April 16, 2014 at 1:00 am

Lynn Henning

Tigers manager Brad Ausmus encounters his first strategy tragedy

Detroit — Anyone who follows baseball, particularly baseball in Detroit, knew a game was approaching when Tigers manager Brad Ausmus and Motown’s wide world of Ausmus-worshipers would have their first squabble.

It happened Wednesday night at Comerica Park in a game the Indians won, 3-2, on an evening so frosty the Tigers should have erected igloos in Comerica’s lower deck.

The debate, which remains flavorful, stemmed from an eighth-inning decision by Ausmus to have Torii Hunter bunt with runners at second and first and none out in a game the Tigers trailed, 3-1.

Hunter, as is known by those familiar with his skills or lack thereof, is a fine hitter and a lousy bunter. Ausmus knew enough about his challenges there to have at least talked with Hunter before he came to bat against reliever Cody Allen.

Hunter said he could get the bunt down. It would have been a shock had a professional baseball player of his status said anything different. Sincerity quotients aside, Hunter would have been expected to do better than miss badly on his first two bunt attempts.

After twice failing, he was obliged with two strikes to swing away. He did, and in trying to lash a ground ball behind the runners, Hunter ripped a two-hopper to first-baseman Nick Swisher, who began a devastating 3-6-3-6 double play. Miguel Cabrera’s two-out single scored Rajai Davis to make it 3-2, but the Tigers were done.

They failed to score the tying run in the ninth after getting Alex Avila to third with one out. A miserable night of baseball in Detroit ended all the more miserably for Ausmus, his team, and for his fans, many of whom are thinking that a guy named Jim Leyland wasn’t so bad, after all.

'Didn't work out'

There are multiple reasons for the outrage. But the protest focuses mostly on Hunter and on the fact he has bunted only four times since 2001. On a cold night against Allen’s fireballs a bunt is all the more difficult, as Ausmus later acknowledged. Hunter took it a notch farther. He made it look impossible.

There, in this view, is the most compelling case against Ausmus and his Wednesday night strategy. But it was hardly a lone argument.

Another grievance had to do with the batter following Hunter, Cabrera. If Detroit’s runners — Davis and Ian Kinsler — were pushed to second and third bases by a capable Hunter bunt, first base now would be open and an invitation for Indians manager Terry Francona to walk Cabrera, disarming the Tigers of baseball’s best hitter.

The problem with that argument is one more facet of an excellent baseball debate. The man following Cabrera was one the game’s craftsman hitters, Victor Martinez, whom the Tigers would otherwise relish having at the plate with the sacks loaded and one out.

As it turned out, Martinez singled in his at-bat, making Hunter’s double play all the more catastrophic.

Of course, had Hunter swung away, a ground ball and a double play was more than possible, which is why Ausmus wanted to risk Hunter’s bunt. He would not easily have forgiven himself for not sacrificing with two speedy runners on base and none out, particularly with Cabrera and Martinez next in line, and another strong hitter in Austin Jackson following them.

“I like the way the two guys behind him (Cabrera) are all swinging the bat,” Ausmus said afterward, mentioning that Francona was not necessarily a sure bet to have walked Cabrera. “In that situation, I would have felt pretty good.”

Of the more contentious order to have Hunter bunt, Ausmus sat in Comerica’s cold interview room and seemed to gently shrug his shoulders when he said the obvious:

“It just didn’t work out.”

No-win situation

Minus any second-guessing, I thought the bunt call was proper. Hunter is such a good athlete and baseball player that a bunt, even with his awkward history of sacrificing, should have been achievable.

You can imagine the fallout had Hunter swung away and hit a grounder that had a frightfully high percentage chance to have been struck. Backing away from a bunt in that situation, and risking a double play because Hunter supposedly can’t bunt, would have been indefensible. It would have been a concession to weakness. Unfortunately for the Tigers, Hunter pretty much confirmed the lower road should have been taken when he hopelessly tried to lay down his sacrifice.

This was a game the Tigers probably should have won. It was a game that begged for execution — Don Kelly also struck out with a man at third and one out in the ninth — the Tigers failed to pull off.

But, while it’s a terrific discussion, I still thought the bunt call was proper. Hunter does too many things too well to bail out on a sacrifice assignment. Not that a good many fans today agree.

Welcome to Detroit, skipper. You’ll learn that Motown’s fans love these strategy skirmishes. You’ll learn they also believe they’re right. You’ll learn why a guy named Leyland was probably happy to enjoy this particular battle at home, on television, in Pittsburgh.


Tigers' Austin Jackson leaves his helmet and bat after he strikes out swinging with two men on in the eighth inning. The inning included a failed sacrifice bunt by Torii Hunter. / Robin Buckson / Detroit News
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