You knew it had to happen. The only real surprise was that it took this long for the Detroit Tigers bullpen to finally blow a game. Joba Chamberlain gave up six consecutive hits to the Chicago White Sox, allowing four runs to score, blowing a three-run lead and snatching defeat from the jaws of victory on Wednesday night.
The Tigers bullpen has been a cause for concern all season, and not without justification. The mystery is how they lasted until May 6 before they actually cost the team a game in the standings. Detroit’s relief corps had blown just one save all season, that being pinned on Ian Krol, who is now pitching in Toledo. The Tigers actually came back to win that game. Not this time.
The Tigers have made a habit in recent years of saving more victories than their bullpen numbers suggest they should be saving. This year has been no exception. If they can find a few good men to hold a lead in the late innings, they can tolerate middle and long relievers throwing batting practice to opposing hitters on occasion. It’s those gut wrenching games when an apparent victory turns into a loss that the Tigers and their fans have been able to avoid recently. Even Joe Nathan, who recorded seven blown saves in 2014, walked away with just four blown games, despite all the grief and heartache.
Chamberlain had not given up a home run all season before floating a two-out slider to Melky Cabrera, which was blasted over the right-center field wall for a three-run home run to tie the game at 6-6. In fact, Chamberlain had yielded just one run in his seven appearances this season. Entering Wednesday’s game, he carried a 1.50 ERA, while stranding 85.7 percent of batters who reached base.
Despite his success in holding opponents off the scoreboard, Chamberlain has looked like an accident waiting to happen this season. Too many hard hit balls, and too few missed bats -- with a K/9 ratio of just 4.50. He has been the choice of manager Brad Ausmus to be the primary set-up man, working the eighth inning when the team has a lead. He hasn’t walked many hitters and has kept the ball in the yard, both in 2014 and 2015 ... until now.
Joakim Soria has been flawless as the team’s closer, saving all 10 opportunities he's been given. Angel Nesbitt, who is playing an increasingly important role, has been effective, with a 2.71 ERA and 1.70 FIP, walking less than one batter per nine innings, while not allowing a home run. Nesbitt would be a logical choice to get the ball in the late innings with a lead.
Tom Gorzelanny has also been mostly effective, with a 2.70 ERA, striking out over eight batters per nine innings in 10 innings of work. He has been sharing some of the late inning duty as well. Al Alburquerque, who worked the sixth inning on Wednesday, has not been himself at all this season. He gave up another walk and a base hit in four batters, before being pulled in favor of Gorzelanny. Alburquerque cannot be trusted with a narrow lead at this point.
Ausmus can't be blamed for giving Chamberlain first crack at the primary set-up role, especially after he pitched so well in that role for four months last season. It wasn’t like anyone else was stepping up to claim the job. If Chamberlain continues to get knocked around and he keeps that role, then Ausmus can be blamed.
There is something to be said for sticking with your veteran pitcher, who has just one out to get, even if he has put two men on. But after a three-run homer and five hits in an inning, you can pretty much tell that he doesn’t have it. From July 24, 2014 to the end of the season, Chamberlain allowed a 5.24 ERA with a WHIP of 1.66, yet Ausmus stuck with him.
One blown game is not a cause for panic, but it’s the kind of game that leaves a lingering bad taste that doesn't go away quickly. After what Tigers’ fans witnessed at the end of the 2014 season, Chamberlain and Ausmus have not earned much patience this time around.