How Was The Game? (September 22, 2014)

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Uneventful.

White Sox 2, Tigers 0

Kyle Lobstein (5 GS, 34.2 IP, 3.38 ERA, 3.97 FIP, 0.4 fWAR) looked as if he was a batter or two from the brink early in this one after three extra base hits in a row that plated two runs, but he turned around and marched through seven innings of work without further incident. It was a big start for Lobstein, but despite a few threats, the Tigers couldn’t get to the Sox starter and were left with four outs with which to work against their pen and could not deliver. Joba and Soria gave the Tigers two good relief innings but it was to no avail. The Royals dropped the completion of their suspended game, so the Tigers did manage to shrink the magic number, but they’ll have to get to work Tuesday with David Price (32 GS, 232.1 IP, 3.37 ERA, 2.86 FIP, 5.5 fWAR) on the mound if they want to tie this up.

The Moment: Lobstein recovers, and pitches deep into the game.

Joakim Soria and Not Repeating Mistakes

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I’m not typically one to lecture about the “lessons” of individual games or series, but the 2013 postseason should have taught major league managers one important thing: Don’t lose with your best guys on the sidelines. We can debate “roles” all we want and argue that Joe Nathan shouldn’t be serving as the team’s “closer,” but that’s a second order conversation. I don’t really care about roles as much as I care about how often your get your pitchers into games.

In the National League Wild Card game last year, Dusty Baker didn’t use Aroldis Chapman. I’m not just saying he didn’t use him when I would have used him. He literally didn’t pitch. There wasn’t a save situation and Baker let him wait in the bullpen just in case it happened. It didn’t and the Reds lost with their most deadly reliever doing nothing.

In the division series, Fredi Gonzalez let a lesser reliever pitch in the 8th inning with the season on the line while Craig Kimbrel stood in the bullpen, ready to roll. Uribe homered and Kimbrel never got the chance to save the Braves season.

In the NLCS, Don Mattingly let Kenley Jansen wait in the pen until the 12th inning of a game because he was waiting for a save chance that never came.

In the World Series, while on the ropes in the deciding game, Mike Matheny let Trevor Rosenthal wait in the bullpen until things were out of reach.

All four teams lost, obviously, with their best guy doing nothing or coming in after it was too late for it to matter. Brad Ausmus looks like a manager who will follow this tradition. He can’t. He absolutely can’t. It will end the Tigers season and if it means we have to strap him to a chair and play the 2013 playoffs on a loop for the next week, then we should do it.

We all know the problem. Brad Ausmus has a really good reliever in his bullpen, Joakim Soria, whom he doesn’t want to use in big moments. Ausmus has settled on Chamberlain and Nathan as his high leverage, 8th and 9th inning relievers and he isn’t budging. If it’s a save situation in the 8th, Joba gets the ball. Save situation in the 9th? Nathan. It’s automatic as long as one of them isn’t overworked. I derisively call Ausmus “flowchart” for this reason. He has a predetermined path for the final innings from which he will not budge no matter how many harrowing rides he takes.

This would be easier to forgive if Chamberlain and Nathan were rock solid. If you believe that knowing “your inning” matters, then perhaps you could make a case for this behavior. I don’t, but I’ll leave that point uncontested. If you believe in roles, you still have to assign them properly. I don’t mind that Ausmus wants to tell his pitchers which inning they are likely to pitch during, I mind that he seems unwilling to adjust his strategy when the stakes get higher.

Joakim Soria is his best reliever. The Tigers paid a king’s ransom to get him and he’s pitching in the 7th inning of games and often while behind. Neither of those things bother me inherently. I’m fine using relievers at the moment you feel they are needed, but I’m not fine with what happened on Saturday. What happened on Saturday was a joke and it cannot happen again.

During the highest leverage moments of the highest leverage game of the 2014 season, Brad Ausmus left Soria in the pen. Scherzer got through 7 with Soria warming up. Then Joba got the 8th inning and allowed a run with Soria warming. Then Soria sat down and Nathan got up. Nathan got in trouble, so Soria got back up again before Nathan escaped. By the end, Soria was squatting on the bullpen mound just waiting for the call. He was so loose, he didn’t even bother throwing anymore. He was ready. His manager wasn’t.

We can debate the “role” all we want, but Ausmus knew he was going to need two relievers when Scherzer exited that game and for some reason, he decided that Soria wasn’t going to be one of them. With the game on the line, potentially the season, he went with Joba and Joe. It worked, because the Royals aren’t great hitters, but it just barely worked.

That won’t happen against the Orioles or the Angels or the Nats. They will eat the Tigers bullpen alive in those situations. You can’t lose with your best guy on the bench.

It’s one thing if he wants to use Soria in the 8th and Nathan in the 9th because he wants them to plan for the inning (that’s silly, but I’ll allow it here), but he absolutely, 100% cannot fail to use his best reliever. Use him early, use him late, whatever. But you have to use him. You have to. That’s why he’s on the team. Could you imagine not using your best pinch hitter in the 6th inning with the bases loaded just because you might need him later? Can you imagine not using him at all just because you have another pinch hitter you like to use?

And what’s really worrying me is Anibal Sanchez. Sanchez, assuming he goes to the bullpen and not the rotation, immediately becomes the Tigers best reliever. It’s not even close. I’m terrified that Ausmus is going to use him in long relief rather than in high leverage moments. We’ve seen this before. Leyland made this mistake in 2012. Others have made it too. Sanchez is a top flight starter, if you ask him to throw one or two innings, he becomes one of the best dozen relievers in baseball. You don’t save him for a four inning stint, you use him and you use him as much as he can handle in the biggest spots.

In a perfect world, Ausmus would use his best guys in the biggest moments and he’d play the platoon matchups perfectly and not worry about innings as much as he worried about outs, but I just want one simple thing from him with respect to the bullpen: Use your best relievers.

That’s it. Just make sure that if you use relief pitchers in a game that you use Soria and Sanchez if they are available. Nathan and Joba and Coke can pitch too, but you should never use them in a game in which your best pair doesn’t pitch, unless it’s a blowout.

What happened Saturday can’t happen again. I understand that during the regular season, you have to manage differently or you’ll burn your relievers out. But this weekend was basically a postseason series and Ausmus didn’t display good judgement. I’ve certainly been one of his harshest critics, but I don’t think I’ve been unfair. He’s made some repeated mistakes and they’re mistakes that amplify in the postseason.

With the season on the line, he has to make sure he’s not getting beat with his best on the bench. You can get away with it on occasion, but it always catches up with you in the end. The playoffs are a crapshoot, as they say, but that doesn’t mean you can’t fire the right bullets at the right time and tip the scales in your favor.

Ausmus is running out of time to learn the lesson learned by many eleven months ago, in the dugouts in Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, and Boston while the Reds, Braves, Dodgers, and Cardinals watched their seasons slip away.

How Was The Game? (September 21, 2014)

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One you expected eventually.

Royals 5, Tigers 2

It was not Rick Porcello’s (30 GS, 201 IP, 3.31 ERA, 3.56 FIP, 3.4 fWAR) day. He didn’t have his command and the Royals put pressure on him early and often, bouncing him afer 3.1 innings, nine hits, four runs, two walks, and one strikeout. The Tigers got one back on a Kinsler home run and another on an extremely rough error by Moustakas in the 4th. The bullpen did solid enough work, allowing just one additional run but the Tigers couldn’t get to Guthrie before the Royals unleashed their three-headed monster and they managed to salvage the finale of the three game series. The Tigers will head home with a 1.5 game lead in the division with the Royals likely to lose the suspended game tomorrow afternoon. That means the magic number is effectively six with seven full games to play. Kyle Lobstein (4 GS, 27.2 IP, 3.58 ERA, 3.96 FIP, 0.3 fWAR) is slated for Monday.

The Moment: Hardy strikes out Gordon to avoid disaster in the 4th.

How Was The Game? (September 20, 2014)

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Defining.

Tigers 3, Royals 2

Max Scherzer (32 GS, 214.1 IP, 3.19 ERA, 2.86 FIP, 5.4 fWAR) got the ball in the most tense game of the season and did not disappoint. The Royals foiled some early chances with unwise bunting and Torii Hunter launched a solo home run to give the team a 1-0 lead in the 4th. The Royals responded with one in the 5th and then everything converged on the bottom of the 6th and top of the 7th. The Royals had men on second and third with one out when a line drive was hit to Kinsler. He tried to double off the runner at second and Suarez missed the ball, allowing Perez to score from third. Of course, Perez forgot to tag up and was called out after much discussion. In the next inning, the Tigers got a single from JDM and a walk from Suarez to set up a pinch hit single from Collins and single from Davis to plate two men. Max held in the 7th, finishing with six strikeouts and a walk. Joba got the 8th and allowed a run on two hits. Nathan got the 9th (um…where’s Soria?) and put two men on with one out. It was Aoki and Ibanez who both grounded out and ended this one after taking years off our lives. Rick Porcello (29 GS, 197.2 IP, 3.19 ERA, 3.55 FIP, 3.3 fWAR) for the sweep.

The Moment: Tyler Collins comes up with a pinch hit go ahead single in the 7th.

How Was The Game? (September 19, 2014)

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Definitive. 

Tigers 10, Royals 1

The Tigers opened with a four hit attack in the 1st inning that led to a three run cushion for Justin Verlander (31 GS, 198 IP, 4.68 ERA, 3.82 FIP, 3.0 fWAR) and Justin Verlander didn’t even need that many. He had one of his best outings of the season, getting into very little trouble and tossing 7.1 innings of  7 hit, 0 walk, and 4 strikeout baseball en route to one run. The bats kept charging with one in the 2nd, one in the 4th, and five in the 5th as they absolutely pummeled the Royals to open a huge series that could determine the fate of the division. Top to bottom, it was as convincing as they come. They’re look to guarantee they leave town with a bigger lead than when they arrived with Max Scherzer (31 GS, 207.1 IP, 3.26 ERA, 2.88 FIP, 5.1 fWAR) going tomorrow.

The Moment: A five run 5th inning puts the game out of reach.

Miguel Cabrera, Hall of Famer

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This was more or less decided after the 2013 season, but Miguel Cabrera is going to the Hall of Fame. Despite being injured for the better part of the season, somehow he’s running a 149 wRC+ and 5.1 WAR in 2014. Not to make too much of arbitrary cut points, but that’s his 9th 5+ WAR season and has pushed him over 60 WAR for his career.

You basically need two things to get into the Hall, a great peak and a decent among of longevity (or total value). Cabrera’s peak is unassailable and his total value has now crossed the rough threshold of players who typically make the Hall (60 WAR). Of course, these aren’t perfect rules and WAR is just an estimate, but Cabrera is 31 and has about 11 years left on his contract. Even if he’s a 3 win player for the next 5 year and then becomes terrible, he’s making the Hall in a walk. And he’s almost certainly going to be better than that.

He has a 152 wRC+ which leaves him about 28th all time, right around Joe DiMaggio, Manny Ramirez, and Hank Aaron. Through age 31, he’s 35th in WAR, around guys like Gary Carter, Wade Boggs, George Brett, and Honus Wagner(!). In other words, Cabrera hits all of the major nails directly on the head and will do better with the voters because his defense drags him down and voters overweight offensive achievement.

The last Tiger to get voted in by the BBWAA was Al Kaline in 1980. Maybe Tram and Lou will get in via the Veteran’s Committee before Cabrera, but otherwise the only question will be if Verlander makes it and if he beats Cabrera to the podium.

Assuming he stays reasonably healthy and doesn’t test positive for PEDs, Cabrera is going in as a first ballot Hall of Famer and the first living Tiger to make it close to 50 years..

How Was The Game? (September 17, 2014)

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Blech.

Twins 8, Tigers 4

David Price (32 GS, 232.1 IP, 3.37 ERA, 2.86 FIP, 5.5 fWAR) didn’t have his best stuff on this night, surviving just 5.2 innings while allowing five runs on eight hits, three walks, and five strikeouts. The Tigers jumped out to an early lead, gave it back, took it back, and then gave it back once more. Collectively, the hitting can’t be faulted but a huge base running blunder cost the Tigers a huge chance to rally and the Tigers faded into the night, dropping two of three in Minnesota when they probably should have won at least two. Justin Verlander (30 GS, 190.2 IP, 4.81 ERA, 3.89 FIP, 2.8 fWAR) opens in KC on Friday.

The Moment: Tyler Collins gets a big hit to set up and ultimately failed 8th inning threat.

How Was The Game? (September 16, 2014)

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Um…well…I mean…

Twins 4, Tigers 3

Here’s the story of this game. Rick Porcello (29 GS, 197.2 IP, 3.19 ERA, 3.55 FIP, 3.4 fWAR) went eight strong innings, allowing a single run on a couple of hits and a solo home run later, but basically cruised. He was tracking toward a complete game loss and getting stronger when the 8th inning ended and he put the game in the hands of his offense. Hunter doubled, Cabrera singled, and with two outs, JD Martinez hit another inexplicable 9th inning home run to put the Tigers head. Joe Nathan allowed a runner and then Carrera turned a single into a double and the Twins tied it up. Then you had the ol’ walk off infield single and we’ll play for the series win Wednesday behind David Price (31 GS, 226.2 IP, 3.26 ERA, 2.85 FIP, 5.4 fWAR).

The Moment: JD Martinez hits a go-ahead, two out home run in the 9th.

How Was The Game? (September 15, 2014)

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Too close, but sufficient. 

Tigers 8, Twins 6

Max Scherzer (31 GS, 207.1 IP, 3.26 ERA, 2.87 FIP, 5.2 fWAR) cruised through three innings and his offense staked him to a 6-0 lead, so you probably figured you could get through this one without palpitations. Wrong. Despite the lead and offensive assault, Max got into some trouble, allowing four runs over his seven innings and giving way to a bullpen that allowed two more. Thankfully, Hunter and Cabrera were due up in the 9th and went back to back to retake the lead and dampen the blood pressure of the faithful. Soria got the 9th and secured the win. Rick Porcello (28 GS, 189.2 IP, 3.23 ERA, 3.52 FIP, 3.3 fWAR) gets the ball on Tuesday.

The Moment: Hunter and Cabrera go back to back to retake the lead in the 9th.

The End, Two Weeks Out

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It doesn’t seem like that long ago that we were all sitting around anxiously waiting for Opening Day. It was a discordant winter. There were trades we loved, trades we hated, signings we found puzzling, and all sorts of prognosticating about what the future looked like in Detroit. The Tigers extended Cabrera on a massive deal and Scherzer turned down another. Whether this was going to be a successful year wasn’t clear but it was pretty clear that Father Time was coming for us.

The core was aging. The marquee players were on the wrong side of thirty, both coming off surgery. There was a new manager and the fan base fractured along the lines of the Fister trade. There was optimism, sure, but the whole thing was this close to falling apart as well. A failed 2014 season wasn’t an option, but Rondon went down. So did Iglesias and Dirks. The margin of error was small and getting smaller. The pressure was on. It had to work.

For a while, it did. The Tigers got off to a blazing start, winning 27 of their first 39, and adding enough cushion that all they needed to do was tread water the rest of the season. They proceeded to collapse. Then rise. Then stumble. Then what?

Verlander’s never found his footing. Cabrera’s been dealing with multiple injures. The defense has been unwatchable at times. The base running hasn’t been much better. Ausmus, the first year manager who looked full of promise, is arguably a worse tactician than his ancient predecessor. Joe Nathan, the prized closer Dave Dombrowski so badly desired, was a mess from day one.

There were bright spots, of course. Ian Kinsler’s been great. JD Martinez, a gift from God. Scherzer and Porcello have done their job. Anibal Sanchez was effective when healthy and the Smyly/Price rotation slot has matched expectations. They added Soria, who was injured before anything much could happen and Victor Martinez is having the kind of year you need to have when the team’s offensive anchor is wounded.

I wasn’t shy in saying that I felt the offseason was a series of big mistakes, with the exception of the tremendous Fielder-Kinsler deal. On balance, my expectations weren’t that high. I set the over/under at 89.5 wins. Good team, not great. Plenty could go wrong.

It’s also been a discordant Summer. You know that. I know that. The team’s play has been stale at times. Ausmus has made many tactical errors. Two of the biggest stars have crawled their way through. The team has been about as good as expected, but man, an 88 or 89 win team with this payroll and this kind of name value? Still didn’t feel right.

It’s almost Fall. The end of the year is two weeks away. They’re capable of finishing this out, making it to the postseason, and winning it all. No question. After taking two of three from the Royals and sweeping the Indians, they are back in control. The Royals are coming down from their impossible post All-Star Break run and the Tigers are getting it together. There is a showdown coming this weekend that should provide clarity.

I often speak about a baseball season being much like a romance. You fall in love with that particular team throughout the season and losing them when winter comes is a hard breakup. But I’m not sure I’ve had that moment this year. The streak in May, maybe. The Davis grand slam, perhaps. There have been some big moments, but I’m not sure about season defining ones. Porcello’s shutouts? The 19 inning loss?

I’m not sure.

This is a very different team than the ones we’ve cheered for over the last few seasons. Many of the familiar faces are gone. Some are aging. Some have one foot out the door.

Maybe the most memorable moment of the season came July 31 when the Tigers were playing during the deadline. We were watching Twitter, the beat writers were spying Dombrowski, and Austin Jackson got pulled mid-batter. That might have been the defining moment of this Tigers season and it was a farewell more than anything else.

I think this team can and will survive the Royals. I think they’re plenty capable of winning in the playoffs. But I’m not sure what I’ll remember about this team. Each Tigers team since 2006 has been distinct in my mind. The things that stick out about this year aren’t wholly positive. Something’s missing, even.

When I analyze the game I think about it objectively. This player is good, this one’s okay, and this one stinks. This decision was right, that pitch was incredible. But as a fan, it’s also about feeling a connection with the experience of watching the team every day. It’s about connecting each team with that specific year in your life. It might just be me, or it might be the team. Maybe it’s because I loved last year’s team so much that the changes have been hard to adjust to or maybe I’m just feeling stagnation in my own life. I don’t know.

But there’s two more weeks. Maybe the moment hasn’t come. Maybe this team’s going to be the one that floors it and marches into the postseason on a hot streak. Maybe it’s going to be about Verlander finding himself or Cabrera, on one leg, recapturing his rightful place among the game’s most feared hitters. It could be anything.

There’s still time. At least two weeks, and hopefully more.

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