Detroit Tigers’ Offense Cools Down Athletics in Playoff Rematch
The Detroit Tigers ventured into o.co Coliseum (great name….**eye roll**) to take on the red hot Oakland A’s this weekend. The series was a rematch of last year’s hotly contested 5-game American League Divisional Series that wasn’t decided until Justin Verlander pitched a complete game in Game 5 to drag the Tigers to the ALCS against the New York Yankees. It was a series that ended up showing the strengths and weaknesses of this Tigers’ club by exposing some bullpen issues but also shining a light on a deep offensive lineup capable of scoring early and often if an opposing starting pitcher has a letdown at any time.
The Tigers lost a tight 12-inning affair, 4-3, on Friday night when young A’s 3B Josh Donaldson took the struggling Brayan Villarreal deep to the opposite field for a walk-off dinger. Max Scherzer pitched a nice ball game but a key moment occurred when Scherzer caught Eric Sogard stealing third base. Scherzer stepped off the rubber and had Sogard dead to rights but Scherzer threw the ball away for the Tigers first charged error on the season. Sogard scored a run that would prove highly valuable as the night wore on.
On Saturday afternoon Verlander was on his game for six innings and the Tigers’ bullpen was able to bring it home with a couple of hiccups. Prince Fielder continued his red-hot stretch (matched by “red-hot” streaks from Austin Jackson and Torii Hunter) leading the Tigers offense. Talented A’s starter Brett Anderson was taken deep three times by Fielder, Hunter, and a three run shot by Jhonny Peralta. The Tigers took this game 7-3 to even the series.
In the rubber match on Sunday, the depleted A’s were no match for the Tigers. The Tigers offense pummelled Jarrod Parker early with a relentless attack from all parts of the batting order led by a 4-hit display by Jackson. Anibal Sanchez went 7 strong innings allowing a lone run. Several well hit balls by the Athletics died on the warning track and the improved Detroit outfield defense was equal to the task of corraling nearly all of them. Rick Porcello, pitching from the bullpen for a few days, polished off the game pitching the 9th inning for the first time in his career.
Speaking of Porcello and the Tigers’ bullpen, the relief crew in Detroit has been the subject of continued worry and evaluation. Let’s take a look at how Tigers’ manager Jim Leyland managed his bullpen corps this weekend working back from Sunday to Friday:
I like the idea of using the off-day to put a starter in the bullpen. I’ve been intrigued about the idea of a “4.5 man rotation” for a long while. This would entail the four starters always going on 4 days rest with the 5th starter being skipped when there is an off-day in the schedule. This starter would pitch from the bullpen for several days awaiting the next time a 5th starter is needed when off-days are scarce. I didn’t think the Tigers would be the team to use the concept….and I doubt very much they are moving to this full time. But when your bullpen is sketchy the added depth down there can be useful. Also it would seem useful down the stretch when you’re contending and want your best starters pitching more innings and a better arm in the bullpen. I don’t see why more teams don’t put this in play in August and September. The Tigers have elected to skip a start for Porcello this week with the off-days looming on the road trip. So yesterday Porcello pitched two quiet innings. It was mop up action. It would have been fun to see how Leyland would have played it had the score been 3-1 instead of 10-1. Would Leyland have turned the ball over to Porcello in the 8th in that situation? Leyland was short-handed in his bullpen on Sunday. Joaquin Benoit, Octavio Dotel, and Drew Smyly were all said to be unavailable. Leyland would have had to be creative in a tighter game or if Sanchez hadn’t pitched into the later innings. But as noted a couple of weeks ago, the Tigers offense and starting pitching should be able to impose their will on a lot games that make makes the bullpen’s role less risky.
On Saturday, with Dotel also unavailable with a tender elbow, I really liked that Leyland pushed Benoit to get 5-outs. If this was 1978 that would be wholly unremarkable. Today it’s against the grain….but it worked out well. Managers seem so scared of making a reliever sit between innings these days, but the Tigers have been bringing relievers back out for another frame a few times this year and it seems like a strategy Leyland is going to embrace as he sorts out his bullpen rotation.
On Friday…..the bullpen did give up the lead pushing the game to extra innings. But I don’t really blame relief pitchers for losing that game. No bullpen is spotless…and taking over in the 7th inning the bullpen allowed one run through the 11th. Tough to argue with that. No….there were two issues to me…..the offense could not tack on any runs and indeed only scored in one of the 12 innings on Fielder’s 3-run bomb. The offense needs to shoulder some responsibility in this one. Then Leyland made a move that I have always hated…it’s one that happens all the time around baseball, it’s not merely a “Leyland Thing”…..he saved his best pitcher for a Save Opportunity that never happened. On the road in extra innings, the game is over on any run allowed. The Tigers going with the struggling Villarreal over Benoit (who was rested) seemed a recipe for failure and indeed the homer ended it in the 12th. I would rather see the better pitcher take the mound and try to extend the game. If a lesser pitcher has to try to “Close” later when you finally get the lead, so be it. That is a fine “problem” to have over what actually happened. I know Leyland has said “you can’t be afraid to lose”…..but you should also not be afraid to forget about managing to the Save-stat. The Save-stat drives the strategy over the actual likelihood of the pitcher’s performance. I have always failed to see the logic there. Leyland has shown some flexibility at points through the first 12 games. Hopefully he noticed how this game ended and we see a different tactic next time.
Overall it was a fine weekend of baseball in Oakland for the Tigers. A series win on the road against a team that was rolling. The Tigers don’t spend much time on the West Coast this season, so getting this road trip off on a positive note bodes well for the remaining time in Seattle and Los Angeles.