Friday, August 31, 2018

Former Tigers Skipper Decompressing

BY SCOTT MORGANROTH
PHOTOS BY CANDICE EBLING

During our time covering Spring Training in the Cactus League, we had an extremely busy agenda and there were certain games along with people that were on the must do list.

On Monday, March 19, 2018, this was a date that was at the top of the list.

The Los Angeles Angels hosted the Seattle Mariners at Tempe Diablo Stadium.

My top priority was seeing a very good friend that I've known for over 20 years.

His name is Tim Mead, the Vice President of Communications.

I'm thankful that throughout the years we've remained in touch through Linkedin and told him that when I returned to Arizona he should have a seat ready for me in the Press Box.

Tim kept his word and I had my seat in the Press Box.

When it comes to the Gold Standard of Public Relations individuals, Tim is one of the nicest and most genuine people on the planet!!

When I go to Arizona to cover Spring Training, this is a stop which is mandatory to make!

Also, Tempe Diablo Stadium has been the Angels home for 26 years and the mountainous scenery is breath taking.

What made this visit even more enjoyable was seeing another familiar face.

His name is Brad Ausmus and he's a Special Assistant to General Manager Billy Eppler.

Ausmus managed the Detroit Tigers from 2014-2017 and led the team to an A.L. Central Division Championship with a 90-72 record.

Overall, Ausmus compiled a 314-332 mark including a 64-98 record during his final campaign that saw Detroit's rebuilding process begin.

During Spring Training, Ausmus was real neat to work with. There were times that I didn't have clubhouse access because every team handles their operation differently.

With Ausmus, he used to hold his pre-game interviews in the dugout and was a pleasure to talk to.

That's what made this day even more enjoyable because it seemed like old times.

What is Ausmus missing right now with the Detroit Tigers?

A squad that currently has a 54-81 mark and the stress of trying to figure out the core of what this team is going to look like in the future.

He's also missing out on Victor Martinez' last season as well as Miguel Cabrera's absence in the line-up because of injuries.

But as we have in the past, we still had time to talk to each other but this time, we had an exclusive one-on-one conversation about the past and the present.

Q: Brad, I have to tell you, it looks a bit different to see you in these new red and white colors uniform than in the past. How is the adjustment for you?

A: It took a few days to get comfortable with after the last four years in Detroit. You get used to the Olde English "D", but like many people in the game of baseball, you wear many uniforms during the course of your career.

Q: I know you have a new challenge here with the LA Angels. What's it been like and tell me what your role is?

A: I'm here on the field in Spring Training quite a bit. I will be on the field some in the minor leagues during the course of the summer. Most of the time will be spent upstairs at "The Big A" during major league Angel games all summer long.

Q: Do you find that taking a year off from managing will give you the opportunity to regroup about what you're going to do? I know that you're relatively young (49) and I've talked to a lot of good friends in the business that are happy to take a breather and welcome the break.

A: I think it gives you a chance to decompress and have you do some things during the course of the summer where you can't do as a manager or as a player. It's a full-time gig, seven months from the middle of February until you hope until the end of October. You don't get to do things like summer vacations when you're involved in baseball. This job allows me to stay involved in the game closely and allows me to do some things at home.

Q: Let's talk about your tenure in Detroit. Can you reflect on that?

A: Overall, I enjoyed my time in Detroit tremendously. I loved the area, the heartbeat of the city, the fans are great fans and they love the Tigers in Detroit and all of Michigan. I wish we could have won a World Series without question. I felt bad that Mr. I (Illitch) didn't get to win a World Series.  That's possibly the biggest regret.

Last year was a tough year especially once we traded off pieces and the Tigers entered rebuilding mode. But quite frankly, I really loved the City of Detroit. As up and down as we had over the course of four seasons, the fans always showed up and they always wanted a winner, quite frankly.

Q: You had great players to work with especially Miguel Cabrera. How did you like managing him?

A: Miggy is easy to manage. He was the smartest player on that team. His baseball IQ is extremely high. He understands not only what he's supposed to be doing on the field, but he knows what everyone else is suppose to be doing.  He's easy. Miggy is the type of guy you wind up and let him go because he's going to do the right thing the vast majority of the time. The back issues hampered him last year. When Miggy's numbers fall back, it's more likely an injury issue.  He has played with injuries and didn't tell you about them. Miggy is a Hall of Fame Player and that I think has some years left in him.

Q: What were your thoughts about Justin Verlander being traded to the Houston Astros?

A: I wasn't happy and I didn't want to lose Justin Verlander, but I understood why the move was being made. Having played in Houston for 10 years, I sat down and talked to Justin after the trade for about 15 minutes about the area and about places he might want to live.

Just the fact understanding that Astros fans and the City of Houston would embrace him. I was there in 1998 when the Astros traded for Randy Johnson, I saw how the city embraced him that I knew Justin would get a similar welcoming.




Q: You talked about the Tigers starting rebuilding last season. How tough of a challenge will it be for them?

A: I think Al (Avila) committed to the rebuilding process and Gardy (Ron Gardenhire) has done this before so he's an excellent man for the job.  It may take some time. There will be some growing pains, but I think it's a smart thing to do and in the long haul hopefully it puts Detroit in a position to win on a consistent basis.

Q: Finally, it's neat to see you every year in Spring Training and in Florida I liked watching you running around the field to get a workout.  How do you like being in the Cactus League compared to the Grapefruit League?

A: I can say this, the Cactus League travel is much easier.  Everything is within 45 minutes. So that's a bonus. I will say this though.  The Tigers have one of the nicest Spring Training Complex's and Stadiums in all of baseball. That's a big plus in Lakeland.

It's inevitable that there will be managerial openings at the end of the year.

Angels Manager Mike Sciosia is signed through the end of the 2018 season and Baltimore Orioles Pilot Buck Showalter could be at the end of his tenure in Maryland.

Ausmus is a bright baseball mind and you can rest assure that he will be quite selective about what type of challenge he'd undertake, and when he's ready to return to the pressure cooker.

Unlike former Arizona Diamondbacks Managers Bob Brenly, Kirk Gibson and former Tigers Skipper Alan Trammell who didn't get second opportunities to run a team, I don't see that happening to Ausmus.  It's not a matter of if he'll get another job, but a matter of when.

As for my return to seeing the Angels, I felt like I hit a grand slam home run spending time with Mead and Ausmus!

Scott Morganroth can be reached at scottbullm@aol.com and is a member of Detroit Sports Media.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Interview With Former Dearborn Divine Child High School's Chris Rusin

BY SCOTT MORGANROTH
PHOTOS BY CANDICE EBLING

During our visit to the Cactus League in Arizona, there were no shortage of Southeastern Michigan storylines to talk about.

Last month we talked about "The One That Got Away" with Colorado Rockies second baseman DJ  LeMahieu.

The focus of this story also involves another player who plays in Colorado named Chris Rusin.

Rusin is a 31-year old left-handed pitcher who was born in Detroit and stands 6-2 and weighs 191 pounds.

As an amateur, he played for Divine Child High School in Dearborn and led the team to back-to-back state championships in his final two years there, while being named to the All-Star Dream Team in both seasons.

He pitched shutouts in three consecutive Catholic League championship games at Comerica Park from 2003-05.

He would play his college ball at the University of Kentucky and graduated in 2009. He became Kentucky's first, first-team All SEC pitcher since Scott Downs earned the honor in 1997.

He began is career with the Chicago Cubs and was claimed off waivers from the Cubs on September 27, 2014.

While in the Cubs minor league system, Rusin threw a no-hitter for the teams AAA Iowa affiliate on May 7, 2014.

He is signed through the 2018 season and has a career record of 19-27 with a 4.60 ERA and 328 strikeouts.

On August 7, 2016, Rusin gave up Ichiro Suzuki's 3000 hit.

When I was at the Rockies Spring Training facility at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick in Scottsdale, AZ, I noticed he had a competitiveness that was displayed beyond the baseball diamond.

Rusin is a really good Table Tennis player.

Before the Rockies took the field against the Milwaukee Brewers on March 20, 2018, we had a nice discussion on his road to the major leagues.

Q: Was it ever a dream of yours to play for the Detroit Tigers?

A: It's always a dream that you'd want to play for your hometown team. But it rarely ever works out that way. You always have it in the back of your mind hoping. I just want to play in the stadium (Comerica Park) as the away team. Hopefully, that day will come. I like it here and enjoy it here. But you know every kids dreams of playing in their hometown.

Once you actually get to the major leagues, it just kind of goes away. You just want to travel and play there on whatever team you're on, but it hasn't happened yet. Hopefully, it will come soon.

Q: As a Metro Detroiter, I'm sure you've probably heard of Mickey Lolich, who was instrumental in the Tigers winning
the 1968 World Series Championship. Lolich was a left-handed pitcher. You're a left-hander as well. Do you find it sometimes to be an advantage that you're a left-handed pitcher since there are a lot more right-handed hurlers out there?

A: You know Scott, it's obviously an advantage to be left-handed. I'm not a power guy so that kind of helps with the deception. So I kind of use that to my advantage and it's been helping me get jobs when there are very few left-handers out there on the team. I'm trying to be as consistent as possible and work my craft more and more each year.

Q: It's funny how you say that because I've been covering the game for 39 years. I've seen marginal left-handers like Ray Fontenot and former Tigers Pitching Coach Chuck Hernandez that had outstanding moves to first base. Do you feel you have a pretty good move to first base?

A: Yes. I like to look at the runners body language that you don't want the other team to have an advantage. So, I take pride in controlling the running game, have done a good job over the years since I've been up here. I continue to work at it because you don't want the guy in scoring position especially if you come in late in the game. It's huge to keep them on first base and keep the double play in order. I take pride in that and still continue to try to work on it.

Q: Do you feel that over the years being left-handed is a huge advantage compared to a right-handed hurler?

A: There aren't that many left-handers pitchers in the world and I lucked out. It's something left-handed hitters aren't comfortable seeing because they don't see them all the time. I take pride in trying to get lefty's out and also righty's out. I have a couple pitches that work well against right-handed hitters that don't work well against left-handed hitters. I have other pitches that I throw that left-handers can't handle that right-handers can. So I kind of mix and match. It's one of those left-handed weird deal things. So I just try and go out there and pound the zone.

Q: You talk about pitches. Tell me about some of your better pitches in your artillery?

A: I rely on movement so left-handers with a two-seam gets on pretty quickly. The deception helps as well. A couple of off-speed that keeps them off the two-seam if they're trying to cheat in there. I have a good change-up and I like to use that quite a bit. That's pretty good for me.

Q: So do you view yourself as a power pitcher at all?

A: No, no. I'm definitely not a power pitcher. I probably top out at 92, 93 mph. I just rely on keeping hitters off balance.

Q: I know at one point you were a starting pitcher and you converted to a reliever. A couple of names that come to mind are Hall Of Fame Pitchers John Smoltz and Dennis Eckersley. Tell me what the transition has been like for you as I've looked at your numbers which drastically improved in that role.

A: Being a former starter in the role I'm in now, it's made it easier to switch because instead of covering six or seven innings, and trying to save your pitches, or go through everything in one inning, or the first two innings, I can throw everything in the first two innings that I'm in. The one, two or three outings I have, so I don't have to save anything. I can throw all different combinations out there then keep them off balance. It's worked well for me.

Q: Do you like the role?

A: Yes, I like it. I just want to do what the team needs me to help. Wherever I can help out, whatever spot fits me the best, that's where I want to be.

Q: You had a chance to pitch at Comerica Park during High School winning championships. What was it like pitching in that venue?

A: It's a big park (laughing). You throw as many strikes as you can, let them hit it and see how far they can hit it. Chances are, it's not going out of that ballpark, especially in high school. I haven't pitched there in the big leagues so I'm not really sure. But it's obviously a lot bigger than Coors Field. The ball flies out at Coors. It's definitely a pitchers ballpark compared to Coors Field.

Q: How do you like pitching at Coors Field?

A: I like it. I think my pitches fit well there. I have short movements and it's tough for the hitters to pick up with how late it is. You have to worry about really keeping the ball down because obviously the ball flies.

Q: How do you like playing in Colorado?

A: I like it. It's an adjustment with the altitude and breathing with the recovery aspect of the game. I'm used to it and enjoy it.

Q: Let's talk about your incredible high school career. I was looking over your numbers and they were really good. You won championships at Dearborn Divine Child. Can you reflect back on that?

A: Yes, Scott. it was a crazy time. I enjoyed playing in big games. We had a great team and great coach. They just kept relaxed, loose, it was fun to be around the guys. It was always fun being in the championship run every year especially playing in Comerica Park.

Especially, that third time, my first two games were 1-0 wins and I'm wondering what's going to happen. I just went out there, blocked everything out, concentrated and I was able to throw a 1-0 victory. It's kind of a blur pretty much because it happened so quickly. I still have those tapes and look back at them occasionally to refresh my mind. It was a fun time.

Q: Were those games when you were a starter?

A: Yes, a starter. I only had to pitch seven innings for a complete game. It was fun, it was a fun time.

Q: Can you visualize what it would have been like to play at Tiger Stadium?

A: I wish I could (laughing) but I've gone to a couple of games there. I love the stadium. It was a hitters ballpark if you kept it down the line. I would have loved to have played at Tiger Stadium.

Q: Unlike warm climates, how do you stay in baseball shape since you weren't able to play year round in Michigan?

A: They have indoor facilities and at our high school, we worked out in the gym and we played catch in the gymnasium. We had a work out place upstairs, so I pretty much did all the work indoors. When it wasn't cold or didn't snow, we did all our work outside.

Q: Finally, do you still keep tabs on the Detroit Tigers?

A: No, not as much as I did before I played in the minors or working my way up to the big leagues. I don't pay as much attention anymore. It's just another team. We're (Colorado Rockies) trying to beat all those other teams out.

As it stands at the moment, Colorado has a record of 72-60 and are 1.5 games out of the final wild card spot trailing the Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals.

The Rockies are only 1/2 game out in the NL West behind division leading the Arizona Diamondbacks.

There is no question he'll be needed during the September stretch run.

With his impending free agency, it will also be interesting to see where Rusin is employed in 2019. We'll find out in due time, but it was great talking to another hometown product that made his way to the big leagues.

Scott Morganroth can be reached at scottbullm@aol.com and is a member of Detroit Sports Media.


Friday, August 24, 2018

Lions vs Lightning

BY SCOTT MORGANROTH
PHOTOS BY CANDICE EBLING
TAMPA, FL

During my 36 years of covering professional football, I've witnessed a lot of different things.

I've seen ideal conditions playing in Dome Stadiums, Snowstorms, Rainstorms which make the footing difficult due to the mud, windy weather which gave kickers migraine headaches resulting in missed field goals.

I've seen blistering cold weather, nice weather along with extremely hot and humid conditions, in addition to fields that felt like ice.

Unfortunately, I've watched careers end on old artificial turf which was a player hitting the concrete.

But on Friday, August 24, 2018, a Nationally Televised contest on CBS between the Detroit Lions at Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Raymond James Stadium was delayed until 9 pm due to rain and lightning.

I joked around with the Lions PR Staff that the area's reputation for being the Lightning Capital of  North America, is the reason why the NHL has a team called the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Of the pre-season games, it's no secret that the third game is the most important, as it's the dress rehearsal for the regulars to get as many reps as possible.

Despite these conditions, there is no way this game was going to be cancelled or postponed.

I couldn't see the Lions spending more money on travel expenses, the Bucs weren't giving back refunds and the NFL wasn't going to give CBS any rebates due to lost revenues.

Besides, with this being on a Friday Night, fewer people would miss work and there was no school for the kids.

Moreover, lets not lose sight of the fact that these teams needed the work so the only questions were how bad the field conditions would factor into the regulars playing time, in addition to the injury risks.

The last time I saw Lions running back LeGarrette Blount play in person was in 2010 when he played against Detroit on December 19, 2010.

Detroit defeated Tampa Bay 23-20 in OT to snap their record 26-game road losing streak.

Blount looked good in this game by amassing 15 carries for 110 yards with a 7.3 average and one touchdown. He would gain 1007 yards and six touchdowns during the campaign.

The Lions entered this game 0-2 under new coach Matt Patricia, who definitely needs to search for answers to get his squad ready for the season opener vs the New York Jets on Monday, September 10, 2018 at Ford Field.

How would the Lions fare on this wet night on CBS which used to televise these squads regularly as they were NFC Central Division rivals when the network used to carry the NFC Package?

Lions QB Matt Stafford came away from the game without sustaining an injury. He completed nine of 18 passes for 113 yards, with zero touchdowns and zero interceptions. He was sacked three times.

I asked Stafford what it was like dealing with the weather conditions and how it was playing on the moist turf.

"It wasn't too big of an issue. Luckily it kind of passed over us pretty quick," Stafford said. "We were worried for a little bit that it might be a super long one. We were trying to find out how quickly we could get out there, but once we got out there really the weather was not an issue. We were able to pretty much play the game as normally as we would.

"As far as the turf, it felt okay. I think that field drains really well, I'm assuming that they've got a great drainage system considering they play in Florida."
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Blount also left the game without any injuries. Against his old team, he rushed for 45 yards on 11 carries.

One play that stood out in the contest was kicker Matt Prater missed a 62-yard field goal. It was nine yards deep in the end zone which was a kick-six by Adam Humphries for what turned out to be a 109 yards which actually seemed longer considering the route crossing around the field.

This special teams play gave Tampa Bay a 27-6 lead. That's as high as this lead would get for Tampa Bay.

After the game, Patricia wasn't that bothered by this play.

"Obviously, it's going to be a situational game-by-game, depending on where we are and things like that, but it's a great learning point," Patricia said. It's a great situational point. It wasn't a very good play; it was pretty horrific, to be honest with you.

"There's a time and point where the play might have to come up and execute it properly, whether it's the kick or the cover or any part of it. To get an opportunity to get to do that during the pre-season, you take those chances and try to teach off of it. It's about teaching and improving."

On a positive note for the Lions, they didn't quit and realized the game was 60 minutes because they needed every bit of this time to make an improbable run which gave Detroit a 33-30 win.

In this game, Detroit amassed 122 rushing yards and totaled 337 yards of total offense.

Detroit scored 20 points in the fourth quarter and recorded a 21-point comeback.

While lightning began the night from a weather standpoint, there was more lightning that struck the Buccaneers.

The last time the Lions employed a player with the initials B.P., this player was one of the most dependable wide receivers during the 1990's named Brett Perriman.

Perriman stood 5-9, 180 pounds and played collegiately for the Miami Hurricanes.

Perriman was a key contributor on Detroit teams that made the playoffs in 1991, 1993, 1994 and 1995.

Perriman currently ranks third on Detroit's all-time list with 428 receptions for 5244 yards.

He finished his career with 525 receptions, 6589 yards, and 30 touchdowns.

Back in 1991, Perriman was on the last Lions squad to win a playoff game which also featured Barry Sanders, and Herman Moore.

During the off-season, the Lions appear to have found a hidden gem as an undrafted free agent from the State of Florida.

But this kid played for the Florida Gators and is from my neck of the woods, playing high school football at Deerfield Beach High School.

He's 22-years old and is 5-8, 181 pounds, quite similar in physique to Perriman.

Against Tampa Bay, Brandon Powell caught all six passes thrown his way for 45 yards.

But his performance on special teams stood out as he had three punt returns for 101 yards, including an 80-yard TD with 4:53 remaining in the game which cut Tampa Bay's lead to 30-26 and gave Detroit a chance for a win.

The Lions would win the contest as QB Jake Rudock hit Marcus Lucas for a five-yard touchdown that gave Detroit a 33-30 lead with 30 seconds left.

But the story was Powell, who came back to his home state looking to solidify his spot on the 53-man roster on Saturday.



He was asked what occurred on the touchdown.

"Everybody on the punt return team-everybody was on their blocks, so I just had the easy part," Powell said. I just found the lane to run through. That's all I did. The other 10 guys were the ones that made it happen because they were the ones blocking for me."

Powell added, "Everyone just needed to go out there and do their jobs on that one play, that's all it was. The punt return team, everybody was out there trying to make the play. Everybody blocking, me trying to catch the ball and making something happen and we made a play."

Powell was also asked what it felt like when he knew he was going to score on the punt return?

"I just wanted to make sure I got in the end zone first," Powell said. "Then once I got in the end zone, it was like man, I really just made a punt return for a touchdown, my first one in the NFL. I was happy, but I made sure I congratulated the 10 guys that were blocking for me."

As I left the Lions locker room, I bumped into Lions legend Lomas Brown, who is a Florida Gator alumnus and played for Detroit on those playoff teams in the 1990's.

He's the new voice on Detroit's radio broadcast team with FOX's Dan Miller. He was gleaming that fellow alumnus had a big night and told me he's cheering quite hard for Powell to make the final roster, as he gave me the Gator Chomp with a smile as wide as Florida to Hawaii.

Meanwhile, the Lions did get Patricia his first win as Detroit improved to 1-2 during the pre-season in a game that lasted 2:57. The contest lasted close to 12 Midnight.

Like every coach in the pre-season which is experiencing what plays will work and searching for players that will contribute, it will be interesting to see what the ESPN National Audience will see on Monday Night Football when they face the New York Jets on September 10 at Ford Field with rookie QB Sam Darnold taking snaps for the opponent.

I'm also curious whether Patricia can surpass the 9-7 mark for a team that he inherited by former Coach Jim Caldwell.

But on this night, the Lions lightning theme worked out well as they overcame the elements and Powell jolted Tampa Bay.

Going into the pre-season home finale against the Cleveland Browns, Powell leads the NFL with 15 receptions.

Like in 2008, the Lions won an exciting game by three points and the only difference was each team scored 10 points more, in addition to the fact there would be no record long road losing steaks to deal with.

Scott Morganroth can be reached at scottbullm@aol.com and is a member of Detroit Sports Media.

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