Ausmus defends bullpen moves after Tigers' bitter exit

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

In his first extensive conversation about a baseball season that ranked as an irksome blend of success and failure, Tigers manager Brad Ausmus on Sunday defended his bullpen decisions in a three-game playoff wipeout by the Orioles and shared in disappointment that, for many fans, bordered on disgust.

It was also made clear Sunday by Dave Dombrowski, the Tigers president and general manager, that Ausmus and his coaching staff will be returning intact for 2015.

"All are under contracts, so we usually do not make any announcements with this type of situation," Dombrowski wrote in a text message to The Detroit News. "However, we do expect the staff to be back next season."

Ausmus late Wednesday caught a flight from Detroit to San Diego, where he lives with his wife, Liz, and two daughters. He spoke Sunday during a 30-minute phone conversation from his home.

"Regardless of the organization, it's never easy to win a division, even if you think you've got the best team on the planet," Ausmus said. "The fans show up in droves at Comerica Park, and a big part of that is because of winning.

"So, frankly, they should expect to win. This team was good enough to win," he said, the word "to" emphasized. "I understand some of the frustration. This team has come so close, almost close enough to taste it (two World Series losses since 2006).

"They want a world championship, and I wanted it, too. The sad reality is, unless you win the playoffs, you go home with a bitter taste. Ours was a little more bitter because of the way this season ended."

After the season ended Oct. 5, following Baltimore's ALDS clinching victory at Comerica Park, Dombrowski and Ausmus spoke over the course of three days, sometimes in the company of front-office lieutenants and Detroit's coaching staff.

The Tigers won their fourth consecutive Central Division title and also won 90 games, which is generally regarded in quantity and quality of achievement as success, short of a world championship.

But for a team, and its owner, Mike Ilitch, all of which were committed to winning a World Series the Tigers have not won in 30 years, the three-game fade against Baltimore was a bitter reminder that little about the 2014 Tigers was consistently crowd-pleasing or ultimately satisfying.

Fans blast bullpen moves

Ausmus was criticized by a good portion of the Tigers fan base for specific bullpen decisions, particularly in Games 1 and 2 at Baltimore, when the Orioles scored a cumulative 12 runs in the eighth innings to put a hammerlock on a best-of-five series.

Most aggravating to fans was Ausmus' decision in Game 2 to dismiss Anibal Sanchez following two scoreless innings of relief and bring on regular eighth-inning man Joba Chamberlain, who often had been pummeled during the regular season's second half. Chamberlain also had been a participant in the previous evening's eighth-inning, eight-run Orioles onslaught.

Sanchez, however, is a starting pitcher who missed nearly six weeks late in the season with pectoral inflammation in his right side and shoulder area. The Tigers were being careful with a starter who had shoulder issues earlier in his career and is under contract through 2018.

Ausmus, in concert with the Tigers training and coaching staff, had determined when Sanchez rejoined the team in mid-September, he would not pitch more than two innings or be pushed past a pitch-count that had reached 35 in his two-inning cameo against the Orioles.

"Even before Sanchie came back," Ausmus said, "I said from the get-go he would be used for one, maybe for two innings, depending on the pitch-count.

"We're talking about a guy who hadn't pitched out of the pen in about five years. He had had one inning of work in his last 50 days."

Ausmus said he had been criticized for not using Sanchez more frequently in pre-playoff games as a way to strengthen his arm and endurance. But a pitcher who appeared to be on his way to missing all of September and October had only been cleared to pitch in the regular season's final days.

"People say I should have gotten him into other games, but we were also trying to win the division," Ausmus said, pointing to the regular season's final series against the Twins, which saw the Tigers lose by big scores Friday and Saturday.

Detroit won, 1-0, against the Twins on Sunday to take the division by a single game.

"I gave him one inning in the Friday night blowout, and I could have used him in the Saturday blowout," Ausmus said, reconstructing the Twins series. "But by then, he would have pitched back-to-back days and he would have been on the shelf for Sunday.

"It's easy to say, but the way those games worked out, it's a lot harder to find a place to use him. To be honest with you," Ausmus said, returning to Game 2 of the ALDS and to howls over his pulling of Sanchez, "the way he was used is exactly how I'd have used him if I had it to do all over again."

Ausmus also said Sunday there were no second-guesses about Al Alburquerque, one of the team's more effective relievers during the season's second half, who did not throw a pitch in the Orioles series.

"No, for me, Albie, who had a great year, his best place is in the sixth or seventh inning," Ausmus said. "There's really only one time we might have used him, in Game 2, and we had Sanchie."

Potential free agent losses

Ausmus is deferring to Dombrowski on any 2015 personnel matters, highlighted by the potential loss of three free agents: starting pitcher Max Scherzer, designated hitter Victor Martinez and right fielder Torii Hunter.

The Tigers also must confront the reality of catcher Alex Avila's concussions, which have been a recurring problem and could threaten the 27-year-old catcher's career.

Ausmus said Sunday neurological tests had been taken last week on Avila and "all came back normal — so there's good news on that front."

The Tigers manager conceded Detroit's 2014 season had been jarred during spring camp when three important players were lost to injuries that kept them from playing a single game: shortstop Jose Iglesias (stress fractures), outfielder Andy Dirks (back surgery), and back-end bullpen fireman Bruce Rondon (ligament replacement surgery).

Even after Dombrowski repeatedly signed or acquired more relievers, the bullpen became Detroit's persistent and punishing weak link. An expensive July trade for Rangers closer Joakim Soria never delivered as envisioned, in part because Soria did not always pitch with his old skill, but mostly because Soria strained an oblique muscle in early August and missed more than a month of regular work.

"When he first came over, he had a couple of bad outings, and then he got injured in the middle of a good outing," Ausmus said, explaining Soria's July-to-October timeline in Detroit.

"When he came off the (disabled list, in September), he looked really good. He got some quick ground-ball outs, and he induced some bad swings. He simply went into a bit of a pitching slump at the wrong time.

"He's definitely a better pitcher," Ausmus said, adding a thought that might well have been applied to the entire Tigers team in 2014.

"Let's keep in mind that not everything in baseball can be explained. As much as you think you can, this game can't always be explained."