Phoenix — Another world exists in baseball. And the Tigers aren’t particularly crazy about the ways and customs of that strange society, the National League, where pitchers hit, and where pitchers sometimes don’t hit, and where games can be won or lost depending on how players conform to odds a manager chooses to play.
The Tigers lost to the Diamondbacks, 5-4, Tuesday night at Chase Field when the National League’s prohibition against the designated hitter term-limited starter Rick Porcello after seven innings and placed a 4-3 Tigers lead in the hands of their bullpen.
What happened might have been expected, and was certainly feared, by those familiar with Tigers relievers in 2014. Phil Coke walked two consecutive batters, both of whom scored on Miguel Montero’s two-out, bases-loaded single on an 0-and-2 pitch from reliever Ian Krol.
Two-game Tigers winning streak? Over. Porcello’s shot at a 13th victory? Unfulfilled. Manager Brad Ausmus’ decision to pull Porcello in the eighth when he had thrown all of 77 pitches? Second-guessed, for sure, no matter what the National League’s rules of Hoyle dictate.
“Not often you get a chance to blow open a game there,” Ausmus said afterward, explaining why he chose to replace Porcello with pinch-hitter Rajai Davis, with the bases loaded, two out, and the Tigers hugging a 4-3 lead they had taken on Torii Hunter’s two-out, bases-loaded single.
“A two-run lead in a game there,” he said, “is a huge difference in the eighth.”
Ausmus’ and the Tigers’ problem Tuesday was Davis struck out after being staked to a 3-and-0 count against Diamondbacks left-handed reliever Eury De La Rosa. Rather than that multiple-run edge Ausmus had craved, the Tigers were hanging onto a lifeline, a 4-3 lead with Coke replacing Porcello after his breezy 77-pitch shift that looked as if it could easily have been stretched an inning or two.
“If it weren’t for the National League, he would have been out there for the eighth,” Ausmus insisted. “And maybe the ninth.”
Porcello instead watched Coke arrive to get leadoff man Didi Gregorius on a liner that caromed off Coke’s mid-section, straight to third baseman Don Kelly, who threw out Gregorius.
Coke had gotten a break. But he gave it back when he walked No. 9 hitter Ender Inciarte and followed with a pass to leadoff batter David Peralta.
Al Alburquerque arrived and got Aaron Hill, who had driven in the Diamondbacks’ first three runs, on an easy fly ball to left. But he was too careful with Paul Goldschmidt and put Goldschmidt aboard for Montero, which spurred Ausmus to call for Krol with the bases jammed.
Krol zipped two quick two-seam fastballs past Montero and had him set up for something ugly on 0-and-2. Krol instead tried to slip another two-seamer past Montero, who laced it between the bag and second baseman Ian Kinsler, pushing home the tying and winning runs.
“It was supposed to have been a waste pitch,” said Alex Avila, the Tigers catcher, who was feeling none too good Tuesday after his 0-for-4 night and three strikeouts. “But he missed his spot completely.”
Avila’s summary passed for Tuesday night’s Tigers epitaph:
“When you walk three batters in an inning,” he said, “it’s not often you’re gonna get away with that.”
The Tigers, though, again had more than a bullpen to blame for Tuesday night’s donation. Their lineup acted as if a big lead was unconstitutional.
“We’ve had trouble scoring runs since Kansas City,” said Ausmus, referring to Detroit’s heavy artillery attack against the Royals ahead of the All-Star break. “We just haven’t had the hit that blows a game open.”
Consider that pivotal eighth inning. Kinsler and Cabrera began the frame with singles to put runners at first and third. Victor Martinez, normally a favorite to drive home a run, instead had a poor at-bat against right-hander Brad Ziegler. He hit a ground ball to first that turned into a 3-2-5-1-6-3 rundown in which Kinsler perished, leaving runners at first and second with one out.
J.D. Martinez followed with a smash off Ziegler for a single that re-loaded the bases. And that hit set up Hunter’s hard single up the middle that scored Cabrera and pinch-runner Don Kelly for Detroit’s momentary 4-3 lead.
The Tigers still had runners at the corners and one out when Avila arrived against De La Rosa, only to strike out. Next in line: Tigers shortstop Eugenio Suarez, who was intentionally walked to re-fill the bases ahead of Porcello’s arrival.
And that, of course, induced Ausmus to go with Davis against a left-hander. On 3-and-0, it looked as if the Tigers all but had a game sealed. Three pitches later, Davis had fanned and Coke was headed to the mound.
“Three walks in that inning shouldn’t happen,” Ausmus said, explaining why strategy that should have worked, didn’t, during the Diamondbacks’ eighth-inning blitz.
Porcello, of course, understood. He was stoic and acceptant afterward.
“We had the bases loaded with two out and you want someone up there with a chance to drive in some runs,” he said, making clear that pinch-hitting Davis was the skipper’s necessary call. “That’s just how it is.”
That’s just how it was Tuesday. At a National League ballpark where the designated hitter is considered heresy, and where pitchers and their bats become part of a chess game, National League purists say the Tigers got exactly what they deserved.
Which, on so many levels the Tigers would prefer not to dwell on today, is no doubt true.