The first two games of the postseason provided us a back-and-forth slugfest and one-sided boat race. Thursday's series-opening tilt between the Tigers and Orioles contained elements of both. Through the first seven and a half innings, the largest lead enjoyed by either team was two runs. Then the O's struck for eight runs, depriving us of a nail-biting finish, and validating Tigers fans' collective fears.
Let's start with those Tigers fans. Had they entered the game knowing that Max Scherzer would work into the eighth inning, that Joe Nathan would not appear, and that Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, and J.D. Martinez—the lineup's nos. 3 through 5 hitters—would each homer, would the result have been in doubt? All of that happened, yet the Tigers were blown out anyway. More concerning than Detroit squandering the good and wasting a Scherzer start is how Game One highlighted the bad.
Entering the series, the biggest bugaboos with this Tigers team appeared to be the defense, the manager, and the bullpen. How did those three contribute to that disaster of an eighth inning?
- Detroit's defense did author a few highlight-reel-worthy plays—Alex Avila, Nick Castellanos, and the outfield Martinez—but Andrew Romine's misplay and Rajai Davis' inability to capitalize on a baserunning error aided Baltimore's offensive efforts.
- It's hard to tell whether Brad Ausmus is a beat behind the game, too trusting of his starting pitchers or just unwilling to go to a rotten bullpen earlier than necessary. Whatever the case may be, it reared its head here—albeit in a fairly inoffensive manner. Scherzer had settled down after a rough start, having allowed just two baserunners over the previous five innings. Ausmus allowed him to begin the eighth, probably hopeful that he wouldn't need the bullpen at all. Instead, Scherzer allowed a one-out double and that was that. A tough break for Ausmus and the Tigers, as it turned out, because . . .
- The bullpen was atrocious. Yes, there were defensive miscues, but Joba Chamberlain, Joakim Soria, and Phil Coke did little to inspire confidence that this unit can be trusted in late and close situations. Those three are part of the A team for Ausmus, and they allowed five hits and a walk while combining for two outs.
In short, all of the Tigers' ills were on display in the eighth inning. That has to terrify Detroit and its fans. Not because it was unthinkable they'd show up throughout the season, but because they all arrived at once (and without a single dish) and blew open what had been a tight contest.
But enough about what went wrong with the Game One losers. Let's turn our attention to what went right with the Game One winners. That being, well, almost everything.
Chris Tillman, he of the 6.5 regular-season strikeout rate, notched as many strikeouts as Max Scherzer (10.3 K/9) while facing nine fewer batters. Nelson Cruz homered, J.J. Hardy homered, Steve Pearce almost homered; and, in a fitting display, the team that was more reliant upon the long ball for its nine runs pieced together an eight-run inning without a single ball clearing the fences.
Each of the Wild Card games provided a memorable bullpen decision—be it Ned Yost choosing the wrong reliever or Clint Hurdle choosing no reliever whatsoever. Both proved to be important decisions, but that's probably not the only reason why everyone likes to talk about bullpen management during these games. Sure, part of it is because it's a known issue for Detroit. Another part is because it's the easiest thing for us common folk to related to in the average ballgame. Not everyone can envision himself squaring up a fastball or holding off a two-strike slider. Making a phone call—or, better yet, asking someone else to make a phone call? Piece of cake. That's why, if there's a single sequence of events from this game that will live on in conversations a month from now, it'll be how Buck Showalter deployed his bullpen.
Showalter approached the late innings as though it were a must-win game. (And maybe it was, given Detroit can no longer win the series without seeing Justin Verlander or Rick Porcello lead them to victory.) He warmed Tommy Hunter during the fifth inning; inserted Andrew Miller in the sixth—something he hadn't done before—then allowed him to continue into the seventh, before he tied his season-high pitch count; from there it was Darren O'Day's turn to pitch into two innings; and then, when O'Day got into trouble, closer Zach Britton entered to get the final four outs.
Of course Britton didn't work the ninth due to the offensive outpouring. That doesn't make Showalter's aggressive approach any less impressive or noteworthy. He wasn't worried about how he'd get to Britton on Friday without Miller and perhaps O'Day available, he just wanted to seal a victory in Game One; a worthy cause if there was one. Here's another: Don't forget to praise the pitchers for their part in the win. Showalter's gambit wouldn't have worked without having talent in the bullpen, and all the talent in the bullpen wouldn't have meant much if it didn't execute when called upon.
That last point, perhaps more than anything else, is why the Orioles won and the Tigers lost Game One.
Wei-Yin Chen. Justin Verlander. Game Two starts at noon ET today.
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