Detroit — The Tigers keep hunting and hoping, but still can’t find any closure with their closer. Until they do, this is what they’ll be — a perilously flawed team trying to tiptoe to the finish.
David Ortiz did it to them again Sunday night, slugging a three-run homer in the ninth off Joba Chamberlain to give the Red Sox a 5-3 victory. The Tigers took two of three over the weekend to stem their slide, but just when they started sniffing the sweep, an old odor returned.
Chamberlain was given a rare opportunity to close because Joe Nathan had pitched two straight nights. It wasn’t necessarily a tryout, but it felt that way. And by the time Ortiz’s home run landed in the rightfield seats, the Chamberlain-for-Closer campaign was unofficially halted, fair or not. He’d gone 12 straight outings without allowing a run, then came that wicked ninth, where the Tigers wilt way too often.
“No excuses, I didn’t execute my pitches and they did their job,” Chamberlain said. “This one’s on me.”
Brad Ausmus is in a bind here, and the overwhelming best scenario is that Nathan, at 39, recovers his command and rediscovers his out pitch. He has been roughed up in four of his past five outings and has an ERA of 7.04. Ausmus decided before the game not to use him, and it made sense, right up until Chamberlain gave up a single to Brock Holt, a walk to Dustin Pedroia and the bomb to Big Papi.
Nathan had thrown 44 high-stress pitches the past two nights, while Chamberlain had thrown 33. Chamberlain threw 26 more Sunday night.
“Joba has gotten saves for us, it’s not like he’s never done it,” Ausmus said. “It’s just pitching that third straight day, he was a little fatigued and just not able to finish his pitches the way he wanted. … I didn’t think it was in (Nathan’s) best interests to send him out there and ask him to do that. I’d be kicking myself if he got hurt after throwing so many pitches.”
The Tigers will be kicking themselves much harder if they don’t figure this out. They’ve given up 46 runs in the ninth inning this season, which is absolutely staggering for a team that’s still 33-26 and in first place. Nathan converted 10 straight saves at one point, but when he blows up, he blows up big.
So what’s the answer? Keep looking, and it starts with Nathan. Free-agent pickup Joel Hanrahan is still trying to get into pitching shape after Tommy John surgery, but there’s no word on when he’ll be ready, or whether he’ll be effective. If no one stabilizes the bullpen, Dave Dombrowski will have to search for someone before the trade deadline.
Phil Coke threw a few 96-mph heaters in an inning and a third Sunday night and did a solid job. The crowd mildly booed his entrance, then was on its feet cheering madly as he battled Ortiz to a 3-2 count with two runners on and two outs in the seventh. Ortiz sent a flyball deep to center field (an omen?) and Coke escaped, then pitched a scoreless eighth.
Coke has shown in the past he has the arm and the perseverance to rebound, but the Tigers can’t count on it. They can’t count on Hanrahan either, and who knows what Nathan’s next outing will bring. Chamberlain is too valuable in the eighth inning to mess with his role, so the Tigers are back where this crazy slide started, looking for closure.
“You certainly don’t want to be giving up runs like that in the ninth inning,” Ausmus said. “I’m not overly concerned about it, but it’s gotta stop at some point. I do think Joe’s gonna get his groove back, and he’ll be fine. And once Joe returns to form, I think those numbers will come back to earth.”
The Tigers have plummeted back to earth after their scorching start. They recovered a bit by taking two of three from the Red Sox, but they wasted another good start by Anibal Sanchez and timely hitting from an unexpected source — rookie shortstop Eugenio Suarez.
Now come 14 straight games against division rivals, with four in Chicago starting tonight. It’s not dangerous, yet. But if the Tigers plan to close out this season the way it began, they’d better find a way to fill the hole they’ve been unable to close.