Struggling Fielder trying to stay the course
Despite extended slump, slugger focused on task at hand in Game 6
BOSTON -- The bubbling frustrations over Prince Fielder's postseason finally made themselves audible at Comerica Park on Thursday night, when a sold-out crowd frequently booed the slugger they've known since his toddler days.
"It's definitely not pleasant," Fielder said after the 4-3 loss to the Red Sox that put his Tigers down, 3-2, in the American League Championship Series. "But they're fans. That's what they do. They pay to come."
Fielder, meanwhile, is paid to hit -- $214 million over the course of a nine-year contract that's winding down its second season -- and he's done very little of that lately.
The Tigers first baseman -- a man whose importance is magnified with Miguel Cabrera not even close to 100 percent -- is 9-for-37 with one extra-base hit in these playoffs. His last postseason RBI was 65 at-bats ago, in Game 1 of last year's ALCS against the Yankees. His last postseason homer came 10 at-bats earlier, in Game 4 of the 2012 AL Division Series vs. the A's.
And though Fielder's postseason career spans only 160 plate appearances -- roughly a quarter of what he would get over the course of a season -- his .199/.288/.340 slash line is nonetheless uninspiring.
"He's in the cage, he's working his butt off, he's doing everything he can," Torii Hunter said. "I don't think we should boo Prince or boo any of our players for giving a great effort, giving it our all. This is the postseason. We should have positive energy, and not negative. That's not good."
Jim Leyland has done his best to downplay Fielder's struggles in this series. And with the Tigers facing elimination in Game 6 at Fenway Park on Saturday (8 p.m. ET on FOX), the Tigers skipper has no plans of moving Fielder out of the No. 3 spot he inherited when Austin Jackson was recently stripped of his leadoff duties.
Perception, Leyland believes, is Fielder's worst enemy right now.
"The average person thinks of him as a home run guy," Leyland said during Friday's conference call, "so when you don't have a home run in this particular case, they start to focus more on that, because that's how they think of him."
Leyland said Fielder has had "good at-bats," and he noted that the 29-year-old has "hit some balls pretty good."
Hunter said Fielder "actually hit three balls hard" right into the shift on Thursday, "and if that's a regular day and nobody's on base, that's three hits for him."
But it's clear something has yet to click for the Tigers' prodigious slugger.
In five of his last seven plate appearances, Fielder has made outs on the very first pitch. Nine of the 15 balls he has put in play in this series -- including three that ended innings in Game 5 -- have been hit on the ground. And over the course of these playoffs, Fielder is slugging .185 against fastballs, a pitch he's been thrown 71 percent of the time, according to ESPN Stats and Info.
Strangely enough, Fielder's struggles have come on the heels of a September that saw him post a .337/.396/.537 slash line.
"I think we're just making our pitches -- really making our pitches against him," Red Sox catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia said. "Even balls he's hitting are hard. He's hitting hard ground balls to our infielders. He's driving the ball to left field. We're just trying not to make too many mistakes with him, knowing that he can be that impact bat."
Fielder was surrounded by a large media contingent at his locker after a 1-for-4 performance late Thursday night. He took every question, and tried his best to project a sense of serenity.
On his mindset at the plate when fans are booing him:
"I'm just trying to hit the ball hard, man. I can't worry about the crowd."
On feeling extra pressure to bust out of his slump:
"No. I mean, it's regular. You just want to try to do something to help the team. It's just regular pressure. It's pretty much the same."
On the short memories of Tigers fans:
"They're fans. That's what they do."
On his postseason overall:
"I mean, you know, I want to hit home runs just as much as everybody else wants me to. I'm just trying to hit the ball hard."
On the difficulties that come with hitting against a shift:
"The hole fills up a little bit. But there's no GPS on the bat, so I just have to hit it hard."
On his unusually high ground-ball rate:
"I'd like to hit a few more balls in the air, but I don't have a magic wand. I just have to go up there and hit it hard."
On whether he's trying too hard:
"No. I'm just trying to hit it hard. I'm trying real hard to hit it hard. So, yeah. That's all right, though. I like to try hard."
On all of this coming with the territory of a big contract:
"It's part of the deal. My kids are taken care of, my family's taken care of, but this is all part of it."
On having a chance to make it all better:
"For sure. Especially now in the postseason. You never know when you can come through and help your team."
Game 6 would be a good time.
Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Gonzo and "The Show", and follow him on Twitter @Alden_Gonzalez. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.