Hey Tiger fans – we’ve seen this before, haven’t we?
It was déjà vu all over again last night.
Almost a year to the day of Jose Valverde coughing up a four-run lead to the New York Yankees, the Tigers let a four-run lead slip away against the Boston Red Sox and lost 6-5, leaving the American League championship series tied one game apiece.
Yes, we were spared the ugly sight of Valverde blowing another late-inning lead. Thankfully that experiment was terminated earlier this season.
This time it was a collective meltdown by the Tigers bullpen. And the questions abound – how could it happen?
Don’t blame manager Jim Leyland for pulling starting pitcher Max Scherzer after seven brilliant innings.
Scherzer said after the game “he was done” after fanning 13 hitters, and I have no trouble believing him.
But questions need to be asked about how Leyland used his bullpen in that fateful eighth inning.
I have no problem with the choice of Jose Veras to start the eighth inning. He’s been the set-up man since he came over from the Astros at the trade deadline, and he’s done a credible job.
After recording the first out Veras gave up a double to Will Middlebrooks. He was lifted for lefty Drew Smyly, who was brought in to pitch to left-handed hitting Jacoby Ellsbury.
My problem starts with bringing in Smyly at that point to face Ellsbury. The Tigers still held a 5-1 lead. Isn’t Veras the eighth inning guy?
Two hitters into the eighth inning and you pull your set-up man for Smyly, knowing David Ortiz is looming if it reached that point.
Why not save Smyly, who’s been great all season, to face Ortiz if necessary?
But no, Leyland had Smyly pitch to Ellsbury and he walked him. That put the manager in a difficult situation, since he couldn’t have Smyly, a lefty, facing two right-handed hitters in Shane Victorino and Dustin Pedroia.
Enter Al Alburquerque, who with his devastating slider can be brutal on right-handed hitters.
Alburquerque did fan Victorino, but he allowed a Pedroia single that loaded the bases and brought Ortiz to the plate.
If there is one guy on the Red Sox roster that you can’t let beat you, it’s Ortiz. But Leyland had few options left at that point. Having already used his best left-handed reliever, he could have brought in Phil Coke, another lefty, or summoned closer Joaquin Benoit.
Leyland chose Benoit and said this afterwards.
“Coke hadn’t pitched in a game for quite a while. Benoit is our guy against the lefties, and we felt he gave us the best chance to get the out.”
I totally disagree with Leyland on that point.
Yes, Coke has been ineffective this season, but why have him on the playoff roster if you are not going to use him?
Bring him in to face Ellsbury if you wanted a lefty-on-lefty matchup, or leave in your appointed eighth inning guy Veras. But it would have been smart to save Smyly for a potential Ortiz at bat.
Instead the job fell to the closer, one inning too early. And we all know what happened after that. Big Poppy went deep, the Red Sox gained the momentum, and now we have a completely different series.
With two outs, I would have even considered walking Ortiz and forcing in a run before giving him a chance to tie the game.
Leyland managed that eighth inning like it was a one- or two-run game when it was not. You should stick with the relievers you have put in specific roles and win or lose that way. And you should definitely save your best left-handed reliever to pitch to their best left-handed power hitter.
Poor managing cost the Tigers a chance to take a commanding 2-0 lead and wasted a brilliant performance by Scherzer.
Let’s hope the great starting pitching continues and the bullpen (and Leyland’s use of that bullpen) will become a non-factor.
This team and their starting pitching are good enough to win the World Series, if the manager and relievers don’t screw it up.