October 15, 2013 at 1:12 am

Lynn Henning

When Tigers relievers fail to close, managers take the heat

Tigers manager Jim Leyland comes out for a pitching change, taking out Jose Veras, left, in the eighth inning in Game 2. The manager was second-guessed by fans on how he used his bullpen in the 6-5 loss Sunday. (Robin Buckson / Detroit News)

Whoever next manages the Tigers would be wise to embody six different people. And all six should have a little J.K. Rowling wizardry in their bag.

Fans and critics believe their particular choice in a given pitching situation is the right one. And unless you figure out a way to honor everyone’s preferences, you end up with the manager taking the hit for a failed game, which in the case of the Tigers is Jim Leyland following Sunday night’s eighth-inning immolation, in which Detroit blew a 5-1 lead and lost to Boston, 6-5, in Game 2 of the American League Championship Series.

What it comes down to in bullpen baseball is spectacularly simple: relief pitchers must do their jobs. In Game 2, during the most horrific Tigers loss in 46 years (a personal vote is it matched the 1967 loss to the Angels on the next-to-last day of the season that cost the Tigers a possible World Series), four relievers failed in four separate situations in which they were obliged to do their jobs.

Recent history needs to be remembered in understanding the anatomy of the collapse. Had the Tigers been operating with a healthy Bruce Rondon, it is more than likely the Game 2 loss doesn’t happen. Had they not lost Octavio Dotel in April, and then again during his September rehabilitation stint, it is quite possible the loss doesn’t happen. And if Phil Coke had not blown up in 2013, it is also conceivable the Tigers would be on the verge of pulling an ALCS upset.

But those pitchers were not around. And so the carnage began in the eighth, after Max Scherzer had departed following 108 of the best pitches any right-handed starter has thrown in a playoff game.

Treading carefully

Pulling pitchers is mostly a collaborative decision. Leyland assumes responsibility. But he often confers with the pitcher. He talks with Jeff Jones, the Tigers pitching coach. And in any event, he is in no hurry to remove a starter on Scherzer’s level and put fate in the hands and arms of some at-risk relievers.

Leyland believed Scherzer had reached a sane limit, just as the Tigers had properly decided three nights earlier when Justin Verlander was lifted after eight innings.

As a game watched by a huge national audience moved toward midnight, and as the clock began to run out on the Red Sox’s season, Detroit was five outs from taking a stunning 2-0 ALCS lead. That’s when fire broke out in the Tigers funeral pyre.

Leading 5-1 with one out, Jose Veras allowed a double to Will Middlebrooks. By itself, Middlebrooks’ double was harmless. He represented one run. But at Fenway Park, where a game can get away as fast as Game 2 did for Detroit, Leyland was in no mood to take chances. Not when Veras has been up and down since he arrived three months ago and not when left-handed batting Jacoby Ellsbury was set to hit against the right-handed Veras.

Leyland opted for left-hander Drew Smyly. Smyly, after all, had been shutting the door for most of the season in precisely these situations. He throws strikes and tends to work well against batters from both sides of the plate.

But if you analyze the one at-bat that proved lethal, it was the Smyly-Ellsbury duel. Smyly had Ellsbury down in the count, 1-and-2. And then he walked him on a 3-2 pitch.

Now, there were two on and one out in a four-run game. Leyland was looking at a tough hombre in Shane Victorino. He decided on a strikeout pitcher, Al Alburquerque, who did the trick by whiffing Victorino.

That brought on Dustin Pedroia. Again, it was a good right-handed matchup, as good as it gets against the miserably tough Pedroia, given Alburquerque’s fastball-slider combination.

Pedroia, though, hit a ground single to right, and now the bases were loaded for Boston’s baseball Zeus, David Ortiz.

Leyland could have stuck with Alburquerque. But the matchup would have fed fastballs and inside-breaking sliders into Ortiz’s wheelhouse.

The Tigers had a left-handed option in Coke. But realistically, Coke was no option. He has been hurt and has not pitched since the regular season. And when he did pitch during the spring and summer, he was often bad. Why he is on the ALCS roster has befuddled many of us.

From closer to loser

Leyland had one practical choice: Joaquin Benoit, his closer who often works against a batter or two in the eighth, and whose right-handed change-up can be tough on left-handed batters.

But this, of course, is Ortiz. Even had Smyly remained, Ortiz is a master at taking 91-mph fastballs or 90-mph cutters and slamming them against, or over, Fenway’s left-field wall.

In right field at Fenway, there is room. Room enough to expect a right-handed pitcher, one with a .188 opposing batting average against left-handers in 2013, would be the best man to tackle Ortiz in this situation, as if such a pitcher exists.

Benoit and Tigers catcher Alex Avila decided on a first-pitch change-up. Benoit’s change-up has been deadly of late. And with Ortiz likely set for something hotter, it was a good call.

Except the change-up hung just high enough, in the middle of the plate. And such a pitch is to Ortiz what moose meat is to a wolf. He chomped on it, sending it into the right-field bullpen for a grand slam that tied the score, set up the Red Sox’s series-tying victory, and led to hospital-grade stomach disorders across Detroit and Michigan.

Blame game

Critics began their accident investigations. Leyland should have stuck with Scherzer. He should have ridden with Veras. Alburquerque, or Coke, or Rick Porcello could have pitched to Ortiz.

Choose your particular preference, at a particular moment, and the default position in assigning blame to a bullpen blow-up is invariably the manager. Leyland becomes accountable in the analysis of fans irked and sick over what happens when a lead is blown. Game 2 was epic.

But, when relief pitchers don’t do their jobs, any manager in charge becomes the fall-guy. Veras, Alburquerque, Smyly, Benoit, and later Porcello, all failed to protect a victory and what had been a four-run lead.

The Tigers had gotten shutout victories in their preceding two playoff games, all with help from the bullpen. The relievers succeeded. The manager’s choices were no issue. But that’s because pitchers did their jobs. Sunday, they didn’t, and the Tigers endured their worst defeat in the last half-century of baseball in Detroit.

lynn.henning@detroitnews.com
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