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Henning: Down, no relief in sight

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Baltimore — Any hour now, the White House is likely to get a call asking that the Tigers bullpen be declared a disaster area.

Federal aid also might be requested for the Tigers playoff chances. Each is in pieces following a second consecutive loss to the Orioles in the American League Division Series, with Friday's 7-6 tumble at Camden Yards. It was both grisly and embarrassing for Detroit's baseball club and fans who at the moment aren't real pleased with manager Brad Ausmus.

The Tigers need to win three consecutive games, beginning Sunday at Comerica Park, to stay in the World Series chase. It's a Matterhorn-size hill for a team stuck with a bullpen that has treated the Orioles to 12 runs in two eighth-inning disintegrations of stunning scope for a supposed World Series contender.

Rather than perform Friday postmortems, the Tigers were fixated on those playoff home games at Comerica Park on Sunday and hopefully Monday, which at least allow the chance for a possible Game 5 series finale at Baltimore.

The Tigers' Miguel Cabrera stands in the dugout in the ninth inning Friday.

"We've swept teams before; it's not impossible," said J.D. Martinez, the long-ball-slugging outfielder who Friday hit his second playoff home run, a three-run shot into the left-field seats that had given the Tigers an early 4-2 lead.

Ausmus sat at a postgame interview dais and took the only tack available to a manager whose team is one game from going home.

"Talking to the team before the series started," Ausmus said, "we said regardless of what happens, you put it behind you and focus on the game at hand.

"We're 0-and-2. We understand that. But it doesn't affect us playing Game 3. You don't look past the day in front of you."

Ausmus was dealing with two problems following Friday's bullpen conflagration that saw a 6-3 Tigers lead turn into a comeback that has the Orioles one victory from the American League Championship Series.

Not only must he and the Tigers win at Comerica and hope they can steal Game 5 next Wednesday at Camden Yards, the skipper was also battling second-guesses about Friday's relief-pitching choices.

He pulled starter Justin Verlander one batter into the sixth after Verlander had thrown a full-shift 101 pitches. With the Tigers leading 5-3, Ausmus opted for Anibal Sanchez, a traditional Tigers starter who now works in the bullpen after missing six weeks with a pectoral strain.

Sanchez pitched a lovely two innings. He tied up the Orioles on no hits and a couple of strikeouts. But he was removed after the seventh because of a long layoff that kept him at a 30-pitch limit Friday and didn't risk damage to a recovering pitcher's future in Detroit.

It might have been the safer and more sensible approach, but it wasn't a move fans appreciated, particularly when one of Thursday's arsonists, Joba Chamberlain, arrived for what turned into another Baltimore bonfire: the four-run eighth.

In his rookie year as a big-league manager Ausmus has been rigid about pitchers and their roles. Chamberlain is his preferred eighth-inning set-up man and was brought on Friday just as he had been at the start of Thursday's eight-run Orioles outburst.

Chamberlain got rocked for three runs and two hits and now has a playoff ERA of 108.00. Everyone might have escaped, Chamberlain as well as Ausmus, had Joakim Soria not also unraveled, as he did Thursday.

Soria arrived during the eighth-inning commotion and quickly walked his first batter to load the bases. One pitch later, he threw a juicy 79-mph slider that ex-Tigers outfielder Delmon Young ripped into the left-field corner for a double that scored three runners and gave Baltimore its 7-6 lead.

This was not the outing envisioned in July when the Tigers sent a package of prospects to the Rangers in exchange for Soria. But it was an appearance consistent with Detroit's chronic back-end breakdowns in 2014.

It simply invited questions after Friday's game, such as: Why has Al Alburquerque, one of the bullpen bulldogs this season, not thrown a pitch in either of the ALDS games?

"I don't know what you're basing that on," Ausmus responded, icily, to a question about Alburquerque and whether, perhaps, he might have been an eighth-inning options. "Usually, when we use Albie, it's earlier in the game — sixth inning, occasionally seventh."

What matters, as the Tigers work to salvage a series and avoid missing a third consecutive AL Championship Series, is that pitchers and players find a level of performance and poise they couldn't maintain at Camden Yards.

They will expect David Price to help there. Price started last Sunday's Central Division clincher and will start Sunday in Game 3. If he pitches with his familiar fury and finesse, the bullpen can get a break, which in this case would be welcome news in Detroit.

The Tigers audience knew this team had soft spots. But now a national audience understands the Central Division champs are not necessarily to be trusted in games as unforgiving as October arranges.

"It's certainly a little tough to swallow," Ausmus said as national media fired questions at him following a loss that bordered on ghastly. "When you have a three-run lead going into the last couple of innings, you feel like you should get the job done.

"But we didn't. There's nothing we can do about it. So we look forward to Game 3."

He said it in a tone that suggested the Tigers, after their Baltimore trauma, could stand a little love from the home crowd. And if there happen to be any relief pitchers in the house Sunday, by all means inform the skipper.