Henning: Tigers' title vindicates Ausmus and Dombrowski
Detroit — What we saw on a baseball field and heard in a champagne-soaked clubhouse Sunday as the Tigers ended their regular-calendar schedule, which was often like a six-month seat in a dentist's chair, with a fourth consecutive division title and a 3-0 waxing of the Twins at Comerica Park:
Brad Ausmus stuck with his bullpen and was vindicated.
Count this press-box elder as a guy who thought Ausmus was playing with matches and a gasoline can. Sticking down the stretch with Joba Chamberlain as his setup man and Joe Nathan as Detroit's closer seemed like a stubborn manager's devotion to roles.
Anibal Sanchez had relocated to the bullpen a week ago and Joakim Soria was back and available as a pitcher whose past and present work offered a ninth-inning alternative that appeared to be more of an imperative.
The skipper never budged. Chamberlain would handle the eighth, Nathan the ninth. Sunday, they worked their regular shifts and for the second consecutive game pitched fairly flawless 1-2-3 innings.
"I do like having roles," Ausmus said as he talked in the Tigers clubhouse amid champagne showers, two of which were the personal work of Chamberlain and Phil Coke.
"I know Joba didn't pitch as well in the second half. I know Joe had a rough stretch or two during the last couple of months. And I know there was a lot of clamoring for Soria.
"But I think Joe was something like 17-for-19 with a three-point ERA, and it wasn't like he was hurt.
"From a team standpoint, it's how do you get the most from men who are human beings and players."
Al Avila, the Tigers assistant general manager, a few minutes later was deftly holding a cigar in one hand and a half-full champagne bottle in the other. Avila talked about the skipper — how he stuck to his back-end guns.
"Give our manager a lot of credit," Avila said about Ausmus' devotion to Chamberlain-Nathan. "He's the one who set that up."
Whether this two-part harmony carries into the playoffs is perhaps another matter. But the pitches thrown by Chamberlain in those last two appearances were on a par with the stuff he was tossing in May and early June. Nathan's fastball Sunday hit 93 mph and his slider, which had been his lifeline, was the biggest reason hitters disappeared in his back-to-back whitewashes.
Ausmus will go with his guys. As long as he keeps mold from growing on Sanchez and Soria it looks like an arrangement he can trust. He did Sunday. And with a season on the line, it worked handsomely.
Dave Dombrowski's managerial gamble is safe.
Dombrowski, the man who for 13 years has been owner Mike Ilitch's chief baseball architect, knows how these champagne scenes work. He dresses as strategically for a clubhouse bubbly bath, right down to Reebok shower clogs on his feet, as he does for his business day, which has kept more than a few men's apparel lines solvent.
Dombrowski was asked Sunday about Ausmus. About deciding last November to put a playoff-grade team into the managerial hands of a rookie skipper.
"Every time you do a hire it's a semi-gamble," Dombrowski said. "Not a lot of experienced winning managers very often walk into your office looking for a job."
Dombrowski acknowledged there were occasional moments during occasional games in a rookie manager's first season when he wondered if another pitching choice or strategy option might have been better. He would also tell you he has had that same reaction during any season with any manager, which is how it goes in baseball.
But he liked what he saw. Very much he liked it. And he knows Ausmus will be better in his second season.
"An extremely intelligent manager who communicates well and keeps his composure," Dombrowski said. "And yet he gets his point across.
"He stresses fundamentals and he doesn't get rattled."
Privately, it's easy to imagine Dombrowski having at least a slightly different evaluation had the Tigers not grabbed a fourth consecutive division flag. But you knew Sunday the boss was leveling. He likes his skipper.
He gambled — and won.