The Detroit Tigers were winning last night, but then they lost. This is not a new narrative for this team, for which unrecoverable, late-inning blown leads are a recurring symptom of an unstable bullpen that’s as much a part of this era’s Detroit baseball identity as Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander.
Incidentally, it was Verlander who started last night’s game, the first of a road series against the Blue Jays. He did well to hold Toronto to two runs, but he had to exit in the sixth inning, having thrown 103 pitches. At that point, the Tigers led 3-2. They extended the lead to 4-2 in the next inning, thanks to an Ian Kinsler RBI GDIP.
When Shane Greene allowed a run in the bottom of the seventh, Justin Wilson relieved him, getting two key outs and preserving what then was a 4-3 Detroit lead.
After newish Toronto reliever Jason Grilli made disappointingly light work of the meat of the Tigers lineup, Wilson came back out to pitch the bottom of the eighth. Allowing two quick hits that gave the Blue Jays men on first and third with nobody out, Wilson suddenly found himself in an extremely tight position. He did very well to strike out the always-dangerous Edwin Encarnacion for the first out of the inning, and a well-handled grounder by Cabrera allowed James McCann to employ a nice bit of pickle strategy to nab the runner on third, who had attempted to score, for the second out.
Two outs, but still, two on base. Make that three on base, after Wilson walked the next batter on five pitches. “Time for a new pitcher,” one person in our residence said. The other agreed, as did Brad Ausmus, who pulled Wilson for…Alex Wilson. That Wilson promptly allowed a two-RBI single, providing the Jays a 5-4 lead they would not surrender.
Some immediately wondered why Ausmus turned to Alex Wilson in what, as illustrated above, was the highest leverage moment of the game (7.88 LI), rather than Francisco Rodriguez, who is the team’s nominal closer. K-Rod was very well-rested and has been performing very well in recent weeks. To all but the most rigid of old-school managers, this seemed like a fairly obvious move. Ausmus addressed the subject in his post-game media conference:
Asked if he considered using Rodriguez for the final out in the eighth, Ausmus said: “I thought about it. I didn’t want to do that again.”
“I think I did it once,” Ausmus said. “I’d prefer not to use K-Rod for four outs.”
Ausmus said it wasn’t due to Rodriguez saying anything after the four-out effort in June.
“Just for me, personal preference,” Ausmus said. “If he was 25 maybe. But I’d rather not do it too often.”
There’s a book to be written on bullpen strategy, and I don’t intend to approach that territory here. Instead, it’s enough to review Ausmus’ statements and try to take him at his word. Doing so reveals the faulty internal logic of Ausmus’ position, which emanates from his apparent, unstated, and incorrect assumption that, if he brought Rodriguez in for the third out of the eighth, he would have to leave him in to secure all three outs in the ninth. If the coaches were worried about Rodriguez’s workload, they could have limited his assignment to the narrow task of closing out the eighth inning and used Alex Wilson in the ninth. Assuming Rodriguez preserved the one-run lead and the Tigers’ 7-8-9 batters failed to add to it, the ninth still would be a challenge, but Wilson would have the benefit of facing Toronto’s bottom three hitters with three empty bases at his disposal. (If Ausmus was worried about Wilson’s ability to get all three outs in the ninth, he also could’ve sent Rodriguez back out to give Wilson a head start.)
Last year, Cincinnati manager Bryan Price reminded everyone– much to the media’s pompous chagrin– that the media doesn’t work for baseball teams, and that baseball managers rarely have much to gain by providing full and honest answers to reporter questions. Maybe Ausmus’ answer wasn’t the truth. If it was, though, it wasn’t a very good answer.
There are not many opportunities for baseball managers to affect games directly. Bullpen management is one of them, though, and, last night, Ausmus missed an opportunity to manage his bullpen in a way that could’ve preserved an important win for his Tigers, who were trailing the Blue Jays by two games in the AL wild card race before last night’s loss.
Catching Fire: Ian Kinsler is the San Francisco Giants of the MLB All Star Game – 7/6
Catching Fire: Night of a thousand feet of home runs – 6/21
Catching Fire: Pelf on the shelf – 6/16
Catching Fire: When is it okay to stop short? – 6/15
Catching Fire: Heading for the exit velocity – 5/17
Catching Fire: Boy, the starters need to carry that weight a longer time – 5/3
Catching Fire: Who’s Number Two? – 5/2
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