Those who picked the Detroit Tigers to advance through the AL playoffs and perhaps even win the World Series, did so because of the team's starting pitching.
That prediction was not based on the Tigers bullpen.
Justin Verlander and Doug Fister combined to allow three runs over 14 innings in the first two games of the ALDS between the Tigers and Oakland Athletics. Joaquin Benoit gave up two runs in one inning of relief during Game 2 of the series on Sunday (Oct. 7).
Wait, did I just use the word "relief?" Because Detroit's bullpen has provided anything but relief thus far into the playoffs.
Unless the Tigers' relief corps begins to show some improvement, or manager Jim Leyland makes his starters go nine full innings from here on out, it could end up being the reason Detroit loses the ALDS.
After Detroit took a 3-2 lead in the seventh inning when Coco Crisp dropped Miguel Cabrera's fly ball to shallow center field (see highlights to the right), Benoit came on for his customary role in the eighth to hold the Tigers' lead and hand the game over to Jose Valverde for the save in the ninth.
Benoit allowed a leadoff single to Yoenis Cespedes, then proceeded to ignore the fact he represented the tying run on base. With Benoit doing nothing to hold him to first base, Cespedes stole second base and third base. That put him in position to tie the score at 3-3 when Benoit threw a wild pitch.
The Tigers' setup man followed that up by hanging a changeup for Josh Reddick to launch over the right-field fence for a home run and a 4-3 Oakland lead.
Detroit tied the score at 4-4 in the bottom of the inning when Ryan Cook returned the favor by throwing a run-scoring wild pitch of his own. So naturally, the Tigers would bring in their closer to keep the game tied and try to win it in the ninth inning, right?
Manager Jim Leyland opted to bring in left-hander Phil Coke, however. That might have been because Valverde has a 4.55 ERA in 31 non-save situations this season. Or perhaps Leyland wanted A's manager Bob Melvin to pinch-hit righty Derek Norris in place of left-handed hitting George Kottaras.
That might not have been the worst decision, as Norris hit .209 with a .618 OPS against left-handed pitching this season. Yet Coke hasn't had the strongest year for the Tigers, compiling a 4.00 ERA in 54 innings. Additionally, right-handers hit .396 with a 1.050 OPS against Coke in 115 plate appearances.
Opting for Coke ended up working out for Leyland and the Tigers, though it was about five feet from a disastrous decision when Cliff Pennington smacked a ball down the left-field line that drifted foul just before reaching the Comerica Park outfield fence.
But Coke was done after giving up a single to Stephen Drew that put runners on first and third with two outs. Yet again, Leyland kept Valverde in the bullpen and brought in Al Alburquerque. With a strikeout rate of 12.2 per nine innings, Alburquerque is the Tigers' best strikeout threat. But with a rate of 5.5 walks per game, he's almost as likely to put a runner on base.
Alburquerque got Cespedes to hit a ground ball back to the pitcher, however, to end the Oakland threat in the ninth. But he didn't just field the ball and toss it to Prince Fielder at first base to make the out.
In what could be one of the standout plays of this series, Alburquerque kissed the baseball and looked over at Cespedes before throwing over to Fielder. That's a play that might have the Athletics steaming during the flight back to Oakland.
"We didn't appreciate that," Reddick said to reporters, including Fox Sports Detroit's Dave Hogg. "I thought it was immature and not very professional. You don't do that on the field."
Maybe Alburquerque's smooch will be overblown during the day off before Game 3 on Tuesday. There's a slight chance of that in our current media climate, right? To say it's something that could fire up the A's and become bulletin-board material is likely overselling the significance of Albuquerque's actions and the role that it could play in any sort of motivation.
But Melvin could use Alburquerque's intimate moment with the baseball as a reminder to his team that it's been able to hit the Tigers relievers.
Even in Game 1, Brandon Moss hit a deep drive to right field off Benoit that nearly tied the score in the eighth inning. In Game 2, the A's scored two runs with three hits in two innings against Detroit's bullpen.
Anibal Sanchez, the Tigers' scheduled Game 3 starter, averaged just over six innings per appearance in his 12 starts for Detroit. Max Scherzer averaged just under six innings in his 32 starts this season. Oakland will have plenty of opportunities against the Tigers bullpen during the next one-to-two games (or three, if the A's push this ALDS to a Game 5).
The A's have no reason to think this series is over yet—not when their hitters still get to face those Tigers relievers.
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