"Shut up', he explained"--- Ring Lardner
There are times it pays to discuss baseball with a non-fan. During Sunday's excruciating marathon loss by the Tigers to the Toronto Blue Jays I had such an opportunity during the what I assumed were the latter innings. Unfortunately, it turned out to be the middle innings.
My family and I live in Iowa. We lived in Minnesota before moving here. Good friends of ours from "Twins Territory" were at our place this weekend to visit for a couple of nights. They are doing the "Griswold" car adventure, National Lampoon's Vacation-style, across the country to the Grand Canyon this week. (I suppose that makes me "Cousin Eddie"!)
It's been great to have them here. The kids have been playing together nicely, my wife's college roommate is the mom that's visiting so they enjoy catching up, and her husband Nate and I enjoy a few beers when we get together. Always fun.
It must be pointed out that Nate is not a baseball fan. He has a passing interest and rudimentary knowledge of the game. The last game he attended was with me in 2004 at the Metrodome. (A Tigers victory. Gary Knotts...yes Gary Knotts...pitched eight shutout innings, Ugie Urbina pitched the 9th, and Pudge Rodriguez had four hits!) Nate watches baseball with me when our families get together. I don't know how much he enjoys it, but there is beer involved so it's all good.
We're sitting on the front porch watching the kids play. We're drinking Ommegang Three Philosophers out of Cooperstown, NY. The Tigers are in the process of blowing the 5-0 lead. Al Alburquerque has taken over in the bottom of the 7th from Phil Coke with two on, one out, and the lead down to one. Things look bleak and Nate can tell I'm expecting the worst. The conversation that follows is as close to verbatim as I can recollect:
Nate: Is this guy with the long name any good?
Me: Yeah...he has his moments. He did balk in a winning run this year though.
N8: Balk? You can lose on that? This isn't going well.
Soon thereafter Alburquerque improbably whiffs Jose Bautista and Alex Avila beautifully guns down Jose Reyes for the "strike ‘em out/throw ‘em out DP"
Me: WOW! (Yes...I became Jim Price. I then launch into a detailed description of why that was so awesome but did not mention Al Kaline)
N8: Amazing (somehow I could tell he wasn't as impressed as I was). I've never seen that before. I'm getting another beer. You good?
The Tigers fail to score in the top of the 8th. Alburquerque takes the hill again and mows down the Blue Jays in order all via strikeout.
N8: Hey...that was cool. He's struck out every batter he's faced now, right?
Me: Yep! Great work by him today.
N8: The Tigers should be in good shape to end this thing if he does that again next inning.
Me: Well...he's done.
N8: What? He's struck out every batter he's faced. He'll get them again.
Me: No. Put it this way. I will bet you ten thousand dollars he doesn't pitch the 9th.
N8: That's stupid. They aren't putting in 100-year old Joe Nathan again are they? (as a Minnesotan, Nate had proclaimed great surprise on Saturday that Nathan was now a Tiger. He assumed he'd retired long ago.)
Me: Actually no. He's been overworked the last two nights. Chamberlain will pitch.
N8: The fat guy with the beard who blew the game yesterday??!
N8: Why do they do that?
Me: Well...Alburquerque doesn't get to pitch the 9th.
Me: He just doesn't. That's just how it's done all over.
N8: But he struck out all four guys and he's gotten to rest between innings. It seems dumb to take him out. This is why I just watch the Vikings.
Me: Yeah...it is dumb. But I don't want to talk about. I've become a bit numb to it.
N8: This isn't going to end well.
Me: I hope for the best. (there may, or may not, have been a curse word injected here)
As we all know now, it didn't end well. Joba Chamberlain continued his descent on the season from the heights he had reached in the early months as a reliable relief option to the depths of just another roll of the dice each time he takes the mound. His over-reliance on breaking stuff is catching up with him. I hardly recall a reliever who can hum a fastball up to 95-mph and relies on it so little. He blew the save and barely escaped the inning with a tie.
The rest of the Tigers bulllpen, led by Patrick McCoy and Blaine Hardy, put up a valiant effort to match zeros into the evening with Toronto. The Tigers bollixed up a couple of premium scoring chances and finally the Blue Jays broke through against Rick Porcello.
By this time we had consumed copious amounts of ribs and Iowa sweet corn, the children were back outside playing, and the sun was setting on a beautiful summer evening. For whatever reason the scene outside was helping put the loss less at the forefront of my mind and it didn't sting like the loss on Saturday during Joe Nathan's blown save.
Whether the marathon loss by the Tigers was the beginning of the sun setting on their hopes for a 4th straight AL Central titles is a question for another day. The Royals are charging hard and Billy Butler has awaken from his slumber. I think the Tigers will be okay in the end, but it doesn't take much to construct a case for why they won't.
But what I take away is how dumbfounding a highly casual fan found it that you'd take out a relief pitcher who was rolling and wasn't overworked in order to bring in a guy who lost the game the day before. Perhaps the view by a distinct baseball outsider is the simplest and, in the end, the right one.
As someone who is devoted to the game and follows it daily, I understood "the why" behind the move and fully expected it. I have many qualms about modern bullpen management and have expressed them before. But I needed to be reminded by someone not involved in baseball that the push-button approach used in baseball relief pitching needs to change back to a different era. In another era Alburquerque finishes that game out of the bulllpen. No question. But in today's game he doesn't have the closing-chops in the eyes of those who control the tactics. It didn't matter how he looked or who was due up.
No, Al Alburquerque was coming out and, sadly, it didn't even occur to me in the moment that he wouldn't or shouldn't. It's just how it's always done. Maybe he would have coughed up the lead in the 9th too. We'll never know...but, upon further review, it would have been fun to have found out.