probables: Friday — LHP Dallas Keuchel (6-8, 3.95) vs. RHP Mike Fiers (6-5, 3.65); Saturday — TBA vs. RHP Michael Fulmer (3-8, 4.11); Sunday — RHP Justin Verlander (9-4, 2.05) vs. LHP Francisco Liriano (3-5, 4.74).
■ Keuchel, Astros: He’s had some bumpy outings, but he seems back on track, allowing two runs or less in four of his last five starts. In his last two, he’s allowed three runs total in 14 innings, holding opponents to a .220 average.
■ Fiers, Tigers: It will be his first start against his former team, the same team that left him off its playoff roster last season. This will be his 36th start at Minute Maid (10-10, 3.70). Fiers in his last three starts has limited opponents to a .171/.213/.276 slash line, yielding just three runs with 16 strikeouts in 21 innings.