The Detroit Tigers made their third straight appearance in the American League Championship Series for the first time since the ALCS began in 1969. They came up short again. What went wrong?
The bottom line is that the Tigers lost four of the six games that they played against the Boston Red Sox. The most obvious answers are:
1. The offense which had been prolific all season long went dormant in the playoffs.
2. The bullpen, which had been a question all season long, failed to hold the lead twice in the ALCS.
3. For the sake of discussion, let’s look at the manager and the umpire.
With respect to the offense, there is no question that the lineup struggled to score runs. But not any more than the Red Sox did. Just as Tiger fans felt that scoring opportunities were being squandered, and that the offense just couldn’t get going, Red Sox fans had to feel the same pain. As poorly as the Tigers hit, the Red Sox hit just as poorly. In fact, the Tigers hit .254 for the series, while Boston hit just .202. The slugging percentages were nearly equal, and Boston scored 19 runs to Detroit's 18.
What the Red Sox did do, was they hit home runs at key moments in the series. Mike Napoli, David Ortiz, and Shane Victorino each had game winning home runs. The Tigers had one by Cabrera, and one by Avila that stood up until Ortiz’s grand slam in Game 2.
With respect to the bullpens, I just wrote an article about how effective the Tigers' bullpen had been all season long. The bottom line is that, despite being the 12th rated bullpen in terms of ERA, the Tigers ranked fourth in the league in save percentage. Well, not in this series.
Twice, the Tiger rotation left with the lead. In both cases, the rotation had given up just one run. Yet, the bullpen blew the game, each time on a grand slam. In each case, Jim Leyland was changing relief pitchers obsessively looking for match ups. In the first instance, four different pitchers put runners on base. Four pitchers were charged with an earned run. None of the pitching changes worked. Blame the players or blame the manager, but it didn’t work. In fact, it could not have been worse.
In the second instance, Leyland again changed pitchers obsessively, and again his moves failed. He kept changing pitchers until the bases were loaded and the bullpen gave up a grand slam. Blame the pitchers or blame the manager, but it didn’t work. In fact, it could not have worked out worse. What we don't know is whether different bullpen moves would have yielded a different result.
At the same time, the Red Sox bullpen shut the Tigers down cold in the late innings. Junichi Tazawa owned Miguel Cabrera, getting him on a key strikeout in Game 3, then getting him to ground into a double play with two on and no outs in Game 5, and then again getting him to ground out to shortstop in Game 6. Koji Uehara was flawless for the Red Sox in a closing role. He saved three games, throwing six scoreless innings with nine strikeouts and no walks.
I won’t go too far into the decisions of Jim Leyland's lineups in a discussion of what went wrong. Obviously, the players that he put on the field did not get the job done. I think that he had the best starting nine on the field in the ALCS, and his mini-juggling act dropping Jackson to eighth worked like a charm.
Leyland’s bullpen management leaves him wide open to question. Twice, he took Max Scherzer, the probable Cy Young winner, out of the game in or after the seventh inning. I, for one, question these moves no matter what Leyland or Scherzer said about them after the fact. If a starting pitcher can't go past 108 pitches, then he's got serious issues. Twice, Leyland used Drew Smyly, one of his best if not his best reliever, for one batter, and then took him out. Twice, his obsessive pitching changes resulted in grand slams. I can’t support this management style, but I also can not say with certainty that an alternative strategy would have worked better. The personnel that Dave Dombrowski gave Leyland to work with in the bullpen left much to be desired.
As for the umpiring, the Tigers simply got screwed. Scherzer struck out Bogaerts with one out in the seventh inning of Game 6, and that was called a walk. Dustin Pedroia should never have come to the plate with the bases loaded. Bogaerts was out, just as surely as Brandon Inge was hit by a pitch in the 12th inning of game 163 in 2009. Jacoby Ellsbury clearly struck out before he singled in Boston's first run in Game 6. Scherzer was getting squeezed all night long according to Brooks Baseball, not getting the same calls for strikes that were called strikes for Clay Buchholz. If this sounds like sour grapes from a Tiger fan, so be it. I think it’s a fact. The Tigers got screwed by Dan Iassogna in a critical Game 6. It was enough to change the outcome of the game.
The Tigers are not without blame in the losses, particularly in Games 2 and 6 of this series. Joaquin Benoit threw an ill-advised pitch to David Ortiz, the one guy that you don’t let beat you with a 5-1 lead. And as if Leyland hadn’t screwed around enough in the eighth inning, he inexplicably took Benoit, his supposed best reliever, out of the game for the ninth after facing only two hitters in the eighth, and put in Rick Porcello, who finished the collapse without getting an out.
And then there’s the base running. Prince Fielder and Austin Jackson put incompetence on display. Fielder started home from third on a ground ball to second base. Then, being over half way home, he reverses course as if he could make it back to third any faster. Then, having messed up beyond all sanity, he plops on the ground ten feet short of third base to be tagged out. First of all, he would have been safe at the plate and secondly, he would have been safe at third if he just kept running in either case.
With Jackson, who finally figured out how to get on base, he gets picked off first. If there is a poorer base runner in the history of mankind, I’d like to know who it is. Jackson has speed, but is slow out of the batter’s box, has no clue when a ball will drop in, no clue when to take off to steal, and generally no clue about anything on the bases. Maybe the same shadows that prevent him from diving for a pop fly in center field also prevent him from detecting when to take off and when to stay put on the bases.
It took more than just bad umpiring, or bad bullpen management, or bad base running, and even more than two grand slams to doom the Tigers this series. Torii Hunter over ran that grand slam by Ortiz. Prince Fielder ole'd an ill advised throw from Jose Iglesias. Iglesias dropped a double play ball in Game 6 before Pedroia's grand slam while Stephen Drew made a diving stop in the same place to prevent Cabrera from notching another RBI hit.
In light of the grand slams, maybe the base running errors would not have made a difference. But if the Tigers don’t give up those grand slams, they would likely be in the World Series. And if Leyland doesn’t make the pitching changes that he obsessed over, chances are that they don’t give up the grand slams. Again, blame Leyland or blame the bullpen, but it didn’t work. The bullpen failed when the season was on the line. That's where I would point the finger most prominently.