I won't be listening to talk radio tomorrow. I will avoid the News and Freep comment sections as though they were an aggressive panhandler. Tiger Nation is in an uproar and I've got a pair of bones to pick myself concerning this weekend's disasters in Toronto.
There's obviously plenty of blame to go around when a baseball team surrenders a pair of ninth inning leads, and your offense scores a grand total of seven runs in 29 innings. But, while many if not most fans tend to focus their angst and anger at players, those guys are playing a difficult game at an elite level against competition that wants to win just as badly. I get frustrated. I may briefly rail at them. But the main focus of my ire for these two games falls squarely on Brad Ausmus and a lousy pair of decisions that are going to have repercussions well beyond your average back to back losses over the course of a season.
On Saturday afternoon, Brad Ausmus pulled Max Scherzer from the game after 8 spectacular innings of one run baseball, with 106 pitches thrown, in a one run game. Many Tiger fans were incensed with this decision. Mad Max had finished his outing with back to back swinging strikeouts of Danny Valencia and Nolan Reimold, flashing fastballs that touched 97 mph past the two light hitting Jays. There was nothing to suggest he was done. 120 pitches isn't asking a lot from an elite veteran starter. We've seen Max throw that many pitches, or close to it, many times. Yeah, you don't want to ask that of him every time out, but a one run game, with an iffy bullpen, when he's been absolutely dominant all night seems like a fairly reasonable assignment for a guy who will almost certainly be leaving us this off-season for a contract befitting one of the elite starters in the game.
Perhaps Brad had already told him he'd go eight, and to let it all hang out that last inning. That's entirely possible, and while I don't love putting that limit on Max in a game like that, I could live with it. Max had thrown 115 in his previous start, so okay, fine. Baseball management 101. Bring in your closer, shut the Jays down and head back to the hotel with a W. In fact, you just so happen to have the luxury of two relief pitchers anointed with the sacred oil of the closer...one of whom, the one with the substantially better record this year, hasn't even pitched in a few days and is rested and ready to go. There's your guy!
Instead, the Tiger's skipper sent Joe Nathan to the mound to wrap up the game. Joe Nathan, who about 18 hours previous had labored through a tense, highly stressful 26 pitch ninth inning before Rajai Davis snatched victory from the jaws of defeat with a marvelous sliding catch in foul territory. Joe Nathan who, despite pitching pretty well over the past month, has been as steady throughout this season as a drunken ice fisherman. He proceeded to give up the game tying run, and Soria was rushed into service anyway to bail Joe out of the inning. Soria then proceeded to strain an oblique and is now lost to us for several weeks.
Fast forward to Sunday afternoon, where the shiny new toy in Tiger fans' lives, David Price, throws a short, but excellent start of his own, racking up strikeouts and scattering a walk and a meager few hits over 5 and 2/3 innings. He didn't appear to be at his best though, as Toronto hitters were able to foul off pitch after pitch against him, Trying to get the final out of the 6th, Price was instead drilled with the equivalent of one of his own fastballs on his left leg which ricocheted into right field for a double. Price was visited by the Tiger's trainer, declared himself alright after a warm-up pitch, and proceeded to center cut a 92 mph fastball that was launched over the left field wall by Dioner Navarro, and then gets out of the inning.
At this point, Ausmus, or Gene Lamont, has a decision to make. Price is at the same point in his pitch count Max Scherzer was the day before, he's just been drilled in the leg and proceeded to give up a two run home run immediately thereafter. The leg he powers his pitching motion with now has a nasty welt swelling up, and his teammates then proceed to make three outs in what appeared to be less than a minute's time. The Tigers have a three run lead, and either way, you're not getting more than another inning out of David, he's facing a team he himself said he hates facing, and he clearly appears to be walking gingerly as he leaves the field after the 6th inning.
You've got to protect your guy in that situation. The game isn't on the line the next inning necessarily, the way it was the night before when you pulled your flat out dominant starter after the same number of pitches. You have a three run lead. And yet instead of protecting the man who is going to be the Tiger's ace next year, Lamont or Ausmus sends him back out there, he gives up a quick pair of hits, and THEN they pull him. It wasn't even a case of, if he gives up a hit we'll get him out of there.
Consider the situation. You had two lefties and a weak hitting right-hander coming up in the seventh, the bottom of the Blue Jays order, and you've already got Phil Coke warming up. Perfect situation for Phil, who has been very good for two months straight anyway, particularly when he doesn't inherit any base-runners. Instead, now you've got Phil in the game facing one lefty with men on base, and then the top of the lineup, consisting of the three most dangerous right handed hitters on their team. You've got to get Al in there because you used Phil too late and thankfully, at the time anyway, he pitches brilliantly.
Today, because of the runners Price put on in the seventh, amid numerous other failures, the entire pitching staff, the entire team in fact, endured a punishing 19 inning game that ended in heartbreak. Losses are losses, but bad decisions can have repercussions beyond two games, and we're going to feel those at some point in the weeks to come, and potentially tomorrow with Justin and the Zombies taking on the Pittsburgh Pirates as a grueling road trip and stretch of games generally comes to a head.
Joe Nathan is not the best reliever on the team and yet because there are loyalty issues involved with the closer role, and because we need him to perform well in the role, such as it is, the Tigers aren't going to call anything a committee. But you didn't have that issue on Saturday, there was a ready made reason not to put Joe into that game, even beyond not wanting Max to throw more than 106 pitches. Joe had pitched less than 24 hours earlier and had a pretty long tough go of it. No one is going to freak out about the closer role if you use Soria there, and any media questions are easily deflected. Using Joe there says to me that Brad thinks that Joe Nathan is the best option on the team even after the outing he'd just had the night before.
When teams lose two heartbreaking games, there are often many factors involved, and today was no different. Maybe Phil comes in and doesn't allow the two runs, maybe Joba doesn't give up a run in back to back appearances. Maybe the Tigers score some more runs and we don't have anything to worry about. But the inconsistency in these two decisions, and the forcing of pitchers into less than ideal situations when plenty of other options were at hand is maddening.
Players play and then fail or succeed, but managers are there to put them in the best positions to succeed possible, and there's no way I can look at this weekend's games and feel like the players didn't try their best to win. They lost the games, but they were undermined by a pair of lousy decisions by the coaching staff, and they damn well have to do a better job going forward. This team, and this bullpen particularly, doesn't have a huge margin for error at this point, and Tiger fans are likely to be in white knuckle mode unless this team can put together a healthy stretch of winning baseball in the next week or two.