Detroit Tigers manager Brad Ausmus made all the right moves today. Unfortunately, solid decision-making sometimes only gets you so far in the game of baseball, and despite his reliance on favorable matchups, his pitchers did not execute. Over the course of two innings, the Tigers bullpen turned a 2-1 deficit into a 7-2 slaughter, and the Tigers' fourth loss in six meetings against the Boston Red Sox this season.
The Tigers have been operating with an eight-man bullpen since Marc Krauss was optioned to the minor leagues on July 26, but they came into Sunday's game with a shorthanded unit. Alex Wilson has been experiencing some shoulder soreness lately, and was unavailable for Saturday night's 7-6 win over the Red Sox. Lefthander Blaine Hardy and hard-throwing righthander Bruce Rondon threw 45 and 28 pitches, respectively, on Saturday, and were also unlikely to pitch.
Ausmus' issues were compounded when Justin Verlander totaled 100 pitches in just five innings of work. Ausmus was able to squeeze another inning out of Verlander, but thanks to his starter's inefficiency, still had to maneuver through three innings with his team trailing by just one run.
With this in mind, Ausmus brought in lefty Tom Gorzelanny to face a pair of left-handed batters to lead off the seventh. Instead of two quick outs, Gorzelanny allowed a solo home run to Jackie Bradley, who is a career .211/.303/.297 hitter against left-handed pitching. Luckily, Gorzelanny retired leadoff hitter Brock Holt, then righthander Neftali Feliz quickly dispatched the two righties he faced to end the inning.
After Jefry Marte homered to cut the Tigers' deficit to one run in the bottom of the inning, Ausmus called on Ian Krol to face David Ortiz in the eighth. Without rehashing the gory details, Krol failed about as spectacularly as one could expect a LOOGY to fail. Four of the five left-handed batters he faced reached base, and the fifth laid down a sacrifice bunt because sometimes baseball managers just can't help themselves. By the time Al Alburquerque relieved Krol, the Red Sox had the game well in hand.
To recap, that's five earned runs on five hits and a walk in a run of just 11 batters, many of which were at a platoon disadvantage. The two lefties Ausmus called upon were responsible for all five earned runs, all of which were driven in by left-handed batters.
We have been critical of Ausmus at times this season, but Sunday's bullpen meltdown was not his doing. Sure, he could have brought in Alburquerque at some point before Bradley's three-run triple broke the game open -- the intentional walk was a little puzzling too -- but at some point, Ausmus has to be able to trust the lefthanders in his 'pen. Both Gorzelanny and Krol failed to do their job, especially when tasked with retiring a young lefty with a .121 batting average and .426 OPS.
Instead of laying the blame at Ausmus' feet, we need to look higher. This latest loss, like many others, speaks to the lack of bullpen depth Ausmus has been given by the Tigers front office, and the organization's inability to develop reliable arms in their minor league system. None of the relievers used today were developed from the ground up by the Tigers, and Bruce Rondon is the only homegrown bullpen candidate on the active roster.
Just about any team would struggle without their three best bullpen arms available on a given afternoon, but the complete meltdown that was Sunday's game indicates that there is a larger issue at play. Ausmus was essentially asked to win a fight with both arms tied behind his back, and some seem confused as to why he ended up getting punched in the mouth. The Tigers need to take a serious look at their bullpen this offseason and figure out a new strategy for finding relief help, because the current system just isn't working.