In the wake of a second straight disaster of a playoff loss, pushing the team to the brink of elimination, the Tigersphere is looking for explanations. This follows a season where the Detroit Tigers barely scraped out a division title that they were expected to win easily, with a team that has played just above .500 ball since mid-May.
There are several very identifiable problems that plague this Tigers team, and a good part of the anger and frustration of the fan base is directed at Tigers manager Brad Ausmus. Is that fair? Tough questions have to be asked. It doesn’t help that the two losses have come in the worst ways possible.
A complete blowout by a score of 12–3, and a gut-wrenching loss when the team was ahead by three runs, only to blow the lead in the eighth inning. Again. There are plenty of places to point fingers to blame for the Tigers’ predicament. We are not yet ready to write the season's obituary, but it's fair to ask questions.
How did they beat us? Let me count the ways.
The first, and most obvious place to point fingers is at a bullpen that has been the bane of the Tigers’ existence the entire season, and every season for several years. The Tigers’ bullpen has allowed 11 runs, eight hits, and three walks in the eighth inning alone, in just 1 2/3 innings of two playoff games. The Orioles’ bullpen has worked 9 1/3 innings, allowing two runs, actually retiring more batters than their starting pitchers.
The Orioles summoned Andrew Miller to relieve Chris Tillman in the sixth inning of Game 1. Miller went 1 2/3 innings, allowing no hits, one walk, and had three strikeouts. In Game 2, starter Kevin Gausmann worked 3 2/3 innings, allowing one run.
The Tigers attempted to re-acquire Miller from the Boston Red Sox in July, but he was traded to the Orioles for Eduardo Rodriguez instead, a Double-A pitcher with a 4.79 ERA, who was ranked as the 65th best prospect in MLB. The Tigers then made a trade for David Price, sending away their would be best playoff relief pitcher, and best left-hander in Drew Smyly, to Tampa Bay in the deal. They then dealt their top starting pitching prospect and their top relief pitching prospect for Joakim Soria.
The Tigers were left with Phil Coke, who was inexplicably resigned in the off-season, as their late-inning lefty. Coke was used as one-of-three pitchers in the eighth inning of game one's implosion. They did not acquire a left-handed relief pitcher to replace Smyly, either in the off-season after Smyly was moved to the rotation, or in July after he was dealt in the Price trade.
The Orioles brought in Delmon Young, a former Tiger with a track record of postseason success, to pinch-hit in the eighth inning, down by two runs with the bases loaded in Game 2. Young is a well-known first-ball hitter, who wouldn’t take a walk to save his life. He makes Torii Hunter look patient. He laced a three-run double into the corner, clearing the bases and driving in three runs to win the game for Baltimore.
In the ninth inning, the Tigers were due to send up Alex Avila, Andrew Romine, and Ezequiel Carrera, but their roster choices for the series failed to include anyone who could hit. Down by one run, they used Hernan Perez to pinch hit for Avila, and Eugenio Suarez to hit for Carrera. They were set down order by Zach Britton, officially ending the collapse. One day earlier, Carrera was the pinch-hitter of choice. There isn't a decent pinch-hitter on the Detroit bench.
The Tigers have had one of the worst defensive teams in the league this season, and it bit them in the two playoff losses. The Orioles had the top ranked defense in the league this season, and it helped them in the playoffs. The Tigers’ defense cost them about one half run per game. The Orioles’ defense saved them about half of a run-per-game. The net difference is one run-per-game.
When Delmon Young shot one down into the corner, the ball was bobbled by J.D. Martinez, just long enough to allow J.J. Hardy to score what would be the winning run. On the flip side, Orioles third baseman Ryan Flaherty made a diving stop in the hole in the fifth inning with Hunter on first and no outs. The Tigers’ third baseman, Nick Castellanos, ranks as the worst in the league defensively, and hasn’t made a play like that in his life.
On the double play started by Flaherty, the Tigers had Hunter and Cabrera running, which allowed the Orioles to turn the double play, barely getting each runner, and squelch any rally.
In the eighth inning of Game 2 with the Tigers leading by two with no outs and runners on first and second, Miguel Cabrera attempted to score from first on a double by Victor Martinez. He was easily out at the plate on a questionable attempt to score. When Young doubled down the line, Hardy scored from first, narrowly avoiding the sweep tag of Alex Avila. Cabrera was sent home by third base coach, Dave Clark, for what it's worth.
In Game 1, down by two in the eighth inning, Ian Kinsler attempted a steal with Hunter at the plate and Cabrera on-deck. Hunter lined into a double play before Cabrera homered in the next at-bat to pull the Tigers within a run. The Tigers are better at base-running than they were a year ago — and the Orioles are no speedsters on the basepaths — but on this day, base-running was the difference in the ball game, among other things.
The Tigers ended the regular season with the highest rotation WAR among starting pitchers — due mainly to the second-lowest fielding independent pitching (FIP) — and more innings pitched than any other rotation in the American League. Detroit features three Cy Young winners. The Orioles had the second-lowest ranked rotation. The difference in rotations is the Tigers’ biggest advantage in the series, at least on paper.
In the two playoff games, Tigers starters have outlasted their counterparts, and departed with a chance to win the games. Max Scherzer allowed four runs in over seven innings of work, with a runner on second base who scored on an error by shortstop Andrew Romine, with Joba Chamberlain on the mound. Scherzer pitched well from the third through the seventh innings, but the damage had been done. The one thing that we knew he had to do was to keep the ball in the park. He was not up to par, even though he worked two more innings than Tillman.
Justin Verlander clearly out pitched Wei-Yen Chen, giving up a two-run homer that was barely out, if it was out at all, to Nick Markakis. However, he lasted just five innings, which is better than the 3 2/3 innings that Chen pitched, allowing five runs to the Tigers. But again, the one home run, plus the four innings that Verlander did not pitch did the Tigers in. Add the liner to center field that would be caught by an average center fielder and that led to Verlander being pulled into the equation.
So there’s blame for the bullpen pitchers, for the defense, for base-running blunders, and for Dave Dombrowski, but what about Ausmus?
There was no reason to take out Sanchez in Game 2 after retiring six straight batters on 30 pitches. If Sanchez was not properly "stretched out" because of a lack of work, whose fault is that? Ausmus, as the Tigers’ fan base will, and has, let us know. And if Sanchez was removed, no excuse for going to Joba Chamberlain, given his well documented struggles in the second half of the season, especially when pitching on consecutive days.
In Game 1 it was the same issue. Down by one run in the eighth inning, Scherzer came out. Who did Ausmus turn to? His eighth inning guy, Joba Chamberlain, despite horrid second-half numbers. The results were predictable, and predicted. Eight runs later, the Tigers had been blown out, 12–3. Ausmus does not acquire the personnel on the team, he doesn't catch the ball for them, and doesn't pitch. But he should at least know what players to use, and what players not to use when the game is on the line.
Even after Verlander lasted just five innings, and even after Cabrera was thrown out at the plate, the Tigers had a two-run lead and were on the verge of tying up the series and heading home to Detroit. Ausmus made decisions that cost the team the game. He had not learned from his recent mistakes when he used Chamberlain and games were blown. He deserves blame for that critical loss.
There is plenty of blame to go around and Ausmus deserves his share of the blame. To a great extent, he has not been given the talent in the bullpen or on the bench to get the job done. To the extent that he had a hand in choosing the roster, the players chosen do not provide a single decent hitter on the bench. And even with the problems in the bullpen and relief pitchers failing to do the job that they were hired to do, Ausmus has bungled things even worse by continuing to stubbornly use failed pitchers in key roles.
Ausmus may one day — maybe even soon — become a very good manager. He may one day feel comfortable enough to do something other than make the safest play, or go with the player with the most experience every time. But right now, he isn’t, and he doesn’t. This isn’t working, in so many ways. It’s clearly not all the fault of the manager. But then, Dave Dombrowski isn't going to fire himself and you can’t fire the entire team.