Tigers roar into September for playoff push

After disappointing 2015, Detroit has chance at redemption

Tigers roar into September for playoff push

DETROIT -- Contrary to expectations, Tigers manager Brad Ausmus has no ill will toward the praying mantis, the rally mascot of the defending World Series champion Kansas City Royals.

"In Connecticut, it's the state insect," the New Haven native explained. "I don't think you can touch them. You definitely can't hit them with a fly swatter."

Ausmus is not kidding; the European praying mantis became the official state insect of the Nutmeg State in 1977, long before it became a good-luck charm for baseball teams. Technically, that affords it no protection from humans, certainly not in Michigan.

"Ironically, we've had praying mantises in our dugout this homestand twice," Ausmus said Wednesday. "One [was] in the dugout, one peering right over the top, with just two eyeballs. So, I don't know, I think it's kind of amusing they have the Rally Mantis. I don't know how much of an effect a praying mantis really has on their record, but they've been hot, so I guess I can't argue with it."

Ausmus would rather kill the Royals' postseason hopes than kill a mantis. If he can spoil Cleveland's Party at Napoli's, that would be fine by him, too. It's not like he ever played alongside Mike Napoli anyway.

If Ausmus' Tigers can find a way to bring October baseball back to Detroit after the disappointment of last season, it would be worth all the ups and downs of this season.

The Tigers don't have a rally insect or animal. Their closest equivalent is the Mr. Salty doll a fan gave Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who hangs the old Nabisco brand character in his locker for good luck. Ian Kinsler's goggles-on sign has caught on around the clubhouse, a ritual after a big hit to symbolize the champagne celebration they want at season's end, but it hasn't found much national appeal. For a franchise that once boasted Nate Robertson's Gum Time charm, and had Torii Hunter mimicking a tie-tightening motion after big hits a few years ago to symbolize a businesslike approach, this team doesn't have a big symbol.

Kinsler's double plates two

What they have right now is the tenacity for a late-season charge. Their symbol might as well be a shrinking disabled list, as their injury-depleted roster heals. And as September begins, their eyes on the standings might well resemble the big glare of the mantis.

"I have with more frequency looked at what other teams are doing in the last week," Ausmus said. "The first two months of the season, I'll look at highlights of games, parts of games, but not the standings very often."

Their perspectives range. For Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera, the quest is another run at a World Series title with the Tigers at age 33, 13 years after Cabrera won it all as a rookie with the Marlins.

Verlander strikes out nine

"It would mean a lot more to win a World Series than to win a Cy Young [Award] again," Verlander said.

For Kinsler, the chase is for the crown that barely eluded his grasp in Texas in 2011 -- not to mention the culmination of a career revival in Detroit.

"It seems like there are a lot more teams competing and trying to get into the playoffs," Kinsler said. "So every win is memorable this time of year."

For Michael Fulmer, Daniel Norris and Matt Boyd, the challenge is to go from prospects in a rebuilding movement to key pieces in an October run a year later.

Fulmer freezes Trout in 4th

For Ausmus, the chance at victory is an opportunity at vindication. For all the questions he has fielded about his job status over the past year and a half, a playoff berth after a disappointing 2015 season would be a feat.

Already, Ausmus said, there's a difference in the feel from last year.

"It's definitely more fun," he said. "Every game is important. Last year, our only purpose for coming to the field was to finish out the season. Now we're coming to the field trying to extend the season."

With seven games left against division-leading Cleveland and a three-game series against a Baltimore team that is also in the mix for division or AL Wild Card spots, a postseason berth is within Detroit's grasp -- if the Tigers can find a way to beat the Indians, and if they can find the offense to compete with the Orioles and the Royals.

The road ahead

For all the ups and downs of the Tigers' season, they remain in the thick of the AL Wild Card race, with a chance to make a race out of the AL Central. Seven of Detroit's final 16 games are against Cleveland, a team the Tigers have beaten only once in 12 tries so far this year.

Home games: 14

Road games: 15

Games vs. teams over .500: 16

Two key series: Sept. 9-11, vs. Orioles; Sept. 16-18, at Indians

Help on way? Jordan Zimmermann (neck strain) could return Sept. 10; Nick Castellanos (fractured left hand) could return in mid-September.

Cause for concern: Injuries continue to take their toll, with Castellanos and Cameron Maybin both out of the lineup.

Jason Beck has covered the Tigers for MLB.com since 2002. Read Beck's Blog, follow him on Twitter @beckjason and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.