Kansas City, Mo. — This really was the only way this oddball season could end — in the rain and unsure whether the last game on the 2020 schedule was going to be, in fact, the last game.
The Tigers boarded their flight back to Detroit Sunday afternoon after a 3-1 loss to the Royals still waiting to find out if they had one or two more games to play. Their fate would be determined by the results of the game between the Cardinals and Brewers that started at 3 p.m. Eastern.
Sometime before they landed, they knew. The Cardinals had won and clinched their spot in the postseason.
So, after a three-month quarantine, a three-week summer camp, six months of COVID-19 stress and tests and protocols, the sudden retirement of manager Ron Gardenhire and 58 games in empty stadiums, it was over.
“The season as a whole, it was a grind,” interim manager Lloyd McClendon said. “There’s no other way to put it. With everything that was going on in baseball and around the world, the stress level for each and everyone of these guys was very high.
“But they persevered, they handled it and they dealt with it. And we all became closer as a result. From that standpoint, it was a very positive season.”
The Tigers waited out an hour-and-35-minute rain delay before squeezing this one in, with the rain falling right to the end. With a lineup of six players who spent most of the summer at the alternate site in Toledo, they managed just three hits and a run (on a double by Brandon Dixon) in seven innings off Royals rookie Brady Singer.
The game marked the end of right-hander Jordan Zimmermann’s star-crossed tenure with the Tigers. McClendon gave him a curtain call here Sunday, letting him work the first inning as an opener for rookie Tarik Skubal.
You can take the symbolism out of the that if you like — passing the torch, out with the old, in with the new.
Zimmermann pitched a scoreless first inning. He struck out Alex Gordon in what will be Gordon’s last big-league at-bat. He is retiring. And Zimmermann’s last pitch as a Tiger was a wipeout slider to strike out Salvador Perez.
“He was a pro,” McClendon said. “He’s always been a pro.”
Skubal was impressive, striking out six in five innings. He allowed just two hits and both of them were solo home runs on 1-2 counts.
Adalberto Mondesi, who was 12-for-14 in this four-game series, hit a 1-2 fastball over the left-field fence in the fourth and Ryan McBroom clobbered a spinning, 1-2 slider to almost in the same spot in the fifth.
“I just think it slowed down for him,” McClendon said. “When he first got here he had stars in his eyes. But with every outing he got more and more comfortable and got more and more belief that he belongs here.
“I think he’s going to have a phenomenal career here in Detroit.”
Skubal had good command of all of his pitches, but he relied heavily on his four-seam fastball, changeup and slider. He got 14 swings-and-misses, nine with the fastball. The Royals also fouled off 30 pitches, which pumped up his pitch count.
“I feel like I learned a lot and I developed a lot,” Skubal said. “And I have a lot to take into the offseason. I wish this wasn’t my last start. I wish I could keep pitching. I feel really good, really strong right now.”
The loss ends the Tigers season at 22-35. But that’s not how McClendon will measure the success of this season.
“Each and every one of these guys have matured because they got the reps and got another year under their belts,” he said. “A lot of time we’re so dependent on you guys (media) to try to define what success is for a club and I just don’t think that’s how we should go about our business.
“We should define what success is for our club and for each one of these individuals on how they went about their business.”
In that respect, McClendon said he’s giving A’s across the board.
“Because they did a nice job through a pandemic, through the social injustice, through the schedule, the whole nine yards. These guys have toed the rubber every day. They grinded it out and they got it done. Even through the tough losses, they got it done.”
The bottom line, in McClendon’s estimation, the Tigers got better in 2020. Better, certainly, than 2019 when they lost 114 games. But better, also, in terms of performance and maturity, throughout the season.
“You did have progress,” he said. “You did have a successful season. You like to see a 162-game schedule and see where we were. It’s a little tough to evaluate, obviously. But the progress is there and that’s what we can build on.
“That’s what these players can lock on to.”
You won’t find too much evidence of that progress in the raw statistics — though offensively, in the short sample, the Tigers made significant gains. Here are their rankings in the American League before play on Sunday:
► 7th in batting average: .247.
► 11th in slugging: .401
► 12th in OPS: .707
► 12th in home runs: 62
► 14th in on-base average: .306.
The Tigers ranked 13th in batting average and dead last in all those other categories last year.
On the pitching side, the Tigers ranked last in ERA (5.67), 14th in opponent batting average (.267) and 13th in WHIP (1.44) this season.
But those numbers don’t reflect how injuries to first baseman C.J. Cron, second baseman Jonathan Schoop, center fielder JaCoby Jones and veteran starting pitcher Ivan Nova weakened the lineup and rotation and altered players’ roles.
Those numbers don’t show the growth of young veteran players like Jeimer Candelario, Victor Reyes, Spencer Turnbull, Jose Cisnero, Buck Farmer, Daniel Norris and Tyler Alexander.
Those numbers don’t show the gains veteran lefty Matthew Boyd made within a tumultuous season. They can’t even begin to measure the value the 10 short-inning starts will have for Michael Fulmer, working back to form after Tommy John surgery. Nor do they reflect the bounce-back of a pitcher like Joe Jimenez, who finished with scoreless innings in nine of his last 10 outings.
Those numbers can’t accurately assess the value of the experience gained by the big batch of rookies and prospects who played bigger-than-expected roles — Willi Castro, Isaac Paredes, Bryan Garcia, Casey Mize, Skubal, Kyle Funkhouser, Daz Cameron and Derek Hill.
“It goes back to your definition of what success is going to be and where are we going to set that bar,” McClendon said. “For me, we have to set that bar high. I think this club has made great progress but the rebuild is almost over with.
“Now it’s time to start winning ballgames. Most of our guys have started to get their man-muscles now. They are bigger, they are stronger, they are faster and they are smarter. They know the league a lot better. So it’s time to start getting after it.”