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Mensching: Justin Wilson only relief for battered ’pen

Kurt Mensching
Special to The Detroit News

In the eighth inning Sunday, Anibal Sanchez turned to watch as Max Kepler clobbered a nearly 400-foot, two-run home run to right field.

For Sanchez and the Tigers, it was just more of the same thing they’ve watched the entire month. Detroit’s bullpen has somehow — and it’s hard to picture how this is even possible with a major league roster —managed to allow 45 runs in 55 innings. You would not be surprised to learn this places them squarely the worst in baseball. You might be surprised to learn they’re a full earned run worse than the second-worst team. Now that’s bad.

Sanchez himself has allowed five home runs now in six games, and 17 runs in 10 2/3 innings. It’s either a miracle or criminal negligence if he is somehow wearing the Old English D when the team takes the field against the Mariners on Tuesday at Comerica Park.

But I come not to bury Sanchez or the Tigers’ bullpen, for there is nothing more I could do that they already have not. Instead I come today to praise Justin Wilson.

Following the home run on Sunday, Sanchez stuck around long enough to issue a walk and give up a single. Another hard-hit ball and the Tigers would have gone from a safe 10-2 lead to a three-run lead in the span of a few minutes.

Instead it took just one pitch from Wilson — a 95 mph fastball low and inside that turned into a groundout to short — to end the threat and calm the nerves. He’s like the lone person throwing water on the fire while everyone runs around with a container of gas, a box of matches and “hold my beer” look on their faces.

That’s been the case pretty much every time Wilson takes the ball for Detroit. Through 10 appearances he’s yet to give up a run of his own, and only one of the six runners he’s inherited has managed to score. That lone runner came when he entered a one-out, bases-loaded situation and forced a groundout to second base.

That’s not even the most impressive stat. Wilson has now faced 30 batters on the year, without allowing a hit.

Don’t look at that too long or you might jinx it.

Wilson’s home has been in the eighth inning for most of the month. Sunday was his seventh straight appearance in the inning, and before that he picked up a save when Francisco Rodriguez was unavailable.

That leads to an interesting question: What’s the best place manager Brad Ausmus can use Wilson?

There’s two schools of thought here. One is the idea that there’s nothing to save if the bullpen can’t hold a lead until the ninth inning anyway. So as counterintuitive as this might sound, Wilson’s best spot might be how Ausmus is using him. Entering play Sunday, he already had the second-highest leverage index on the team when he enters game.

The second idea is the oft-repeated trope that the ninth inning is an inning like no other, that getting three outs there is a harder feat than getting them anywhere else in the game. So for that reason you put your best reliever there just to slam the door and get out with a win.

For the record, Rodriguez is the only pitcher who has entered games at a higher leverage index than Wilson.

But if K-Rod doesn’t get his backside into the proper gear soon, that could be Wilson’s home. Giving up six runs in 7 2/3 innings with two blown saves already hardly makes you feel confident in Rodriguez. Nor does allowing nearly two runners per inning make you feel even the slightest bit relieved to see him take the mound.

Maybe that’s the real problem the Tigers face, and why Ausmus’ job is so hard right now. Wilson isn’t just the best option out of the bullpen so far in 2017. He’s the only one — for any situation.

If others in the bullpen don’t step up soon, it’s going to be a long season.

Kurt Mensching is the editor of Bless You Boys, a Tigers blog ( He can be reached at