It hasn’t been an enjoyable start to the 2014 postseason for the Detroit Tigers, who about 18 hours after their postseason began were looking up, down two games to none, returning home deflated and beaten.
By now, every fan has lived (and probably re-lived) the nightmare that was Friday afternoon’s game two disaster, in addition to the one that got out-of-hand in a hurry on Thursday night. And many of those fans have focused their anger and frustration on rookie manager Brad Ausmus. This should come as no surprise, as the manager in baseball is subject to hindsight second-guessing and will forever be the dumbest person on the internet.
Ausmus does deserve some blame, but quite frankly, it’s not for what most fans are blaming him for.
For example, in the eighth inning on Thursday, after an Ian Kinsler single, Ausmus elected to put on the hit-and-run. With Torii Hunter up, he got ahead in the count before it evened out, and on 2-2, hit a soft liner to shortstop, where Kinsler was easily doubled off. The next at-bat, Miguel Cabrera belted a home run, that had Kinsler (or anyone) been on base, would have tied the game.
Fans wanted to torch Ausmus for that call, but it was a worthwhile gamble. If Hunter hits one on the ground, they stay out of the double play. If Hunter hits one into the outfield, Kinsler has time to retreat. If Hunter swings and misses, Kinsler is running on a poor battery duo, and likely steals the base easily. It was a move with little risk, and a lot of upside, and it unfortunately worked out poorly, given what transpired. When a manager plays the odds, and the odds swing back against him, there’s not much you can do. Some will blast the result, but I’ll take a guy that plays the odds.
In addition, despite popular belief, Ausmus does not deserve blame for lifting Anibal Sanchez after two innings of relief on Friday. Sanchez hasn’t pitched more than one inning since August 8, and only had one appearance of live action since being activated from the disabled list. Ausmus told MLive’s Chris Iott"I hope he doesn't have to go multiple innings, really. If we needed him to, I think he could go two innings." In the postgame, Ausmus confirmed that Sanchez was on a pitch count of 35.
So, while fans would have loved to have seen Sanchez come out for a third inning of work, Sanchez had done his job, done it well, and given his limitations, was and should have been done for the day. Those clamoring to push a guy coming off an injury are obviously not granting proper attention to the health and well-being of that player. Plus, even if he were healthy and able to go another inning, a 50+ pitch outing likely means that Sanchez would be shelved for two, probably three, days. So even if he got the team through game two, he’d be unable for games three and four, and the Tigers would have to rely on the motley bullpen crew then.
The defense of Ausmus’ decisions in the above does not render him completely blameless, however. His decision to keep Hernan Perez on the roster over Tyler Collins defies logic for a team full of holes in the lineup, and could have absolutely used a bigger bat to come to the plate in the ninth inning on Friday. Instead, the order included Perez, along with light-hitting shortstops Eugenio Suarez and Andrew Romine. Not quite a murderer’s row.
In addition, while it’s reasonable to say Sanchez wasn’t ready to be pushed, it’s also reasonable to ask why they didn’t try and stretch him out earlier. He was activated from the disabled list last Tuesday, and it took four days for him to see any action, and that was only a single game. If you’re trying to get ready for the postseason, and want every man at his best, wouldn’t you be trying to get a talented arm like Sanchez as many repetitions as is possible?
Ausmus of course isn’t alone in questionable decisions. In the top of the eighth, the Tigers had the chance to paid their lead, and did so off of a Victor Martinez double to the wall in right center field. However, with nobody out and starting on first base, Dave Clark waved Cabrera home, where he was thrown out easily.
This year, with runners on 2nd and 3rd and nobody out, the MLB run expectancy table sat at 1.87 runs. Run expectancy with a man on 2nd and one out was just 0.62 runs. In other words, the risk in no way was worth the reward, as the run expectancy declined by MORE than a run by taking the risk to send Cabrera.
But while there are microscopic criticisms that can go around, the macroscopic ones go back to general manager Dave Dombrowski. While the rotation is easily the best in baseball, and the lineup is fairly well constructed with enough weapons to suffice, the bullpen is a mess of epic proprtions. The Tigers’ bullpen ERA was 27th in MLB this year. The next closest that qualified for the postseason was the Dodgers at 21st. Last year, the worst bullpen ERA that made it to the postseason ranked 24th, and that was also the Tigers. In 2012, it was the Cardinals at 20th.
So blame Ausmus all you want, but his starters can’t go the distance every game, and his bullpen isn’t good enough to get anybody out. And that’s true whether it’s Joba Chamberlain, Joakim Soria, Phil Coke, Joe Nathan, or anyone else in the revolving door goes out to pitch.
These faults don’t mean that the series is over, though the Tigers’ backs are certainly up against the wall. It simply means that in the postseason, the margin for error is often times razor thin, and a single letdown is the difference between advancing and heading to the golf course.
And the Tigers have no room for error left, given the team’s missteps up to this point.
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