Wojo: Tigers team seemed built for big stage

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
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The flaws were always there, sometimes obscured, sometimes dormant, never truly fixed. They were on display one final time, as the Tigers’ grand plans crashed down again.

The cheers from the sellout crowd halted as abruptly as they began in the ninth, as pinch-hitter Hernan Perez bounced into a double play to end it. It was a bitter conclusion for the Tigers, a 2-1 loss to the Orioles Sunday that swept them out of the playoffs in three quick games.

Fans must have felt like they were watching a star-studded movie that had its thrilling moments, but was destined to end in disappointing and predictable fashion. Starter David Price did his job, except for one wayward pitch that nemesis Nelson Cruz slugged for a two-run homer in the sixth. That shouldn’t be enough to lose, but for the Tigers, it too often was.

They expired with a gasp and a sigh, held to four hits by three Baltimore pitchers, and no matter how desperately the crowd of 43,013 urged them on, the Tigers mustered little. I doubt people today are numb in disbelief. We’ve simply seen too many variations of this, wrecking what could have been a special season.

In the clubhouse, there were expressions of disappointment, even shock. The Tigers credited the scorching Orioles, but they also knew they’d squandered another chance.

“Honestly, I don’t really have the words to describe the disappointment,” said Victor Martinez, who had the best season of his career. “Everybody knows what kind of team we have. At the same time, we knew we were playing a really good team.”

Martinez spoke somberly, and he knows how fleeting this can be. He’s a free-agent, along with pitcher Max Scherzer and outfielder Torii Hunter, and all three said they’d like to return, although Hunter said he’d contemplate retirement.

They spoke with a weariness, at the end of a grueling season of twists and turns. Even as the Tigers won their fourth straight division title, you could see this possibility lurking, culminating in another bout of October frustration. On a brutal day in Detroit, the Lions’ gnawing flaw was exposed again – they don’t have a kicker – in a 17-14 loss to the Bills. So naturally, across the street at Comerica Park, the exposure continued.

Too often, when the Tigers hit, they didn’t pitch. When they pitched, they didn’t hit. That’s the dime-store analysis of this series, the microcosm of the season. They didn’t fail for lack of trying, but trades and signings didn’t pay off, and it’s time to look critically at how this team was constructed.

Tear it apart? No. Finally acknowledge they have to focus on the details – relievers, defense, bench players? Yep.

The Tigers were built for the big stage but not for the biggest moment, if that’s possible. They have stars, including Price, who pitched eight strong innings Sunday. But they were unbalanced in the lineup – heavy hitters mixed with weak hitters – and remarkably unbalanced on the mound – touted starters and an awful bullpen.

“This year we had probably just as much talent as any of the five years I’ve been here,” Scherzer said. “Baseball can be a funny game, and it leaves you scratching your head. It’s the toughest loss of the year, so it’s really hard for me to reflect or project what’s gonna happen in the future. The only thing I know is, I love being in this clubhouse and I hope I’m back.”

That was the prevailing theme in the aftermath, an appreciation for the 90-win season and an admission it’s not good enough.

All the division titles are commendable, but the Tigers are still looking for their first World Series championship since 1984, and this season was a step backward. It can’t just be about spending owner Mike Ilitch’s money and collecting stars, although at this stage, it’s hard to change your DNA.

The rookie manager, Brad Ausmus, received his share of criticism, and players were quick to defend him. GM Dave Dombrowski put the team together and it was a gifted group, but not top to bottom. The Tigers lost to the Orioles with former Cy Young winners starting all three games. But their already-smoldering bullpen imploded, allowing 12 runs combined in the eighth inning of the first two losses.

The lack of depth was evident in the ninth Sunday, when key at-bats were taken by backup catcher Bryan Holaday (Alex Avila was removed again for concussion) and Perez.

“You feel like you let the fans down and you feel like you let the organization down,” Ausmus said. “You feel like you let the Ilitches down. It’s disappointing, no question.”

We can scrutinize Ausmus’ clumsy handling of the bullpen, but really, he didn’t have many suitable options. By the end, oft-embattled Joe Nathan was the most dependable reliever, and that says it all.

Ultimately, you get what you earn and deserve what you get. The Orioles played with feistiness and a touch of magic, from the three-run double by former Tiger Delmon Young in Game 2, to Cruz’s homer that barely curled into the first row of the rightfield seats.

You want an image of frustration? The Tiger fan who caught the home run disgustedly plopped the ball on top of the wall and let it roll back onto the field. Cruz has eight home runs in nine postseason games against the Tigers, which is inexplicable. So was the Tigers’ bullpen, which should have had yellow crime tape wrapped around it.

But the bullpen had nothing to do with the clincher, just as the hitting had nothing to do with the first two losses. The Tigers’ supposedly fearsome starting pitching was good, but not dominant. When the Tigers really needed it, nobody was dominant.

“Obviously we wanted to win it all, and we felt we had the capability to do it,” said Justin Verlander, who struggled through a subpar season. “We felt we were built to win a World Series. But when you get to this point of the postseason, everybody’s built to win.”

The Tigers are built to win, with stars such as Miguel Cabrera, Martinez, Scherzer and Price. But to win it all? That’s something that will be debated through another long, cold winter.

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