Armando Galarraga seemed to be making so much progress in his past few starts. Of course, getting better movement on his slider helped a great deal. But more important was throwing strikes, pitching to contact, and trusting his defense to make plays behind him, rather than nibbling around the plate and trying to trick batters or miss bats.
And for at least one key stretch in last night's ballgame, Galarraga relapsed into those old habits and it may have cost him and the Tigers a win. In the third inning, after retiring the first two Indians hitters, Galarraga was far too cautious against the top of Cleveland's lineup.
Falling behind Grady Sizemore 2-0 (though one of those pitches could've been called a strike), Galarraga needed to throw a strike and left a pitch out over the plate that Sizemore drove for a triple. He stayed away from Victor Martinez, throwing sliders and change-ups low and away, and walked him on five pitches. He came back at Shin-Soo Choo with fastballs, but again threw everything low and away, walking Choo on another five pitches. That loaded the bases for Travis Hafner, and with Galarraga having to throw a strike, he teed up a fastball out over the plate (at this point, Cleveland's batters had to know that's where Galarraga was trying to throw the ball), and Hafner sliced it to left field for a single.
You could say that Galarraga was victimized by bad luck, as Hafner's line drive bounced out of Ryan Raburn's glove as he tried to make a diving catch. But the point is that it never should've come to that. Had Galarraga pitched more aggressively - a point emphasized by both Jim Leyland and Gerald Laird in post-game comments - the worst that would've happened is that Cleveland would've tied the game instead of taking the lead.
"He pitched Sizemore like he's Babe Ruth, pitched Martinez like he's Babe Ruth, and pitched Choo like he was Babe Ruth."
"He's been here long enough to know that."
"If you're afraid to throw the ball over the late with two outs and nobody on base in the third inning, you've got problems."
Laird may have been a bit more polite, but no less critical:
"You get the first two outs of an inning, you got to close it out. And we needed to be aggressive."
"We backed off a bit. Instead of being aggressive, he got tentative with a man in scoring position."
Maybe the worst thing to happen to Galarraga is when he starts posting big strikeout numbers. After doing so in April, he then seemed to become enamored with making hitters miss, rather than pitching to them. Galarraga racked up seven strikeouts in his last outing, so did the same thing happen in his following start. Did he start thinking he was a strikeout pitcher (something he hasn't been in his 1 1/2 seasons in Detroit)? Or, as Leyland and Laird said, was he just too timid in his approach, instead of going after hitters?
Galarraga isn't the sole reason the Tigers lost this game, however. The lineup once again showed how inconsistent it could be, failing to mount any sort of real scoring threat against Carl Pavano after driving in two runs in the second inning.
I realize the initial impulse is to say, "How could they look that bad against Carl Pavano?" But this wasn't quite another case of the Tigers making a mediocre pitcher look good. Well, maybe it was. Pavano came into the game pitching well, having allowed three earned runs in each of his past three starts. If anything, he provided an excellent example of how a pitcher can succeed throwing strikes. Pavano hit the strike zone with 72 of his 101 pitches. (Maybe Tigers coaches should make Galarraga watch tape of Pavano's performance.)
And maybe Pavano is just a bad match-up for Detroit. In two starts against the Tigers this season (both at Comerica Park), he's given up four runs in 15.1 innings with nine strikeouts. And most importantly, no walks.
Marcus Thames has been playing well lately, so it's probably unfair to single him out for this. But in the ninth inning, after Kerry Wood walked Placido Polanco on four straight pitches and fell behind Miguel Cabrera 2-1 before serving up a two-run homer, Thames comes to the plate and... swings at the first pitch.
In Thames's defense, it was an 88 m.p.h. slider that was right down the middle, and he just missed getting a good swing on it (and he knew it right away, judging from his reaction). But it really didn't seem like the smartest at-bat in that situation.
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