Henning: Ausmus offers sound reasons for criticized moves

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Detroit — In the Tigers manager's office Friday, a rare elongated conversation ignited when the town's hottest-burning sports figure, Brad Ausmus, was asked about dugout strategy.

This was important for a couple of reasons. Friday's pregame session was on the verge of being briefer and less enlightening than a "Call Sam" advertisement.

And, given the caterwauling over Thursday's torture-rack of a defeat to the White Sox at Comerica Park, 8-7 in 10 innings, it seemed wise to ask if Ausmus had "dissected" the game as he dined, or chewed on some Tolstoy, or whatever might have been his late-night, postgame pursuit.

"To me, very few things needed to be dissected," said Ausmus, who had the armchair managers in a lather Friday as the Tigers got ready to tackle the White Sox in a repeat match at Comerica.

This was Ausmus' way of saying Thursday's moves were made for reasons he thought to be sound. If he had issues to "dissect," they likely weren't focused on why he pinch-ran for Victor Martinez in the ninth inning of a tie game.

He didn't need deep reflection on the merits of pinch-hitting Anthony Gose for James McCann in an eighth-inning bunting situation. Nor did he walk in the dark of Birmingham's blocks at midnight wondering why he had Ian Kinsler bunting in the sixth with two aboard and Miguel Cabrera on deck, knowing Cabrera was scheduled for an intentional walk if a sacrifice opened first base.

Ausmus had no regrets. But he didn't pretend to be infallible.

"Talk to 10 different managers and you'll get five different answers," he said, speaking of the decision to pinch-run for Martinez, a percentage shot that blew up when Martinez's replacement, Josh Wilson, died at first. What stung Tigers Nation is when Wilson, rather than V-Mart, arrived at the plate in the 10th, with two out, the bases loaded, and struck out to finish a miserable defeat for Detroit.

Playing the percentages

In fact, Ausmus was playing percentages that were more than defensible.

Fans will allow that Victor Martinez cannot run. His left knee (surgery, twice) and his age (36) permit little more than an earnest trot. The next batter, Yoenis Cespedes, had at least a chance of hitting a double that could have left Martinez stranded at third. That's an important point in the ninth, when there is a 23 percent chance Martinez won't get an extra-inning at-bat.

Ausmus is right to wonder how his critics would have behaved had he lost Martinez at third or on a putout at the plate. But we know the answer there. He'd be in Witness Protection.

He also is correct to say Wilson had an "astronomical" (low) chance of appearing in the 10th after the White Sox took an 8-5 lead. The math and its distant corridors is why most managers, in my experience, would have run for Martinez and in that situation played for the ninth-inning run.

Friday's conversation continued. Ausmus, who isn't often animated, was enjoying this debate as he sat in a chair behind his office desk.

Kinsler's bunt in the sixth? It was ordered, Ausmus said, with the full knowledge Cabrera would be walked.

But the skipper would have been happy with switch-hitting Victor Martinez batting in a bases-loaded situation against White Sox right-hander Jake Petricka.

"Because he's a ground-ball machine," and particularly tough on right-hand batters, Ausmus explained of Petricka.

You can argue about the rationale there, of course, because baseball allows it. But it was perhaps telling that after Kinsler popped up the bunt and left runners at first and second for Cabrera, the inning ended when Petricka got Cabrera on a ground-ball double play.

Bad bunt attempt

Move now to the eighth and to another Ausmus-fans tussle. Nick Castellanos led off the inning with a double. James McCann, a right-handed batter and a good bunter, was next up.

Ausmus, though, preferred that Gose pinch-hit for McCann against righthander Zach Putnam.

The reason, Ausmus explained, is because Gose has the speed to do better than sacrifice. He has a chance of bunting for a hit. Of course, if you don't put down the bunt, your speed isn't much of a factor, which became the case when Gose botched his bunt attempts and then struck out.

The baseball seminar continued for a good 10 minutes. I doubt it changed many minds. And it didn't need to change minds.

It pointed, rather, to one enduring baseball virtue. The game is best analyzed by thought and conversation. In a few decades of these chats with an impossibly long list of managers, what I've always found, no matter who the skipper might have been, is that you can, at the very least, almost always appreciate a man's explanation for why he did what he did.