Game 71: When shoring up ninth inning puts eighth into flux
On the day Tigers manager Jim Leyland formally changed closers, he ended up with a very good example why his bullpen concerns go well beyond that.
By the time Jhonny Peralta’s walkoff two-run homer landed in the bullpen beyond the left-field fence, Leyland had a good example why he isn’t the only manager going through bullpen issues.
“You saw what happened to Coke is the same thing actually that happened to them,” Leyland said. “One-run lead and they walked the leadoff guy in the ninth. That was a backbreaker for them.”
It might well lead the Red Sox to the same closer change the Tigers made earlier Thursday. Leyland, meanwhile, will be trying to find the mix to fill his other relief spots after changing closers himself.
He can move Joaquin Benoit from eighth-inning setup work to closer, and he did. In so doing, however, he has to fill the eighth inning where he once had one of the league’s best setup men to hold a game. That led to the dreaded combination of Phil Coke facing right-handed hitters.
As rough as that has been, Leyland was willing to take the chance for the matchups to the other guys.
Leyland had the matchups he wanted. Phil Coke had held Jacoby Ellsbury to 1-for-9 for his career, and David Ortiz to 1-for-15. Once Ellsbury struck out on three pitches to end the seventh, the Ortiz numbers gave him reason to think he could get Coke through the eighth as well. The key was going to be switch-hitting Shane Victorino and right-handed hitter Dustin Pedroia.
“Everybody’s going to say, ‘Well, why didn’t you bring in Smyly first,’” Leyland said. “I’ll tell you exactly why, because the two guys we were concerned about: Ellsbury, who he struck out on three pitches, and Ortiz were a total of 2-for-24 against him. So that’s why we brought in Phil Coke, and he walked two guys. That’s a no-no. He didn’t have a good outing. Pretty simple.
“Those two guys were 2-for-24 off of him. David Ortiz was 1-for-15. So that’s why he faced him. He didn’t do very good, had a tough outing, because he walked guys. If he gets those two guys out, he probably gets Ortiz out. But he walked them, and that’s a no-no.”
By contrast, Ortiz was 2-for-3 off Smyly, a small sample size but enough of a reason that Leyland felt he could get through a game without having to use him. Or at the very least, he could save Smyly for extra innings if it got to that point.
“You have to understand something: If you have two or three, four guys that you guys are asking about all the time, and you don’t want to use them, that’s not good,” Leyland said. “They have to be used. They have to pitch. Phil Coke, he had a bad night. I’m not mad at him. But if Phil Coke and some of these guys aren’t good for us, we’re in trouble. I mean, they have to pitch.
“You can’t pitch two guys every night. That’s as simple as it is. So if you’re not going to pitch him when you’ve got two guys that are 2-for-24 off of him, I don’t know when you’re going to use him.”
Instead, he ended up having to use Smyly for two innings and 39 pitches, which almost surely rules him out of action until Sunday, which brings them back to the same point Leyland had here: Other guys need to get outs.
“Is Drew Smyly going to be available for two days? No, he’s not going to be, most likely,” Leyland said. “So Coke better be able to do something. Downs better be able to do something. That’s as simple as it is. You can’t pitch the same guys every night, particularly when they throw 30 pitches. So the fact of the matter is, other guys are going to have to do something as well. And Smyly’s done a good job. I’m not upset with anybody, but I mean, put these things together a little bit.”
That’s what Leyland now has to do. The dominance of the Tigers rotation has allowed him to put it off for the most part, but the issue of bullpen depth is coming to a breaking point as badly as the closer situation is.