October 14th, 2013

Anatomy of a bullpen blow-up

Four different Tigers relievers pitched in the bottom of the eighth inning. All of them gave up a baserunner.

Three of them gave up base hits, two of them with two outs.

One of them, closer Joaquin Benoit, gave up the game-tying grand slam to David Ortiz, 6-for-22 off of him previously with a half-dozen singles and one RBI.

Make no mistake, though: The Tigers bullpen collapse in Game 2 of the ALCS was a group effort.

“That’s baseball. It happens quick,” Smyly said on his way out of a quiet clubhouse at a still-rowdy Fenway Park. “I mean, Ortiz should’ve never come to the plate that inning, but he did and he made it count. Baseball can turn on you in a hurry.”

This series sure did.

“We came away with the split,” Max Scherzer insisted. “You have to see the glass half full. This one stinks tonight, but guess what, the sun comes up tomorrow and we’re going to be playing these guys at home in front of our fans.

“It’s up to us to choose if we’re going to come out and compete. I think we will. I don’t think this is going to deter our effort. I believe in this clubhouse. I believe in everybody in here, all 25 guys here. I still believe in us.”

The question, however, now has to come up what this game does to the bullpen. Whether or not there was a lack of belief in the clubhouse, there was an abundance of frustration.

“I’m [ticked] off,” Torii Hunter said. “The one guy you don’t want to beat you, he beat us. One of the best hitters in postseason history. And this guy, he hit the ball out of the park and ties the game up and they end up coming back and winning the game.

“I’m [ticked]. That’s the way it goes. We’re all [ticked]. Everybody on this team is [ticked] off that that happened.”

Tigers pitching held the mighty Red Sox offense to scoreless on one hit for the first 14 innings of this series, and one run on three hits over the first 16 innings when manager Jim Leyland handed a 5-1 lead to his bullpen.

What followed was a series of relievers giving up punches in small doses that added up to a game-tying whallop. For Jose Veras, it was ninth hitter Will Middlebrooks, who took advantage of a 1-0 sinker and lined it into the left-field corner for a one-out double.

Thus, instead of Boston’s dangerous leadoff man, Jacoby Ellsbury, coming up with two out and nobody on, he entered with a runner in scoring position. Left-hander Drew Smyly, the other reliever who had been warming up in the top of the inning, put him in a 1-2 count, missed with three consecutive pitches and walked his only hitter.

“I just let it slip,” Smyly said. “Once I had 1-2, I didn’t want to give him a good pitch to hit, and then 3-2 I just missed low. That’s all there was to it.”

Out goes Smyly, in goes Al Alburquerque, who put a stop to the damage for a batter by getting Shane Victorino to chase a slider for a strikeout.

With two outs and two on, Dustin Pedroia stepped to the plate and saw two fastballs, the pitches Red Sox hitters had taken from Alburquerque for strikes in Game 1 Saturday night. Pedroia took the first for a strike. He swung at the second and sent it through the right side for a single to load the bases.

“The way Pedroia took [the first pitch], it looked like he might have been sitting slider,” catcher Alex Avila said. “At least, that’s what I thought. We threw a fastball that ran back towards him, jammed him a little bit actually, and he just hit it right in the perfect spot.”

Not only was the potential tying run suddenly at the plate in a game the Tigers seemingly controlled six batters ago, it was David Ortiz. From there, Leyland had a decision to make: Give just-reinstated Phil Coke a chance against a hitter he owned for most of his career (2-for-18) except for a go-ahead hit earlier this year, or turn to Joaquin Benoit for a four-out save.

Leyland would’ve preferred a lower-leverage situation for Coke, who hadn’t pitched in a game since Sept. 18. He went with Benoit.

“Coke hadn’t pitched a big game for quite a while,” Leyland said. “Benoit is our guy against the lefties, and we felt he gave us the best chance to get the out.”

You know the rest. You also know that he shouldn’t have been in that bind anyway if one of the three relievers before him got one more out. Benoit would’ve been able to face Ortiz leading off the ninth that way, in a 5-1 game.

Still, the veteran whose rash of home runs last year raised concerns gave up a huge one here.

“I wanted it down,” Benoit said of his first-pitch changeup. “Left it middle out, he took a good swing and hit a ball.”