September tends to be the time of year when a manager is operating a leaky ship. Injuries, ineffectiveness, and aging players can combine to cause massive holes in the lineup until the batting order starts to look more like swiss cheese.
Detroit manager Brad Ausmus is dealing with a lineup that has more than a few holes in it. Nick Castellanos has missed the last month, Ian Kinsler is dealing with a concussion, and Victor Martinez is evidently getting the Upton Spa Treatment. That left Ausmus staring at an extremely depleted Detroit lineup for the series opener in Minnesota, consisting of very little thump after Miguel Cabrera, J.D. Martinez, and Justin Upton.
Ausmus did a good job mixing and matching to create the best possible lineup in the absence of those players. Admittedly, the expanded rosters in September help set up this situation, but he still worked the matchups to create some offense against Hector Santiago, who has bedeviled the Tigers throughout his career.
Take Andrew Romine as an example of a backup stepping in capably. Romine hasn’t handled too many lefties in the second half, and with good reason. His wRC+ has hovered around 50 against southpaws this year. However, with Kinsler out, Romine was a good choice to handle second base. Erick Aybar has played just 17 innings at second base since the start of the decade, which made him a very risky option to man second, especially given the fact that there were some difficult plays to be made. Romine managed to chip in a single before scoring Detroit’s first run.
JaCoby Jones was also a good play at third. He’s shown the ability to hit lefties since being called up, and had a base knock of his own in the sixth. It’s possible that Jones should continue to play at third against lefties until Castellanos is able to return (if Castellanos is able to return). He and Romine would make a surprisingly productive duo manning the hot corner.
Perhaps the most unconventional, and definitely the most successful, move that Ausmus made was to use his non-starting catcher at the designated hitter position. We saw this pretty frequently with Victor Martinez in 2011, but since then Detroit managers have been pretty insistent on leaving their backup catcher on the bench in case of an injury. Matt Boyd has only pitched to Jarrod Saltalamacchia this year, so Salty was a lock to catch this game. With John Hicks on the roster, Ausmus was willing to pivot James McCann to designated hitter, which paid off when McCann hit a monster three-run homer.
All in all, the opening night in Minneapolis proved to be a huge bust-out performance for what had been a moribund Detroit offense. The Tigers have shown the ability to string together two-week-long stretches where just about everyone on the roster is hot, and hopefully Tuesday night was the start of another such stretch. If they can continue to hit and Ausmus can continue to push the right lineup buttons, the season may not be quite over yet.