Detroit Tigers manager Brad Ausmus made the right call. In the 11th inning with options looking slim, he could have gone with any other bullpen arm. Instead, he went with Shane Greene to save the game with only a one-run lead to work with. It worked beautifully.
An already slim 5-3 lead turned into a one-run game in the eighth, after a leadoff triple to Dee Gordon came around to score on a sacrifice fly by Christian Yelich off of the Tigers' setup man Mark Lowe. Now, bad games happen from time to time, but Francisco Rodriguez was nothing short of a disaster on opening night. The collapse happened so rapidly that pulling him would have served no purpose, either.
After the Tigers' offense built back a lead on back-to-back homers off Anthony Gose and pinch-hitting Victor Martinez, K-Rod allowed three doubles, a single, and a sac fly to tie it up 7-7. Only Justin Upton's outstanding catch saved the game. Thus, the game went to the 10th, and then the 11th inning, where the Tigers eventually won 8-7.
Ausmus still had Kyle Ryan, Buck Farmer, and Logan Kensing waiting in the wings for relief, if needed. In 2015 he would have gone to one of them because they're the bullpen arms. But the best option was Greene. It only makes sense to go with the stronger option. That he took that route, however, is the surprise.
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This worked well for a few reasons. Greene would still have five days of rest to recover before making his start on Monday at Comerica Park. Secondly, the stuff that Greene was throwing during spring training and again Tuesday night was downright filthy. Regardless of what happened last year, be it due to injury or otherwise, he was sharp when he needed to be.
Justin Wilson pitched around a leadoff single and had a solid seventh inning, yet that was left by the wayside. The back-to-back homers became a footnote. Late-game positives don't gain traction when the Ghost of Bullpens past rears its ugly head on opening night of a new season. For fans, it is unsettling. Worrisome. So, for Ausmus to reach into the mystery box in a National League park and pull out Greene instead of another reliever, it was unexpected.
It was unconventional, sure. But that's just the thing Ausmus has shied away from doing in the past, and 2015 was a glaring example of that fact. Every season presents new hope that the team, the manager, the front office has learned from mistakes and is willing to work on improving. The decision to go to Greene was that sliver. Of course, that only got his foot in the door, and Greene still had to perform, which he did.
Facing Adeiny Hechavarria, Miguel Rojas, and Gordon in the 11th, he retired all three in order. A six-pitch at-bat started the inning off, but it did nothing to deter Greene from eliminating the following two batters on five and four pitches, respectively. He didn't blow the hitters away -- he topped out at 94 mph -- and most of his pitches were in the higher 80s. Placement was key and the life he had was evident.
Once given the opportunity, though, Greene took full advantage of the situation with ease. At some point a decision will need to be made when Daniel Norris returns from recovering from his back injury. But regardless of how the rotation shakes up -- or doesn't -- when he returns, Greene will be a powerful weapon to have at the Tigers' disposal. Be that in the rotation or the bullpen is yet to be seen.
It's far better to have too many good options than too few. With little warning or preparation, Greene showed that his stuff is far too good to be limited to the minors as a backup. It's a hot commodity on the Tigers' pitching staff no matter what the situation is, but credit Ausmus with having the foresight to think outside the box in the first place.