Detroit— Just when you think it can’t get any worse, the Bruce Rondon saga — now playing its fourth season — takes another ugly turn.
After he inexplicably nailed Royals' Mike Moustakas with a pitch Wednesday in the ninth inning of a 16-2 loss, inciting a benches-clearing fracas and leaving his bewildered teammates to answer for him, Rondon was tasked with protecting a 5-3 lead against the Astros in the eighth inning Friday.
The lead and the game was lost in eight pitches. Rondon allowed singles to Derek Fisher and Jose Altuve, then hung a slider to Josh Reddick. The ball landed 397 feet into the seats in right field and the Astros were on their way to a 6-5 victory.
And the Tigers were left to ponder their fourth straight loss.
So many questions.
Why did manager Brad Ausmus pull starter Jordan Zimmermann after seven strong innings and just 80 pitches?
“Zimm had done his job,” said Ausmus. “He’d gone seven innings and the top of their order was coming back around…My gut feeling was that it was time to get Zimm out. They were coming back around, Jose Altuve (up second in the eighth) had hit him hard (triple and a double) and the more hitters see a guy, the better job they have against them.”
Zimmermann this season had faced only four hitters a fourth time in a game. He’s only faced 101 hitters after he’s thrown his 76th pitch (.213 average, four home runs and five doubles). It's not uncharted water for him, but it's close to it.
“I am never going to argue with (Ausmus),” Zimmermann said. “I’d like to stay out there, but we’ve got a lot of fresh arms in the bullpen, guys with electric stuff, it just didn’t work out.”
Why Rondon? Especially after what happened on Wednesday.
“Since he’s been back up, he’s pitched the eighth inning for us and he’s done a pretty good job for the most part,” Ausmus said. “Just not tonight.”
Rondon has pitched the eighth inning 12 times since he’s been back. He posted a win, five holds and nine scoreless innings. But, when he blows up, he blows up spectacularly — as his 12.41 ERA would attest.
“Wednesday night was a blowout game and it has no effect on this,” Ausmus said. “That was just him trying to mop up and save some of our bullpen arms. Simple as that…When Bruce is into an outing, he tends to be a lot more effective. I was hoping (Wednesday) would give him more incentive.
“I wanted him to get three outs without giving up a run, that is what I really wanted. But I felt like this could give him an opportunity to redeem himself.”
Still, how could he justify using Rondon so soon after what happened Wednesday?
“I don’t have to justify it,” Ausmus said. “Right now he’s on the team and if he’s on the team, I’ve got to use him.”
Before the game, Ausmus was asked several questions about whether or not Rondon would be disciplined, by the team or league, for his actions on Wednesday. It was clear Ausmus did not want to comment on it.
All he said was, “I don’t think so."
Although he has some input, roster decisions aren't his call — they are the purview of general manager Al Avila. But Ausmus knew early in the day that no demotion or suspension was coming for Rondon.
“I talked to Bruce today,” Ausmus said. “I told him to be ready. I told him, 'Be ready for the eighth inning like you had been before.' He knew there was a chance this situation could come up tonight.”
Ausmus said he would not discuss whether Rondon would remain in the eighth-inning role or on the team beyond Friday.
“If there is a change, I am not going to discuss it here,” he said.
Rondon was booed when he was pulled by Ausmus, and then Ausmus was booed when he left the mound.
The win improves the Astros’ second-best record in baseball to 68-34, and their best road record in baseball to 38-13. And ruined a pretty good effort by Zimmermann.
Bounced in the fourth inning of his last start, Zimmermann had pinpoint command, especially with his secondary pitches. His curveball, which deserted him in his last start, was sharp, as was his slider.
“Yeah, the curveball was better,” he said. “I got some swings and misses on it and I threw it for strikes. I threw five or six change-ups that were real good, too, and got some outs with that. I didn’t have a good fastball tonight so I had to mix it up.”
Altuve, a home run shy of a cycle, did most of the damage against him. In extending his hitting streak to 19 games, he tripled and scored in the first and set up the second run with a double in the third. Reddick drove both home with sacrifice flies.
Marwin Gonzalez hit a first-pitch solo home run, off a fastball that ran over the plate, in the sixth.
From the third through the seventh inning, Zimmermann retired 15 of 17 Astros hitters.
“I felt like I might’ve been able to get a couple more outs,” Zimmermann said. “But they were coming to the fourth time through the order and I think they noticed that my fastball velocity had gone down a little.”
Nick Castellanos hit a three-run homer off Astros ace left-hander Dallas Keuchel, who lasted three innings in his first start since June 2. It was his 15th on the season and he hit it 421 feet into the seats in left.
Miguel Cabrera hit a solo home run in the fifth inning off reliever Brad Peacock, a first-pitch, 426-footer than landed in the visitor’s bullpen in left center. It was Cabrera’s 13th of the year, his first since July 15 and his third this month.
The Tigers scored again in the seventh, thanks to full-out hustle by Mikie Mahtook. He walked with two outs, and then scored from first on a single down the right-field line by Victor Martinez.
Altuve, playing in the Astros’ over-shifted defense, nearly got to the ball in right field. If he had, he likely would have thrown Martinez out at first.
Mahtook never stopped and was able to score when the right-fielder Nori Aoki threw the ball to second base.
“That was actually a real good read by (third base coach) Dave Clark,” Ausmus said. “He saw where Aoki was throwing the ball and he kept Mahtook running.”
That was the last of the Tigers' offense, though, as Chris Devenski and Ken Giles recorded the final six outs without much stress.