Game 31: Resetting the lineup
Bryce Harper’s home run will be the highlight play of the Nationals’ win on Wednesday. It will not be the reason why the Tigers lost.
Jordan Zimmermann had a lot to do with that. So did the bottom of the Nationals lineup.
The latter is a different factor in the National League than most AL teams are used to. With a pitcher to bat instead of a DH, the bottom of the order is huge. It arguably saved Anibal Sanchez from potential disaster when the Nationals loaded the bases in the second inning, allowing Sanchez to escape with a strikeout of Zimmermann.
Yet while eighth hitter Kurt Suzuki’s two-out infield single didn’t lead to runs in the second inning, it set up the Nationals to score in the third. Without Suzuki’s dribbler to short, Zimmermann would have led off the third inning. Instead, though Zimmermann’s strikeout ended the second, it meant the lineup reset for the third, starting with leadoff man Denard Span.
Had Span hit a one-out triple, Bryce Harper’s fly ball to left would have been the third out. With a leadoff triple, Harper came up with one out needing to just loft a ball deep enough into the outfield to score Span and tie the game.
“It definitely changes the inning, that’s for sure,” catcher Alex Avila said. “But what are you going to do? We’ve had a few of those this year. It was a good pitch [to Suzuki] and he hit it in a perfect spot.”
An inning later, Zimmermann was on deck when Torii Hunter tried to make a play and end the fourth inning without him coming up. Hunter saw a chance to throw out Adam LaRoche trying to tag up from second to third on Suzuki’s fly ball to right. When the throw glanced off LaRoche’s hand, got past Sanchez and hit off the Tigers dugout, the Nationals got their go-ahead run without needing anything from Zimmermann at the plate.
Jim Leyland managed for years in the National League, and said there has long been a debate over whether it’s more useful to pitch around an eighth hitter and get the likely out from the pitcher batting, or whether it’s worth the risk to attack the eighth hitter in hopes of saving the pitcher for the leadoff role in the next inning. In this case, there was no decision to make, but it was definitely a game-changing factor.
Play of the game: Roger Bernadina showed why he’s a late-inning defensive insert in left field, making a sliding catch to rob Omar Infante of a potential leadoff single in the ninth against Rafael Soriano. Had the ball fallen in, Victor Martinez would have come up to pinch-hit as the potential tying run. Instead, Martinez was trying to get on for the top of the Tigers order, and Soriano retired him too on his way to a perfect ninth and the save.
Out of the game: The Tigers had their shot once Zimmermann was out of the game, thanks to back-to-back two-out walks from Tyler Clippard. Up came Avila, who took his hack at the first pitch but couldn’t get enough of it. He alternated fouling off fastballs and shrugging at changeups until Clippard got him to chase a fastball up and out of the strike zone.
Strategy: With no DH, Leyland had Victor Martinez on the bench as a pinch-hitting option, knowing he could handle stepping off the bench in an RBI situation. He ended up batting in the ninth inning for the pitcher’s spot. He was available to hit when Avila came up with two on in the eighth, but Leyland let him hit, hoping he could repeat the clutch hitting he showed last Friday with his go-ahead home run in Houston.
“I was hoping history would repeat itself,” Leyland said. “He’s the same guy who hit the two-run homer in Houston the other night to win the game. If it had been a left-handed pitcher, I’m sure I would have hit Victor, but in that situation, I’m hoping Alex runs into one like he did the other night to put us ahead and end up winning the game. He had a couple pretty good swings, too.”
Line of the night: Sanchez delivered his sixth consecutive quality start, allowing two earned runs on eight hits over six innings with no walks and eight strikeouts. He took the loss for the third time in his last four starts.
Stat of the game: 4 — Total runs scored by the Tigers in his three losses.