It’s always about process for me. Good process is more important to me than good results. A good at bat is a good at bat no matter how it ends. If you make the right choices and things don’t work out, I don’t lose any sleep. Which makes last night a bit of mixed bag. There was so much to love about what happened Saturday night in Oakland, but also a good deal not to like.
Justin Verlander was on top of his game. After a summer of “struggles” he looked like the ace that signed the biggest contract ever given to a starting pitcher. He used a generous strikezone to his advantage and leveraged his stuff into 7 shutout innings and 11 strikeouts. He escaped two jams in the 5th and 7th with big strikeouts and gave his team a chance to win.
Sonny Gray was only marginally less impressive. He kept the Tigers caged with a dialed up fastball and his signature hook and left his team needing just a single run. This was a pitcher’s duel to end all pitcher’s duels. Verlander. Gray. 15 innings, 20 strikeouts, 0 runs. It was a masterpiece. A Joy. The game of the year.
But it was also foiled by silly managerial mistakes. Bob Melvin made a perplexing call to bunt with Reddick in the 5th that made no sense given the situation and the hitter at the plate. Jim Leyland sent Iglesias in a 3-2 with Jackson up and runners on the corners. Leyland bunted Kelly to second with Iglesias. Leyland went to Alburquerque instead of Porcello in the 8th (which ended up working out), but then stuck with him in the 9th when he had Porcello, Benoit, and Veras available. Then he stuck with Alburquerque after he put the first runner on. Then he played his team at no doubles depth (aka more singles) and a ball was hit right where Fielder should have been standing.
The intentional walk that came next was right and Leyland went to Porcello – even if it was too late – and you know what happened next.
It was a wonderful duel and a game made for prime time television. The Baseball Gods gave treated us to Verlander and Gray but also left us with managerial second guessing. Sports are beautiful, but cruel. This was playoff baseball at its best and at its worst. We had a close game wire to wire with tons of drama, tension, intrigue, and great match ups – and then it crushed us. Like a ton of bricks. A stomach punch. If I was a fan of one of the 28 other teams, it would have been great.
We signed up for this, I guess. In exchange for our team performing well and earning a playoff berth, we have to pay with our blood pressure and mental health in October. For a chance to win, we have to pay a price. Saturday night’s game would have been easier to digest if Verlander had allowed a solo homer in the 4th. That would have seemed just. It’s a lot harder to lose when the process is bad. Maybe the Tigers lose that game even if Leyland managed it perfectly. That’s entirely possible. But it would have been a lot easier to sleep at night.
If Verlander had thrown a fat pitch or if a lefty had tagged Smyly. If the Tigers hadn’t run into a double play, but still not scored. If the A’s doubled against a normally aligned defense instead of the silly ‘no doubles’ approach. I don’t think I’d have taken it so hard if the process had been cleaner.
I was pretty critical of Leyland on Twitter last night, and I stand by the comments. I had very little push back, save for a few who pointed out the offense didn’t score at all. Which is a fair point. Leyland’s biggest mistakes came with his team in the field, but he hamstrung the bats on two occasions as well. It’s not his fault they didn’t score at all, but he did make things worse. Maybe they lose anyway, but that loss would be a lot easier to handle.
They play well at home and have over the last few seasons so Game 3 and 4 should tilt back in the Tigers direction and the Tigers’ number 3 and 4 starters are superior to what Oakland offers. Coming home with a split is a good outcome, it just doesn’t feel like it when you give one away like the Tigers did on Saturday. Putting that behind them is important.
Something I’ve always liked about baseball is that you get to move on quickly. There’s another game the next day. Unfortunately, in this case, we had to tread through an off day marinating in the despair of what happened in Oakland on Sunday. A lot of people are worried about the offense, but I’m not. Good players are good players. They aren’t conditional on their teammates. Hitting is not contagious. The A’s are a great team. I didn’t expect the Tigers to sweep. If you played this series 100 times, both teams would win quite a bit. It doesn’t really matter how the Tigers lost Game 2 with respect to what is going to happen in Game 3.
It feels that way, but there really isn’t a connection. As fans, we draw lines between the two, but the lines don’t exist. A loss is a loss is a loss. We didn’t burn the pen and no one got hurt. Only the Red Sox and A’s were better at home than the Tigers in the AL this year. The Tigers already won their game in Oakland. They stole back homefield advantage, even if it doesn’t make you feel warm and fuzzy inside.
In the end, momentum and narratives are just window dressing. It’s Anibal Sanchez and Jarrod Parker. And Anibal Sanchez, for my money, was the best pitcher in the American League this year. And then it’s Doug Fister and Dan Straily, which isn’t exactly a fair fight either. The Tigers only have to win one to get back to Scherzer and I like their chances to win both. It’s easy to get lost in the crushing defeat that came last night, but I’d rather be the Tigers than the A’s right now. Even if it doesn’t feel that way, it is that way.