Two Sundays ago, the Detroit Tigers were spraying each other with champagne. One Sunday ago, they were trying to turn the tide of the playoffs.
Today, their stadium is shuttered. It gets cold fast when baseball season ends. And the season ended coldly, with the Tigers being swept by a more opportunistic, better relief pitching team, the Orioles.
Three games. Three losses.
During that one week of postseason, I was stunned to see the mood of Tigers fans change so quickly, particularly toward new manager Brad Ausmus. It’s true, baseball manager — like NFL quarterback or NHL goalie — is an easy target.
But people were attacking Ausmus as if he’d been bumbling around all year. Angry fans called for his job. Bloggers said “he’s gotta go.” They cited his handling of the bullpen — particularly in Game 2 — as dastardly, as if he almost knew Joba Chamberlain and Joakim Soria were going to serve up grapefruits — and he put them in anyhow.
I spoke with Ausmus last week after the season ended. He, too, felt a bit slapped by the abruptness of the finish. “A week ago you’re dumping champagne on each other … and then boom — the hammer falls, and it’s over,” he said.
But as often as he has replayed it in his mind, he wasn’t sure what he’d do different.
Let’s review the most talked about moments. Justin Verlander exited Game 2 in the sixth inning after giving up a leadoff single to Tiger-killer Nelson Cruz. Anibal Sanchez, the rehabbing starter, came in as a reliever. He got the next six outs. Detroit had a 6-3 lead entering the eighth inning. Then Ausmus sat Sanchez, who had thrown 30 pitches, and put in Chamberlain.
And the bottom fell out.
“I just felt like after 50 days with one inning of bullpen relief … I didn’t wanna stretch Sanchez out,” Ausmus said.
Were you worried he’d get hurt? “No. … It was more about would he be able to get through it.”
Then why not start him in the eighth and see how it goes? “If he’d gone through the first two innings in 20 pitches, then we probably wouldn’t have thought twice. … But if I bring him out, and the first guy gets on — now I gotta bring the next guy out with men on base.”
That might not sound like much, but to Ausmus, and many managers, a “clean” inning engenders different performances from relievers than starting with runners on base and pitching from the stretch.
“Joba got the first guy out … and then (Adam) Jones gets hit. It kind of unraveled from there.”
Ausmus didn’t tell Chamberlain to hit Jones with a pitch. But fans acted as if it were preordained. Two singles later, Chamberlain was pulled, and Soria was put in.
Here was another scream from the fans. Why not Al Alburquerque? Why did he stay seated when Chamberlain and Soria had pitched (badly) the night before?
The case against Al
Ausmus had his reasons for that as well. “Al can pitch well in certain situations,” he said. “And I know everyone wants to look at his numbers and say he should have pitched here (or) there. But there’s a reason Al’s numbers were the way they are, and that’s because he was pitching in situations he should be.”
Those situations, Ausmus said, were more sixth and seventh inning, close games, maybe a tie game. When asked whether situations make that much difference, he said: “Let me tell you, there’s a huge difference (even) between pitching with a one-run lead and a one-run deficit.”
A study of the season shows that Alburquerque did give up runs nine times when he pitched in the eighth, ninth or 10th. And his September success was mostly in earlier innings. Now, I may still think that after Game 1, Ausmus should have TRIED Alburquerque. But that’s baseball. You can second-guess pitchers, swings, umpires’ calls.
It’s not, in my mind, a fireable offense. I agree with Ausmus when he said: “Mathematicians will tell you all 27 outs are created equal. They might be on paper. They’re not on dirt and grass. … Some nuances in the game you can’t transcribe into numbers.”
And some things simply aren’t nuanced. Look at this year’s baseball playoffs. Relief pitching and timely hitting are dominant. The Royals already have won four games in extra innings. Everyone wants to celebrate K.C.’s Ned Yost and the O’s Buck Showalter. But their teams are loaded with guys who throw scoreless relief and have timely pinch-hitting.
Meanwhile, teams with celebrated starters — the A’s, Dodgers and Tigers — are out. Starters are gone by the fifth inning in the playoffs. You need back-end pitching, tight defense, speed, depth.
The Tigers were short on all these things. The truth is, they never were going far.
That’s no reason to dump Ausmus, who still led them to a division title in his first year and created a good clubhouse spirit. He’ll get more experienced, and Dave Dombrowski again will search for a bullpen and (it says here) stronger outfielders.
It gets cold fast when your team loses, and the heat of anger can make you feel warmer. But anger burns fast. When the smoke clears, the Tigers need some reconstruction. I don’t think it starts with the manager.
Contact Mitch Albom: email@example.com. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Follow him on Twitter@mitchalbom. To read his recent columns, go tofreep.com/sports/mitch-albom.