With two on and one out in the eighth Saturday, Tigers manager Jim Leyland went back to his bullpen to try to escape the trouble. Picking strikeout-throwing right-hander Al Alburquerque over groundballer Rick Porcello seemed a curious choice to some, but Alburquerque K'd the next two batters to get the Tigers back in the dugout unscathed and to validate Leyland's decision.
When Leyland sent Alburquerque back out in the bottom of the ninth, with the game still tied 0-0, the door was pushed open for people to question the move. And when Alburquerque gave up back-to-back singles on hard-hit balls, it was clear Leyland the pump was primed for second-guessing.
Did Leyland make the wrong choice or did the right choice just turn out poorly?
Although Alburquerque came into the game with a 4.59 ERA on the season, picking him to come into a key situation in the eighth inning made sense, especially compared to Porcello, a starter-turned-reliever. Since mid-August, he allowed inherited runners to score on just three of 10 occasions. Meanwhile in that same time period opponents were batting just .093 against him with .210 on-base percentage, and he struck out 23 batters in 16 innings. Compare that to Porcello, who made just two relief appearances in September and allowed three runs to score in one of them. Alburquerque was the hot hand and both Leyland and fans had reason to believe he'd succeed in the eighth, just as he did. On just nine pitches, Alburquerque struck out two batters decisively.
Leyland could have stopped while he was ahead, handed Porcello the ball to start the ninth and (possibly) escaped critique. (Or, if anyone in the Tigers' lineup could have done anything at all, maybe there would have been reason to Tigers closer Joaquin Benoit instead. But alas, the offense is inept.) However, he chose to send Albuquerque back out in the ninth.
Since the All-Star Break, Alburquerque has pitched in multiple innings six times out of 27 appearances. He allowed runs in the second inning of action in two of appearances, Aug. 12 and Aug. 26. In September's two appearances, he gave up only a walk after returning to the mound. He also allowed baserunners July 27 and Aug. 16.
So although fans may not have felt real secure with Alburquerque going to the mound Saturday, past results seem to vindicate Leyland's decision. Actual results in the ALDS go against it, and I suppose that's the deciding factor, but sometimes bad baseball decisions go well and smart decisions turn out poorly. That's the nature of the game.
What we can criticize Leyland for is asking Alburquerque to do something outside normal expectations. True, he's been successful in most appearances when he pitches in multiple innings, but it's still something he's asked to do less than 25 percent of the time.
Personally, I see why Leyland made the decision he did. I think it's more defensible than people think. But at the time, I would have been happy to see him hand the ball to Porcello, because as inept as the Tigers offense was the game had extra-innings written all over it. But it's possible putting Porcello in a key situation outside his normal expectations could have turned out just as poorly -- as he was on the mound for the walk-off hit by Stephen Vogt.
(But let's keep the focus where it should be today: the true reason the Tigers lost is that you can't win a game when you don't score a run. The putrid offense cost them more than any ninth-inning pitcher decisions did.)
So, what's your call? We know it turned out poorly, but in using Alburquerque in the ninth, did Leyland make a bad baseball decision or a smart one on Saturday night?