DETROIT — Tigers manager Brad Ausmus couldn't have asked for a more perfect performance from his bullpen. If there was a template in existence of what the Tigers bullpen should look like, Thursday night was it.
Joakim Soria's strong seventh inning was followed by a dominant Joba Chamberlain in the eighth, and Joe Nathan locked down the ninth to put the bow on a perfect appearance by each pitcher. It's a combination fans hadn't seen all season, not to that level of perfection. With the Tigers headed to the playoffs, it's just in time.
"They did a nice job, all three of those guys," Ausmus said. "Seventh, eighth, and ninth did an outstanding job. Good innings, threw strikes, quick innings, very efficient. Really, that's how you wanna line it up. Nine-up, nine-down is tough to do in a tight game like that but certainly would love to see that every time. I don't know if that's reasonable to ask that."
It may be what fans would like to see but it's difficult to duplicate the results. Not every outing by the bullpen will be as perfect as it was Thursday night. Copying the same performance against multiple teams during various hot and cold streaks is no easy task, generally speaking.
Soria was brought to Detroit for one of two situations, predominantly to pitch the seventh, or close if Nathan wasn't available. But with the Tigers' starting rotation, pitching in the seventh inning doesn't happen too often, and even then there were times Ausmus hasn't use him in either situation. The decision hasn't sat well with fans, who feel Soria should be closing rather than Nathan because of Nathan's struggles on the mound this season.
"When we originally got Soria we kinda could use him in a couple spots, we could use him in the seventh — Joba (Chamberlain) at the time pitched real well in the eighth and I didn't wanna disturb that," Ausmus said. "When Soria first came over I told him we'd use him in the seventh and if Joe (Nathan) wasn't closing he would close. He would kinda jump over Joba and close in those situations."
With that being said, is that still the case? "Yes," Ausmus said.
A shaky bullpen caused Ausmus to use Chamberlain more than he had anticipated in the first half, and the wear and tear was beginning to show on the Tigers' set-up man. Chamberlain hadn't been pitching as well in the second half as he did before the All-Star break, but Ausmus continues to use him with regularity in the eighth inning.
Soria didn't pitch well in his first three games but he settled in. He was also on the disabled list soon after and missed a month of playing time, although Ausmus downplayed that the injury was the reason for his light usage of Soria in high-pressure situations.
"He looks good to me, yeah," Ausmus said. "The way he's pitching is kinda what we expected when we got him. Obviously the injury kinda put a stop to that for a period of time."
For the foreseeable future, the Tigers' bullpen will remain the same. Soria will get the seventh, Chamberlain the eighth, and Nathan the ninth. If Nathan can't close for one reason or another, Soria becomes the closer.
None of the issues that Chamberlain and Nathan have been plagued with were present Thursday night. If the Tigers do go on to win the AL Central Division, they're going to need the version of Soria, Chamberlain, and Nathan that emerged from the bullpen on Thursday.
The Tigers may be able to beat the Orioles in the ALDS without a lights-out bullpen, but that won't cut it against the Angels if they make it to the ALCS, should the Tigers play them. Even then there's no guarantee.
As well as the trio of relievers performed Thursday night, however, there's still the issue of Anibal Sanchez, who hasn't pitched in a game since returning from the disabled list.
Sanchez hasn't pitched in over six weeks and there are only three games left before the Tigers have to rely on him in a playoff setting. They haven't even seen him pitch in relief yet. For that matter, neither has Sanchez, who hasn't pitched in relief since his rookie year in 2006, and he barely remembers it.
"I definitely wanna get him in, I think he does need to get in there," Ausmus said. "We were looking for opportunities the last two days. I'm a little hesitant to throw him first inning out of the pen into the fire of a one-run game in the seventh, but we do have to get him in there."
Considering the length of time Sanchez did spend on the disabled list, there is a good reason for Ausmus to be cautious with how and when he puts Sanchez into a game. But sooner or later it's going to need to happen, and Ausmus has precious little time to get it done.
If the Tigers can go into the playoffs with the bullpen they had Thursday night, and Sanchez can be a lights-out reliever, then the Tigers will have a formidable weapon they didn't have for most of the season. Of course, they still have to clinch the division.