alds

Requiem for a Season

Yesterday, 43,013 people filed into Comerica Park to observe the Tigers end their season in miserable fashion, losing 2-1 to the Baltimore Orioles.  As noted repeatedly by the TBS announcers (who were terrible all series…yes, Dennis Eckersley, we are aware that you used to be a pitcher, you don’t have to keep reminding us), the crowd was eerily quiet.  On a gray, blustery Michigan afternoon, those in attendance were, as Mitch Albom put it, bearing silent witness to the potential end of an era.  After meltdowns by the bullpen in the first two games of the series, Detroit fans showed up to the party, but came empty-handed.  Sometimes, as fans, you bring the energy with you, but sometimes you need to be fed.  And these fans came hungry for any reason to hope, for any sign of life.  And they starved.

As the fans well know, the Tigers are not a team that comes back from the dead.  This is a team reliant on dominant starting pitching, building an early lead and holding on for dear life.  During the Tigers’ current run of four consecutive division championships, they have never come back to win a postseason game they were losing going into the eighth inning.  Not once.  Since 2011, they’ve been trailing after seven innings 14 times and lost all 14 games.  For that matter, the Tigers haven’t even won a single game where they were tied entering the eighth; they’re 0-4 in such games.  At the same time, the bullpen has registered five blown saves in the eighth inning or later.  Opposing bullpens have incurred a blown save against the Tigers in the 8th inning or later only once, in Game 2 of the 2012 ALDS, but even in that game, it was only after the Tigers’ bullpen had already blown a save.  The Tigers have only won a single game that went into extra innings in four opportunities, Game 1 of the 2012 ALCS, but again, that was only after the Tigers bullpen had already blown a save in the 9th.

Overall, the Tigers have played 38 postseason games since 2011, with a record of 17-21.  In those games, they were leading after seven innings 20 times, trailing 14 times and tied 4 times.  If they simply won the games they were winning, lost the games they were losing, and won half of the games that were tied, that would be 22 wins and 16 losses.  The difference between 22-16 and 17-21 is the difference between genuine hope and utter despair.

This isn’t all about the bullpen or performance in the late innings.  This is about knowing that crazy things happen in baseball, and sometimes, when the chips are down, all you can do is hope for a miracle.  And while Detroit fans still clung to that hope, they understandably felt like those miracles only happen in other places for other fans for other teams.  When you hope for the best but expect the worst, you’re never wrong.  And the Tigers never fail to disappoint.

Ausmus Not Awesome

The Orioles now hold a 2-0 lead in the ALDS over the Tigers.  It’s not over, but it feels over.  For the third straight year, the Tigers have been handicapped by severe bullpen management and managerial incompetence.  In 2012 and 2013, it was Jim Leyland bungling things from the helm.  There was some hope that changing to a younger manager in Brad Ausmus would help to alleviate these issues, but that hope has already been smashed to smithereens.

In Game 2, Ausmus made three decisions regarding pitching changes, and they ranged between questionable and outright terrible:

– Left in Justin Verlander to start the 6th inning, then brought in Anibal Sanchez after Verlander gave up a hit.  Verlander looked absolutely done in the 5th, but Ausmus sent him back out to the mound in the 6th since he had only thrown 95 pitches.  Having Sanchez as the first guy out of the pen was clearly the correct decision, but given his lack of experience as a reliever, it would have been optimal to have him start an inning or come in with no one on base.  There was no reason to bring Verlander back out with the heart of the O’s order due up.  Luckily, Sanchez escaped the 6th without any further damage and pitched a perfect 7th, so no harm was done.  But as much as Verlander was battling all game, he was clearly toast, and I don’t understand the hesitance to switch to a pitcher in Sanchez who had been better than JV all year long.
Decision rating:  1 out of 5

– Removed Sanchez for Joba Chamberlain to begin the 8th.  This is the decision that will haunt the Tigers and their fans all winter.  Sanchez is a starting pitcher by trade, and he was looking stronger the longer he pitched.  Sure, he’d only had a single one inning appearance since he’d returned from the DL, but if Ausmus was thinking he couldn’t handle three innings, whose fault was it that Sanchez hadn’t been handed more work to get a bit more stretched out before the season ended?  This was slavish obedience to Ausmus’ set bullpen hierarchy, plain and simple.  Joba pitches the 8th and Joe Nathan pitches the 9th, never mind that both have been terrible lately and that there were superior options available.  Joba proceeded to give up two hits and hit a batter while getting a single lonely out.  His postseason ERA actually went down from infinity to 108.00.  Even if Ausmus was resolved to remove Sanchez after he had pitched two innings, I would have preferred to see Soria get a chance to start the inning.
Decision rating:  0 out of 5

– Removing Joba for Joakim Soria with two on, one out in the 8th.  This decision is probably the most defensible of the three, simply because Soria was having a great season before he was acquired by the Tigers.  He proceeded to walk J.J. Hardy and give up a game-winning bases-clearing double to former Tiger Delmon Young of all people.  Soria hasn’t looked sharp as a Tiger at all, but his usage since acquisition has been extremely inconsistent.  It appeared he finally shook off some of the rust to retire the side after the damage was already done, but a less rusty option might have been Al Alburquerque, who has yet to appear in the series.  As I’ve written before, Alburquerque has had the best and most consistent season of any Tiger reliever this year, and is a good option with runners on base due to his strikeout ability.  Given the lack of the options in the Tigers bullpen, Soria was an acceptable choice, but it appears that Ausmus doesn’t view Alburquerque as an option in the 8th or 9th inning regardless of matchup or situation.  It’s that kind of closed-minded thinking that is killing the Tigers right now.
Decision rating:  3 out of 5

Perhaps the worst part of all of this is that the Tigers bullpen has completely imploded and that’s even without the negative contributions of the highly flammable Joe Nathan (who of course is being reserved exclusively for save situations and hasn’t yet appeared in the postseason).  Sure, a postseason series is a small sample size, and there’s no need to deviate from a sound plan if things go wrong, but that’s only if the initial plan was any good.  Ausmus entered the postseason with a rigid and moronic plan for his already struggling bullpen.  Going forward, he’ll either overreact in the worst way possible (perhaps asking Phil Coke to get through a full inning or calling Jim Leyland for advice) or do nothing at all.  Either way, there is very little hope in Tigertown.