TONY PAUL

Paul: Tigers' Ausmus starts to show his inexperience

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Did Brad Ausmus cost the Tigers the game Sunday night? According to the Twitterverse, yes he did, and resoundingly so. But he really didn't. J.D. Martinez did. And Yoenis Cespedes did. And Nick Castellanos did.

As Ian Kinsler so brilliantly pointed out after the team's most crushing defeat of the season, at some point, the players have to step up and take responsibility.

That said, did Ausmus put the Tigers in the best position to win Sunday's game?

That's an easier question.

And the answer is, absolutely not.

The second-guessing reached fever pitch the moment Miguel Cabrera walked to lead off the bottom of the ninth inning, and then was swiftly removed from the tie game, replaced by Rajai Davis, one of the fastest runners in the game of baseball.

There's plenty to criticize about that swap, which took the best hitter in baseball out of the game, a game that very likely was bound for extra innings — and inserted a runner on first base with no outs, not exactly a sure-fire scoring opportunity anyway.

Most managers would say that's not the correct move, at all. If Cabrera led off with a double, that's different; or if he was at third with one out, that's different. But not at first base.

Ausmus, though, knowing some big bats were coming up and knowing his best reliever, Joakim Soria, was done pitching after working the top of the ninth before a 1-hour, 43-minute rain delay, was going for the win.

And I don't completely fault him for that.

It was a bold decision, and bold often is so much better than conservative, in so many ways, in baseball.

Then, however, after making that bold move, Ausmus, unbelievably, did go conservative — and that made absolutely no sense. There's no way you can pinch-run Davis, say you're going for the win, and then not once send Davis off to steal second base.

Brad Ausmus is in his second season as the Tigers manager.

Questionable moves

If Davis is thrown out, well, you can live with that, because you're going for the win. And, at least, there's still a chance you win in extra innings, even if the Royals' would have the big advantage at that point.

But Davis never once broke for a stolen base — or even a hit-and-run, which would've also been an understandable call with a most excellent bat handler at the plate, in Victor Martinez. Victor Martinez ended up singling sharply to left field, and Davis made it to second. On a hit-and-run, he would've made it to third. But that's OK. Davis still was at second base with nobody out and Cespedes at the plate.

The winning run was just 180 feet away for the Tigers, and just about any base hit to the outfield would've almost certainly given them a second walk-off victory in the big three-game series against the Royals.

But if Davis was on third with no outs, he would've absolutely scored on any hit, and almost any sacrifice fly. But Davis never tried to steal third, either, which is odd, since he's one of the best at stealing third, twice Royals reliever Jason Frasor never bothered to look back at him, and Royals catcher Salvador Perez would've been partially shielded by the very large right-handed batter, in Cespedes.

Ausmus said Davis had the green light to steal second, but the red light on any thoughts of stealing third.

None of that makes much sense, particularly the green light in stealing second. Ausmus should've made that call himself, since he was, remember, going for the win.

Instead, the Tigers took their best hitter out for their best runner, in a bold effort to end the game right there. Yet, he didn't once attempt to steal. That's like shoving all your chips in on one hand of block (bold), but then standing on 14 when the dealer's showing a queen (weak). What's the point?

As it was, Davis never left second base before there were two out. Cespedes — who could've been bunting, but I'm torn on that — J.D. Martinez and James McCann popped out or flew out, the inning was over, the game went to extra innings, and the Tigers lost, 2-1.

If Davis is in the game, get him running, and immediately. If not, you're running the risk of Cabrera's spot in the order coming up in extra innings.

Of course, Cabrera's spot in the order did come up again, in the 10th inning, after excellent Royals closer Greg Holland, amazingly, loaded the bases with nobody out. That brought up Hernan Perez, who moved to first base, replacing Davis.

Perez, by the way, didn't have to bat in that situation. Ausmus could've tried something else when the Tigers came up empty in the ninth, and kept Davis in the game to play right field, and had J.D. Martinez, who's played four professional games at first base (same as Perez), replace Cabrera on defense. You've already gone outside the box once, what's one more flyer? Then it would've been Davis up with the bases loaded and nobody out.

Better, yes?

Instead, it was Perez, who, let's face it, isn't a prospect anymore, and it isn't close to being a major-league hitter.

That said, Ausmus, stunningly, had the two guys batting ahead of Perez bunting, in Anthony Gose and Ian Kinsler. If Gose got the bunt down, the Royals would've surely intentionally walked Kinsler. Gose walked. Then Ausmus decided bunting Kinsler, one of his best hitters, to get to Perez was the prudent move. Luckily for the Tigers, Kinsler walked, too, to load the bases, with nobody out.

Of all those batters, Perez got to swing away. Why not squeeze bunt with Perez? What's the worst that happens in that situation? He whiffs, and the runner is out. Or he gets it down, and a force is made at home. A double play there is extremely unlikely.

Instead, Perez did exactly what he did batting in the ninth inning of Game 3 of the ALDS — he hit into a double play with the game on the line. This one could end up being his last at-bat as a Tiger; he is all but gone if Jose Iglesias is healthy enough to play Tuesday or Wednesday; Daniel Fields, Dixon Machadao or Tyler Collins would look better off that bench; and Perez might be claimed by another team off waivers. No big deal.

The Tigers, by the way, were caught in a pickle with the bench Sunday. The bench began the season as Davis, McCann, Andrew Romine and Perez, with Perez being, by far, the weakest link. That's not terrible. But the Tigers had no options to pinch-hit for him Sunday, with Davis out of the game, McCann starting for the injured Alex Avila, and Romine doing the same for the injured Iglesias.

You can see, now, how the cards were stacked against the Tigers in extra innings, particularly when you match the Royals bullpen against the Tigers. A Jack Black-Dustin Hoffman Oscar race is less of a mismatch.

Rookie Angel Nesbitt got the call in the 10th for the Tigers — his most high-pressure outing to date — and was, not surprisingly, wild off the bat. He hit (allegedly) Alex Gordon with his first pitch, and Ausmus should've been challenging that even though the call would likely stand. (Instead, after the game, Ausmus made the stunning admission that he wasn't even aware there was a possible challenge there.)

The next pitch was a wild pitch that got Gordon to second, and eventually he scored the winning run in the 10th.

Now, the Royals might've won anyway had Cabrera stayed in the game, or had Davis replaced him and actually been running in the ninth inning. Sure, there was a chance he'd have been thrown out; Salvador Perez, after all, does have a cannon, albeit a sometimes-wild one.

But Davis didn't even try to win the game, because Ausmus never forced the issue — after making the gutsy move of taking out Cabrera, and sending the message that he was trying to finish the game right then and there.

Still learning

Brad Ausmus led the Tigers to the American League Central Division title in his first season as manager.

This is the second time in a week Ausmus' judgment has been called into question, after he left Joba Chamberlain — who has almost no arsenal to work with right now — to face White Sox slugger Melky Cabrera, who hit a three-run home run that surprised exactly zero Tigers fans.

Ausmus could've gone to Soria there, and even if Soria got that out and wasn't available for the ninth inning in Chicago, well, Detroit still would've had a three-run lead. As a former manager told me recently, "any stiff" can protect a three-run lead in the ninth inning.

But Cabrera hit the homer, and the Tigers lost their first crusher of the season. Sunday was the second. Ausmus learned from the Chicago debacle, and the next chance he had, he used Soria for four outs. Odds are, he'll learn from Sunday, too, though right after the game, he said taking Cabrera out was a move he has to make.

I took a Twitter poll early Monday morning, asking Tigers fans which was worse, and Sunday's game won like Tiger Woods at the 1997 Masters.

Truth is, both were devastating, because they were games they should've won. And Ausmus probably didn't put them in the best position to win.

Ausmus doesn't get criticized a ton by Tigers fans, because he has a very good team to work with, and no matter what, this team will finish with a winning record. Same thing with Matt Williams and the Nationals. Ausmus and Williams had little to no managerial experience before landing their current gigs; neither one had to take a driver's test before being handed the keys to the Bugatti.

And because of their respective talent — the Tigers were favored to win the World Series last year, the Nationals this year — it's not every day that a move either of them makes goes under the microscope. But when those instances do show up, like last week in Chicago and Sunday for Ausmus, or in the playoffs last fall for both men, the decisions are telling, and often troubling, and the lack of experience comes more into focus.

Sure, the Tigers hitters failed Sunday, over and over and over again, against Chris Young — there's no excuse there; if you faced him a week earlier, how do you not learn anything? — and the Royals bullpen.

So, ultimately, a significant chunk of the blame wears with the 25 guys eligible to actually play the game.

Ausmus, however, didn't help matters.

That's because he went soft, after he had gone bold.

tpaul@detroitnews.com

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