Baseball is a game of repetition.
Before a game an infielder will take dozens of ground balls, repeating the same fielding motion time after time, convincing their brain of the easy fluidity in the transfer from the glove to the hand. Pitchers have regimented bullpen sessions in between starts, working on mechanics and developing muscle memory in order to repeat an effective delivery on every pitch. Hitters will work on their approach in the batting cages, and then again on the field, and then again on the on-deck circle. Swing after swing after swing, until they step into the box looking for one pitch. One swing will determine whether they get a hit or make an out. One swing after hundreds of practice swings.
As fans of the game, we look for patterns. A meaning to the seemingly random nature of events. If a pitcher on our favorite team can repeat the same delivery 49 times in a row with success, why does the 50th pitch spell doom when every factor under the pitcher's control remained the same? Statisticians dissect and pick apart and theorize how and why things will happen. But sometimes things just are because they are.
The Detroit Tigers dropped their fourth straight game Tuesday night behind rookie pitcher Robbie Ray. Ray was making the start after Anibal Sanchez was sent to the disabled list, and Rick Porcello was called in to pitch in relief after a 19-inning debacle on Sunday.
Twenty-seven pitches into the 11th inning of that game, Alex Avila ripped a 1-2 off-speed pitch off the top of the left-center field wall. As he rounded first base, the look on his face showed the same sentiment that every Tigers fan across the country was thinking -- had the ball traveled another foot Avila would have been circling the bases, rather than legging out a double. Had the ball that Brett Cecil delivered traveled 86 mph instead of 85, or had Avila squared up the pitch an inch further up the barrel, the Tigers may have taken the lead, and Rick Porcello may not have had to pitch. Avila probably took 150 swings before the game on Sunday. One-hundred-fifty chances to get it right, and he almost did. You see where I am going with this?
Losing streaks happen in baseball. So do winning streaks. Sometimes the offense and the defense are so effective simultaneously that it appears as though the baseball gods are smiling down solely on you. Sometimes the starting rotation is so good that it doesn't matter how good your bullpen is pitching, because they're only there as a contingency plan.
For the Detroit Tigers, right now is not one of those times. The smallest bit of randomness can change the entire dynamic of a team. Once thought of as being alone atop their division, the Tigers are struggling to regain any sort of semblance of their former selves.
But, this team has been here before.
Two years ago, on this very day in August, the Tigers were in the middle of a 9-3 drubbing at the hands of the Minnesota twins, giving them their fifth loss in six games. Sitting two games back in the American League Central standings, the Tigers appeared to be derailing. Doug Fister would come out the following night and deliver eight innings with no earned runs, allowing only five hits. Suddenly, the Tigers found themselves winning six of their next eight games. They later found themselves in the World Series.
Eight years ago, again on this very day, the Tigers had lost five straight. Their momentous start to the season was beginning to fade and it was becoming clear that this juggernaut of a team had some very real chinks in their armor. The following night they would come out and win behind a solid performance from Nate Robertson. Their slide would continue all the way up until the last day of the season, barely clawing their way into the playoffs. They later found themselves in the World Series.
The Tigers could lose again tonight. They could lose five more in a row. But that doesn't mean the season is over.
The infielders will take ground balls before the game. The pitchers will throw their side sessions, and Buck Farmer will make his major league debut. The hitters will work on their approach in the batting cages, and then again on the field, and then again on the on-deck circle, waiting for their one perfect pitch. When that pitch comes, maybe it will be sent over the outfield wall, or maybe it will fall short. But this is nothing new. Baseball is a game of repetition, but it is also a game of seemingly randomness.
All this has happened before, and all this will happen again.