Henning: K-Rod's latest meltdown has Tigers handcuffed

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Oakland, Calif. — It comes down to the same problem a Tigers team had at the season’s outset. At spring training’s start.

It’s the same issue that has dogged a team for too much of the past decade.

There are too few options. Too few choices. Too few answers to yet another Tigers bullpen crisis that turned traumatic during back-to-back games at Oakland Coliseum, which saw closer Francisco Rodriguez unravel again Sunday as the Athletics scored three times in the ninth to stab the Tigers, 8-6.

“Good questions,” said Tigers manager Brad Ausmus, who was asked after Sunday’s game if he was essentially trapped — lacking a ready-made replacement for K-Rod and just as empty on places to use a man who is one-seventh of a relief corps that can’t afford bench-sitters.

“I don’t necessarily have the answers,” Ausmus said.

BOX SCORE: Athletics 8, Tigers 6

He could only commit Sunday to “discussions” that will take place with Tigers general manager Al Avila and a front office that isn’t blessed with inventory that might answer the team’s ninth-inning riddle, or help fortify a back-end lineup that, ironically, has been pitching well of late.

The previous night had been a replica of Sunday’s mayhem. The Tigers had led, 5-4, in Saturday evening’s ninth inning only to see Rodriguez get socked for a walk, a double, and a two-run, game-winning single.

Sunday’s ninth-inning black-box data: leadoff walk, RBI double against the left-center field fence, two-run homer into the left-field seats by Ryon Healy.

For all their obvious lack of solutions, the Tigers are clearly in a corner with Rodriguez. As much as they and he prefer blue-sky scenarios, he is 35 years old, has an 8.49 ERA, and is showing little ability to throw pitches hitters can’t mash or simply ignore until something more appetizing arrives.

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“It’s not as simple as people think it is,” Ausmus said in a Tigers clubhouse that inside of 24 hours had twice been rocked by the A’s and their last at-bat explosions.

Ausmus said Rodriguez has “earned a degree of respect for what he did last year (44 saves)” and for a long big-league career that has been largely distinguished.

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But the Tigers are also in the business of winning baseball games. And their second consecutive throwaway Sunday brought into focus that teammates deserve better fates, as well.

Ausmus’ tacitly acknowledged Sunday that rearranging furniture won’t help Rodriguez or adjust the Tigers’ bullpen realities.

Justin Wilson has been throwing magnificently. But if the Tigers use him as a closer, there goes their safest and surest option as an eighth-inning set-up man. Shane Greene, Blaine Hardy, Alex Wilson — all have been pitching well.

Should the Tigers blow a hole in that alignment by shifting roles and re-inserting K-Rod in the mix they are trading ninth-inning issues for disasters elsewhere — at least if K-Rod continues to perform as he’s been throwing since spring camp.

Releasing him, as fans prefer, means he must be replaced. And there isn’t exactly a handsome line of fill-ins at Comerica Park’s door.

Triple-A Toledo might prove to be the Tigers’ only hope. And as call-ups thus far have confirmed, that’s not always been the answer.

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Arcenio Leon, a 30-year-old right-hander who has not pitched in the big leagues, has been gunning down hitters for the Mud Hens. But late-inning pressure and big-league bats can turn Triple-A success into a poor predictor of what might happen at Comerica Park.

Bruce Rondon has been having his trademark ups-and-downs since returning to the Mud Hens. Joe Jimenez is green and still working on a slider that, along with a fastball that’s still evolving, isn’t likely to hold up. Not at age 22 and when his April audition was so rocky.

It suggests there could be more terror ahead. That’s not a specter the Tigers or their fans can perhaps endure, particularly when Sunday’s comeback had been so noble.

The Tigers were down, 4-1, early, until three unearned runs in the fifth, and James McCann’s two-run blast into the balcony in the sixth, put them on top, 6-5.

The lead held as Rodriguez’s bullpen partners did exceptional work. Greene (two innings, one hit), Hardy (one batter, dismissed), and Wilson (one inning, one hit, one strikeout) snuffed the A’s from the point Daniel Norris departed with two gone in the fifth until Rodriguez came on for his calamitous ninth.

There was trouble, instantly. He walked leadoff batter Rajai Davis, who scored the tying run on a smoked double to left-center by Jed Lowrie.

After getting Khris Davis on a lineout to Justin Upton in left, Healy hit a high, soaring fly ball that fell into the left-field bleachers.

Game over. The Tigers’ torture had been extended for another day.

The Tigers clubhouse was like a shell-shock clinic afterward. People spoke politely and with an adult sense that these things happen in baseball. In sports.

But they were mouthing required words and holding back simmering emotions. Avila, the team’s front-office chief, understands such an atmosphere can’t continue to fester. Not at the big-league level. An entire team, at least privately, seemed just as resigned to that thought as the Tigers dressed and headed for a charter flight to Phoenix.