The ninth inning arrived Sunday and the Tigers had a lead. It was Todd Jones Time.
Except, suddenly, it wasn’t.
Jones, the mustached right-hander who has always been a stand-up guy, had been told to sit down. His job was gone. The reliever had been relieved. Fernando Rodney would be the new closer.
And so Jones, 40, sat through that ninth inning Sunday, watching Rodney pitch and wondering about his future. And after the game, alone by his locker, Jones bit back emotion as he spoke about the stripes that had been stripped.
“Jim (Leyland) called me into the office Saturday and told me I wasn’t gonna be the closer anymore. He was going to pitch Fernando because he was throwing the best right now.
“I’m a big boy. I’ve trusted Jim the whole time I’ve been here. He has to do what’s best for the team.”
His face was reddening. Jones has always been an emotional player, and a confessional one at that. Win, lose, good, bad, you could always ask Todd Jones any question. I chose this one:
“Did you see it coming?”
“No,” he said.
Jones wasn’t getting enough strikeouts
If not, he may have been the only one. Fans have been calling for Jones’ dismissal for weeks. He is, after all, relief pitching’s answer to the Tilt-O-Whirl. And being one strike away from a huge win Friday night over the White Sox and instead surrendering a hit, a home run and ultimately a loss didn’t help Jones’ standing. It was his third blown save of the year, but it was more than that. It felt like a final straw.
Turns out it was.
“Do you think you’d still be the closer if you had won that game?” I asked him.
“Oh, yeah,” he said.
But later, down the hall, Leyland claimed this decision was coming, if not Saturday, then soon thereafter. The numbers explain Leyland’s reasoning. Since early June, Jones has not pitched well, even when he has made the saves. He has been bailed out by good defense, or simply some friendly baseball odds.
But a closer needs to strike people out more often than Jones does, which is not very often (one strikeout in his last 11 outings). He allows too many baserunners. And when a 40-year-old loses something off his pitches, even just a bit, it’s feeding time for the opposition. Leyland had to do something.
And so Jones, who has pitched nearly 1,000 games – and nearly half of those in a Detroit uniform – is now the franchise’s biggest question mark. Does he finish his one-year contract with the team? If you don’t trust him to close, do you trust him anywhere?
“I don’t know what’s next,” said Jones. He couldn’t say if he’d want a trade or a release. It all seemed too soon. I asked if there was anything he would do differently in light of all this. He shrugged.
“Throw a curve ball to Carlos Quentin.”
Roller coaster at end of track
So perhaps this is really it. Perhaps, after all the screaming, the roller-coaster rides that Jones put fans through, perhaps it is finally over. Jones will no longer be trotting out with a win hanging in the balance of an inning. The Rolaids can be put away.
If so, no gloating please. Jones gave his all for this club. He has been here through the worst of it. He was never a powerhouse, never a Mariano Rivera, a Joe Nathan or a Francisco Rodriguez. But a save is a save, and Jones had more than any Tiger in history. He has heard cheers and he’s heard boos and he kept coming out.
Until Sunday, when the stage beckoned and someone else played his part. The closer has been closed down. The reliever has been relieved. Who knows how long Jones stays in Detroit or what he does next? But you could tell by his face that this blow hurt him as much as Friday night’s home run hurt any fan. This was his job. And it was a lot more.
“I’m a Tiger,” he said.
A crouching one, for now.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).