Detroit — First came the rumors. Then came the homers.
This time of year, the two tend to go hand in hand. Or in the case of the Tigers on Friday night, they went back-to-back.
Just like the Cleveland Indians did as they chased starter Anibal Sanchez and then battered the Tigers bullpen in a seven-run seventh inning.
Fresh off the All-Star break, the Tigers were cruising along Friday until they hit a familiar pothole, one they'll have to fill if they really want to get where they're going.
That it was ex-Tiger Ryan Raburn detonating things, tying the game with a pinch-hit, line-drive double into the right-field corner off Ian Krol, was one thing. Right-handed batters are destroying Krol (a 1.120 OPS prior to Friday) — a key piece in that ill-conceived Doug Fister trade last December — so it hardly qualified as a surprise. Tigers manager Brad Ausmus took a gamble that Raburn's recent "scuffling" against lefties would help bail the Tigers out of this jam, but it didn't work. You win some, you lose some, I guess.
But watching Al Alburquerque enter the game, watching him strike out the next two batters and get ahead 1-2 on the third, and then watching him serve up a pair of no-doubters into the right-field stands — on consecutive pitches — had to give Tigers president Dave Dombrowski some pause.
And probably another nudge toward making a deal he can't afford not to make. How much trust can he have in this bullpen at this point?
Earlier in the day, there were multiple national reports tying Detroit to late-inning relievers in trade talks. The oft-mentioned return of Joaquin Benoit remains a possibility. But more intriguing, Fox Sports' Jon Paul Morosi reported the Tigers and Rangers are discussing a potential deal involving Joakim Soria.
Either arm would help solidify a still-shaky situation in the Tigers' bullpen, one that should get a boost from lefty fifth starter Drew Smyly in the postseason, provided they make it.
And either reliever would help initially in a setup role alongside Joba Chamberlain, but also as insurance in case closer Joe Nathan, who appeared to right himself after an awful stretch from late May to late June, stumbles again.
"I certainly expect Joe to be a lot better," Ausmus said. "It has been better, but I think it'll be better throughout the second half of the season."
That'd be a huge relief, obviously. But while Nathan didn't pitch Friday night, just about everybody else did as the bullpen allowed eight hits — including three home runs — and three walks to cough up seven runs, including a pair of inherited runners. Not exactly what Ausmus was looking for in his first game back from the All-Star break, with a scheduled doubleheader today.
The Tigers' starting rotation makes them a World Series contender. The lineup should keep them there, barring injuries in the middle of the order. But the bullpen, which entered the All-Star break ranked 26th in the majors with a 4.26 ERA, could make them a pretender again, if they're not careful.
Or willing to take a risk by dealing away another prospect or two in exchange for a proven arm. (Or two?)
Soria probably makes the most sense. A familiar face from his years in Kansas City, he has been terrific this season bailing water on a sinking ship in Texas, converting 16 of 17 save opportunities with a 0.79 WHIP and 40 strikeouts in 301⁄3 innings.
If he's traded, his new team will be on the hook for a little more than $2 million, but nothing more, which makes him all the more enticing.
Benoit's statistics are equally impressive this season, and he's a well-known commodity in the Tigers clubhouse. Yet his contract also carries an $8 million salary for next season. And it's hard to say just how much the Tigers are willing to spend — and for how long — chasing an elusive ring.
Still, for a franchise that has to be thinking championship-or-bust in 2014, the cost-benefit analysis prior to the July 31 trade deadline shouldn't be all that complicated. Dombrowski can't stand pat, and he rarely does.
Asked Friday to sum up his own bullpen this season, Ausmus reluctantly went with "underwhelming, at times."
"But I think we were going in the right direction," he insisted. "I think the 'pen was getting better.
And based on the progress he has seen, he added, "There should be a correction in the second half, as a result."
We'll see. But Dombrowski needs to make a correction of his own in the next few weeks, regardless.