5/8/2014 4:55 P.M. ET
For Tigers, shifting pays off only to a point
By Matt Slovin / MLB.com
DETROIT -- Mirroring their aggressive approach at the plate, the Astros shifted the Tigers liberally during the first three games of this week's four-game series at Comerica Park.
"They do extreme shifts," catcher Alex Avila said. "A couple of times, it worked out for them, but I would say quite a few times this series it hasn't worked out for them."
Avila is one of the batters that has seen a shift used against him this week, and it has paid off in the sense that it frustrates Avila. In eight at-bats this series entering Thursday, Avila was batting .250, though he's raised his on-base percentage on the season to .346.
Avila said, however, that when a team shifts as often as Houston, the impact over the course of a 162-game season may be negligible.
"It's probably a wash as far as the advantage it creates for you," Avila said.
Detroit may be one of the most conservative American League teams when it comes to defensive positioning. Manager Brad Ausmus said the Tigers don't track the effectiveness of the shifts they do employ, though he guesses the Astros might, given their tendencies.
Ausmus added that teams can study spray charts all they want to try to estimate where a particular hitter might drive the ball, but the most important factor is the game situation.
"The game can dictate as to whether you shift or not," Ausmus said.
Slugging V-Mart also striking out infrequently
DETROIT -- Victor Martinez doesn't want to talk about history, especially not in May. But it's no secret he's on pace for a special season.
"I always say I'd rather be lucky than good," Martinez sheepishly said after Thursday's 6-2 loss to the Astros, in which he went deep for the third time in four games to increase his season total to seven. The year he hit his career high of 25 homers, Martinez had only four at this point in the season.
The most impressive thing about Martinez's start, though, isn't the two homers he's hit when facing an 0-2 count or even the way he does it from both sides of the plate so effortlessly.
It's that he hardly strikes out. Martinez has two more home runs on the year than he does strikeouts (five). If he can keep that up, he'll find himself in rare company.
Only 45 times have batters homered more than they've struck out (minimum of 20 homers), and only twice since 1957 has the feat been accomplished. The most recent slugger to do it is Barry Bonds, who in 2004 hit 45 long balls and whiffed 41 times.
"I'm just making sure I go up there and be a tough out," Martinez said. "I'm not really looking at numbers or history. Just go out there and put myself in a position to help this team win."
Martinez's humility aside, the company he'd join would also be elite: Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams are all members of the exclusive club. DiMaggio managed to do it a record seven times. No player has accomplished it as a member of the Tigers.
Martinez's younger teammates, like second-year third baseman Nick Castellanos, are soaking up the 35-year-old's approach to hitting.
"To see how he works at it, day in and day out -- don't let Victor's success fool you," Castellanos said. "He works hard every day, from when he does tee work in the morning to when he watches video to how he studies pitchers.
"It's amazing how much of a mirror image he is from the left and right side of the plate."
Joba adds needed stability to Tigers' setup role
DETROIT -- When they signed veteran closer Joe Nathan over the offseason, the Tigers finally put to rest their instability in that role after a season of tumult.
The same could not be said for the eighth-inning job, and with nobody having claimed that position in Spring Training, manager Brad Ausmus said he hoped somebody would earn the role. Joba Chamberlain has done so with authority.
"I think Joba's shown so far that he's running with it, so we're going to try to keep handing him the ball and hope he can hand the ball to Joe," Ausmus said after Wednesday night's 3-2 win over the Astros.
With Detroit clinging to a one-run lead in the seventh inning on Wednesday, Ausmus handed the ball to Chamberlain, hoping he could count on the right-hander for four outs. Chamberlain got Jose Altuve, whom he called a tough out, to ground out, stranding runners on the corners. Chamberlain struck out the side in the eighth, further staking his claim for setup duties.
Ausmus said he's seen a marked improvement in the crispness of Chamberlain's fastball since Spring Training, as well as in the quality of the righty's slider.
Chamberlain entered Thursday with six holds, a 3.55 ERA and a 1.18 WHIP this season.
Tigers make most of time to review close calls
DETROIT -- During Wednesday 3-2 win over the Astros, Tigers manager Brad Ausmus approached second-base umpire Mike Winters and made no false pretenses about his reasons for leaving the dugout.
"I'm just waiting for a signal from [bench coach Gene Lamont]," Ausmus told Winters.
Andrew Romine had been called out on a steal attempt at second base, and video review coordinator Matt Martin was busy watching replay angles, determining whether he should advise Ausmus to use a challenge. Martin eventually decided in favor of challenging, informing Lamont, who gave the signal to Ausmus, ending the charade of an argument.
Ausmus added that the levity is probably welcomed by the umpiring crew.
"My guess is they probably appreciate the fact that, instead of having the manager scream at them, most of the managers are pretty civil about it," Ausmus said. "It doesn't make sense for me to scream at the guy when I have a challenge."
According to Ausmus, umpires have "quickly become receptive" to the fact that their calls might not be correct, as challenges have become a part of the game. The Tigers skipper is 4-for-7 on challenges this season.
Ausmus knows value of extra BP firsthand
DETROIT -- Tigers manager Brad Ausmus remembers a special gesture a coach once showed him when he was a young player.
Gene Glynn, who spent the 1993 season as a roving instructor in the Rockies organization, tossed Ausmus early batting practice before a game one day.
"He said, 'Let's go out there and hit. You and me. Don't think about mechanics. I'll throw, and you hit until you're happy,'" Ausmus said, recalling his time at Triple-A Colorado Springs.
That extra work was in Ausmus' mind when he asked slugger Miguel Cabrera to work with him before Wednesday's 3-2 win over the Astros. Ausmus took the same approach in pitching to Cabrera, who seems to have turned a corner after slumping through the start of the season.
"The difference is, in the Minor Leagues, you have to go pick up your own balls," Ausmus joked.
The early swings seemed to help Cabrera in Wednesday's game -- he drove a first-inning fastball on the inner part of the plate over the right-field fence for his second homer in as many games.
Triple-A rehab inning Putkonen's next step
DETROIT -- Detroit long reliever Luke Putkonen will throw an inning for Triple-A Toledo on Friday, the latest step in his recovery from right elbow inflammation.
Putkonen pitched a scoreless inning of relief on Wednesday for Class A West Michigan and felt good.
"He said he didn't feel the discomfort in his elbow," Tigers manager Brad Ausmus said.
The Tigers have a tentative plan in place for Putkonen beyond Friday's appearance, but it's contingent on how he feels after the outing.
"If everything goes well, we'll take the next step," Ausmus said.
Matt Slovin is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.