In late September, Tigers manager Brad Ausmus waited for just the right opportunity to put Anibal Sanchez into a game. After returning from a six-week stint on the disabled list, the goal was to get Sanchez acclimated to relief pitching in at least two outings before the Tigers headed to the postseason. That opportunity came just once, and Sanchez got one inning of work.
Sanchez was perfect in his outing on Friday against the Baltimore Orioles. Asked to come in with a runner on and no outs, Sanchez did more than keep the Orioles from scoring. He gave the Tigers perfection, and after his two innings of relief work, he was done. So why take him out?
"It's more about him not being stretched out," Ausmus said. "He was hurt, what was he out, six weeks and he threw one inning, one simulated game. Asking him to throw really anything more than 30 pitches is a stretch."
Because Sanchez had pitched just the one inning of relief, he was on a pitch count to start the postseason. When Sanchez ended the seventh inning, 30 pitches was closing in on the limit Ausmus had set for Sanchez, and even though he was light's out, Ausmus wasn't going to put Sanchez in for a third inning.
"No, we thought 35 was pushing it, so sending him back out would have been tough," he said.
Sanchez can't do it all, not after the lack of appearances he's had. Asking him to come in for the remainder of the game with limited outings is courting danger, but at the same time, Ausmus had chances in the regular season to have Sanchez get some work in before it came to this. Now, the Tigers are on the brink of being swept out of the postseason because he wasn't able to, or wasn't willing to turn Sanchez loose before the postseason.
Even if he had, the eighth inning isn't Sanchez's to control. Ausmus said several times that he'd be comfortable with Sanchez pitching in any inning, including the ninth, but that hasn't rung true to this point.
"I assumed that I'm done with the second inning," Sanchez told reporters after the game. "It's set-up time. That's the time for Joba (Chamberlain), and I think I'm done right there. That's for set-up man situation. We got lead for three runs and that's the way it have to come. So the result is different than what we want but that's Joba's job right there."
The results didn't pan out. Chamberlain hit a batter and allowed two hits, forcing Ausmus to bring in reliever Joakim Soria, who didn't fare any better. After issuing a walk to J.J. Hardy, Soria gave up a first pitch three-run double to Delmon Young (all charged to Chamberlain), putting the Tigers in a 7–6 hole after leading 6–3 at the start of the eighth inning.
Chamberlain, who hasn't pitched well in the second half, accepted responsibility for what happened, but the problem goes beyond what Chamberlain can or cannot do in an eighth inning situation. It's that there are few options to choose from, and Ausmus wasn't considering Al Alburquerque (or Kyle Lobstein for that matter) an option at any point in the game.
"Usually when we use Albie (Alburquerque), it's earlier in the game, sixth inning, occasionally seventh inning, but we had Sanchie (Sanchez) today," he said.
If the Tigers are unable to win the next three consecutive games, any hope of obtaining a World Series Championship will be lost. On one hand, this is the bullpen Ausmus was given to work with, but he's also not been completely devoid of options either.
Lobstein, Alburquerque, and Joe Nathan have all sat in the bullpen, watching the events of the last two games unfold. Ausmus has stuck by the adage in his mind that Nathan is the closer, and therefore one of the best, if not the best arm out of the bullpen. Yet, he was not used at the most crucial point in the game.
A rigid course of who takes the seventh, eighth and ninth innings has cost the Tigers on multiple occasions. Now, one loss away from elimination, even Ausmus isn't confident in going to his bullpen if David Price or Rick Porcello can't pitch deep into a game. Worse, Ausmus is not sure who he would even choose.
"I don't know that I necessarily have an answer for that," he said. "But if we have a lead in the eighth inning on Sunday, we're going to have to find somebody."