You could see it coming; if you had any compassion, you closed your eyes. Frank Tanana had loaded the bases in the first inning — a single, two walks
— and now a kid named Todd Benzinger was up for the Red Sox, and he pretty much held the pitcher’s immediate future in his bat. Whack! A long fly ball. Over the left-center fence. Gone.
And so was Tanana.
You got a problem, you take care of it. Frank Tanana is partly responsible for the Tigers’ being in the race in September, but Frank Tanana is not pitching as he once did. He hasn’t won a game in five weeks, and Sparky Anderson isn’t unfeeling but he also isn’t blind. He walked out to the mound, even as fans were chasing after Benzinger’s ball in the stands, and sent the veteran pitcher on his longest short walk of this season, from the mound to the down and dug-out.
“That’s it for him, huh?” fans mumbled.
“Probably,” came the answer.
Probably? Definitely. “He won’t start Monday,” Anderson would say afterward. That’s it. Five weeks? Seven starts? No wins? Three losses? Would you start him again? In the heat of a pennant race?
True, for a while, Tanana was the best thing throwing for the Tigers, better even than Jack Morris. He won 13 games. He was a joy to watch because his pitches didn’t smoke, they barely defrosted. They kind of curved across or dropped over, or snuck by opponents’ bats with a muffled giggle, as if to say: “Can you believe I just got you out?” Finesse pitching. Fooled-you pitching. Tanana, 34, was great at it. Somewhere deep down, he still is. But not right now.
Right now his breaking balls aren’t getting over, he’s falling behind in counts. He’s not fooling people. When that happens to a guy with his style, well, you might as well be playing poker with your cards face up. Tanana’s out; Snell’s in “It’s not a whole lot of fun being an anchor,” Tanana would admit after lasting two-thirds of an inning in a game his teammates rallied to win, 9-8. “I don’t really have any theories on what’s gone wrong. I just haven’t done the job. Before I did. Now I don’t.”
In his last five outings, Tanana’s run totals read: 5, 4, 4, 4, 5. Only once did he get past the fourth inning. Why? Who knows why? “I’m not happy I stunk,” said Tanana, “but I’ve been in this 14 years now. You won’t get any alibis out of me.”
That’s classy. That’s good. But the Tigers don’t need alibis. They need alternatives. Someone to take his place. It’s nothing new. The success of this remarkable Detroit season has been its spit-and-glue nature. Somebody carries the baton, gets winded, and hands off to somebody fresh. New faces fill temporary holes and hit the temporary jackpot — witness Jim Walewander, Billy Bean, Scott Lusader. Pitchers streak and then falter. When Tanana came out Tuesday night, Dan Petry came in. Dan Petry was a starter when the season began. He slumped. Now he comes out of the bullpen. Tuesday night he got the win.
“Who’ll pitch in Tanana’s place?” Anderson was asked as he gulped his post-game dinner.
“I’ll go with Snell,” he mumbled, not looking up. Nate Snell, the 35-year-old journeyman pitcher. A few weeks ago, he was in the minor leagues. Now, he would make his second major league start for a team locked in first place combat.
Spit and glue. He needs outs, not rest “Do you think a rest will help?” Tanana was asked.
“The last thing I need is rest,” he said, laughing. “I’ve only been lasting one or two innings. I don’t need rest. I need to get people out.”
Yes. And he hasn’t been doing it. A week ago, Anderson responded to criticism of Tanana by saying: “I believe in sticking with the people who got you here.” But that nicety only goes so far. Something had to give. And if Tanana must now become invisible (he is not likely out of the bullpen), so be it.
And yet it doesn’t seem fair. Here is a guy who is forever cheerful — a tall, lean, religious man with a fervent optimism that is no doubt being tested these days. He was having his best season in almost a decade before this slump began. A Detroit native (he attended Catholic Central), you could see him pitching a World Series game in front of his hometown fans.
“I’ll keep coming out, and when the ball is handed to me, I’ll do the best I can,” Tanana said before leaving. Who knows? The way this season has gone, he could sit for the next few weeks, then get the call in a playoff game and pitch a no- hitter.
That would be nice. But, for now, that is a dream. This is reality: You got a problem, you take care of it, and Sparky Anderson has made a decision. Sometimes a team’s Cinderella story comprises a dozen individual Cinderella stories. And sometimes it’s simply catching the old up-and-down at the right moment.