May 17th, 2014

Saturday’s lineups: Tigers at Red Sox

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Gameday | TV: MLB Network, FS Detroit, MLB.TV | Radio: 97.1 FM, AM 1270, Gameday Audio

Standard lineup for Tigers. Altered lineup for Red Sox, who put Will Middlebrooks on the 15-day disabled list today. He fractured his right index finger trying to handle Ian Kinsler’s first-inning line drive. He played six more innings after that, including two at-bats, before A.J. Pierzynski hit for him in the seventh.

Reminder: Tonight’s game is on MLB Network outside the Detroit and Boston markets.

TIGERS (career numbers vs. Lackey)

  1. Ian Kinsler, 2B (15-for-35, double, triple, HR, 4 walks, K)
  2. Torii Hunter, RF (14-for-59, 2 doubles, 2 HR, 3 walks, 12 K’s)
  3. Miguel Cabrera, 1B (4-for-15, double, HR, walk, 4 K’s)
  4. Victor Martinez, DH (12-for-32, double, 4 walks, 3 K’s)
  5. Austin Jackson, CF (3-for-11, double, 5 K’s)
  6. Nick Castellanos, 3B
  7. Alex Avila, C (0-for-9, 2 walks, 4 K’s)
  8. Andrew Romine, SS
  9. Rajai Davis, LF (11-for-28, 2 doubles, triple, 9 K’s)

P: Rick Porcello

RED SOX (career numbers off Porcello)

  1. Dustin Pedroia, 2B (2-for-10, double, walk, K)
  2. Shane Victorino, RF (1-for-2, K)
  3. David Ortiz, DH (2-for-7, HR, K)
  4. Mike Napoli, 1B (5-for-16, 2 doubles, triple, walk, 6 K’s)
  5. Grady Sizemore, CF (3-for-15, walk, 3 K’s)
  6. Mike Carp, LF (0-for-1, walk)
  7. A.J. Pierzynski, C (5-for-22, HR, walk, 2 K’s)
  8. Xander Bogaerts, SS
  9. Brock Holt, 3B

P: John Lackey

Robertson’s comeback ends at Triple-A Toledo

Nate Robertson’s comeback as a sidearming reliever appears to be over, at least from the Tigers’ perspective, and most likely his own. The Tigers granted the 36-year-old left-hander his release on Saturday, about two months after signing him to a minor-league contract.

It’s a tough end to a career that brought Robertson onto the mound as a starting pitcher in the World Series back in 2006, then earned him a lucrative three-year contract a year later. After injuries and inconsistencies, he tried to make it back out of the bullpen, signing back his old club midway through Spring Training looking for a shot.

While his early numbers were encouraging, his struggles with command and his struggles to retire left-handed hitters proved to be a problem. He walked 13 batters over 21 innings at Triple-A Toledo, and lefty hitters batted .290 against him.

His inactivity in recent weeks was a bad sign. He pitched just twice in May, and hadn’t pitched in a week since walking three batters over 1 2/3 innings with two earned runs allowed against Rochester.

When Robertson talked about his comeback last month, he didn’t put an end date on it. However, he said this would most likely be his last stop.

“How is this going to end? To me, it’s going to end good no matter what,” he said. “This is exactly what I wanted to happen, and my family wanted to happen. I got a chance to be with what I think is the greatest organization in baseball, come back to a place that feels like home. And I know what’s on the table. I know what I’ve gotta do. A lot of things to clear, but just keep on getting those boys to roll over and give myself a chance. That’s all I can do, but have fun doing it. That’s the biggest thing.

“I want to make sure to have as much fun as I can, because if I can’t get back up, it’ll probably be it for me.”

Another Mud Hens reliever, Jhan Marinez, was also released. The 26-year-old right-hander signed as a minor-league free agent last offseason, but never showed the command he needed. He walked 21 batters with 21 strikeouts over 18 1/3 innings, allowing 18 earned runs on 23 hits. He, too, had been knocked down the pecking order, with just two appearances over the last couple weeks.

Ausmus plots his way through bullpen in late innings

The memories of Tigers bullpen breakdowns at Fenway Park are fresh enough for most Detroit fans that they don’t need reminding. They were fresh enough to probably come back once Max Scherzer exited with the tying run on and nobody out in the bottom of the seventh.

The crushing home run never happened. Nor, for that matter, did the game-tying hit. It’s a different looking Red Sox lineup, of course, but it’s also a different-looking Tigers bullpen, as well as a different manager. Here’s how Brad Ausmus navigated through the Red Sox batting order:

1. Evan Reed for Scherzer after Mike Carp leadoff single in 7th

“We were going back and forth about it,” Ausmus said. “In fact, if Kinsler had gotten a hit [with a runner on to extend the top of the inning], Max probably would’ve been done at that point. So we had people ready in the pen for that contingency. But when he went to take the mound in the seventh, we decided that if the first hitter gets on, that was going to be it.”

Ausmus did not want to use Al Alburquerque, who had pitched five times in six days before Thursday’s off-day. Thus, the option was Reed, who looked shaky at the outset. He balked Carp into scoring position, then hit Xander Bogaerts on a 1-2 pitch after he fouled off back-to-back fastballs. He had put the go-ahead run on base, but when he got a 1-2 count on Jackie Bradley Jr., he pounded him with sliders, eventually getting the swing and miss he needed for the first out.

2. Ian Krol for Reed with A.J. Pierzynski pinch-hitting in 7th

How a team uses its lefty relievers is vital against the Red Sox lineup because of the big hitter in the middle of the order. In this case, Ausmus had Ian Krol warming for bottom half. Krol started warming up soon after Reed did in anticipation of Pierzsynski, 2-for-3 as a pinch-hitter going into the game and a .305 (25-for-82) hitter off right-handed pitching compared with 4-for-28 off lefties.

The risk to that strategy was Jonny Gomes, also on the bench. He has reprised his lefty-killing role for 11-for-40 hitting and two home runs off southpaws this year.

“I was really kind of banking on the fact that they weren’t going to use Gomes,” Ausmus said. “I could’ve been wrong, and Krol would’ve had to face him. But we don’t know what the status of [Shane] Victorino is. It was a little bit of a gamble, but fortunately it worked out for us.”

It worked well enough for two outs rather than one. Pierzynski hit Krol’s second pitch right at shortstop Danny Worth, who started the inning-ending double play. Alburquerque had briefly gotten up to start throwing, Ausmus said, but sat down after that.

3. Joba Chamberlain for 8th inning with David Ortiz looming

This is Chamberlain’s role these days, and it was an automatic decision for Ausmus. The question he had to consider was what he’d do if the Red Sox put a runner on base to bring Ortiz to the plate.

Amidst all those Red Sox-Yankees matchups, Ortiz put up a pretty good track record against Chamberlain, 6-for-20 with a home run, four RBIs, three walks and five strikeouts. More than half those at-bats came during Chamberlain’s season as a starter in 2009.

On the flip side, there’s Phil Coke’s track record against Ortiz, 2-for-20 lifetime against him. Coke made the ALCS roster last October for that possibility, but essentially became a decoy. If there was any chance of Coke getting into a big situation, facing Ortiz was it.

Coke began warming early in the inning, prompting a panic on twitter. Ausmus characterized it as a contingency plan in case of a breakdown.

“If just by chance Joba struggled there and the first three guys got on base, and we were in a bases-loaded situation with Ortiz up, then Coke would be the guy to get Ortiz,” Ausmus said. “We’ve talked about having somebody grasp the eighth-inning setup role, and Joba’s done that. I prefer to leave him out there. But if something went haywire and the bases were loaded with Ortiz up, then Coke would’ve been the guy.”

Chamberlain retired the side in order on three groundouts, leaving Ortiz for Joe Nathan.

4. Joe Nathan for Ortiz in the ninth

This is why Nathan is here. Besides the ninth inning being his, he had the matchup advantage against all three hitters he was set to face. Ortiz was 2-for-10 off him with no extra-base hits. Napoli was 0-for-2 with two strikeouts. Carp was 0-for-4.

Getting Ortiz was the key. Nathan improvised a bit to get it.

“I think that’s the first time ever I threw a changeup in a one-run game,” Nathan said. “Eventually, I got him on a backdoor curveball.”

Game 37: Scherzer displays his best stuff

Brad Ausmus thought this might have been Max Scherzer near his best.

“This might have been the best his stuff has been all year, really,” Ausmus said.

Scherzer thought he could have been better.

“I didn’t have my changeup,” Scherzer said. “I didn’t like where my changeup was, but I thought both my breaking balls [slider and curveball] were very good tonight. It’s always going to drive me crazy when I don’t throw first-pitch strikes and when I’m walking guys, so that’s my first telltale sign of pitching well. And when I’m walking three in six innings, and I’m barely above 50 percent on first-pitch strikes, that’s something I’m always frustrated with, because I know it’s a process.”

That’s the perfectionist in Scherzer, which is what has pushed him the past couple years to get to this point. That’s also the same pitcher who used that changeup he didn’t have to get one of his biggest outs of the game, striking out Mike Napoli watching it to end the sixth inning.

“It just didn’t have the action it typically had,” Scherzer said. “But in that situation, the whole night I had shown him fastball-slider, and I thought, ‘If I could execute a good changeup right here, this is the pitch.’

Scherzer threw 11 out of 19 changeups for strikes, according to brooksbaseball.net, including eight swings. By contrast, he got a dozen swings and misses on the night from fastballs, sliders and curveballs. In fact, hitters swung and missed at the curveball three out of five times.

He started off hitters with plenty of curveballs and sliders, which shows some confidence that he can get ahead with it.

“I thought my slider was much better today,” Scherzer said. “I had much better feel for it. I actually thought my curveball was really good. I made an adjustment on my curveball. I was able to start throwing that for strikes then throw it below the zone for strikeouts. It was great to see where that pitch was.”

Scherzer did not get a swing and miss off his changeup, according to brooksbaseball.net. That’s the first time he has come up empty in that category since his last regular-season start here last Sept. 3. On the flip side, his three whiffs on curveballs are more than he has ever gotten from that pitch in his career. As good as the curveball has become for him, it has only been good for one or two swings and misses a game.

If he can have that kind of mix, he shouldn’t need to worry about his game long-term. That said, Friday might well go down as a huge outing for his future.

He not only outpitched another soon-to-be free agent starting pitcher in Jon Lester, he did so with time to spare. He pitched in a difficult ballpark for pitchers without serious damage. And he restrained left-handed hitters, the key of opponents that troubled him until last year.

“I didn’t pitch my best,” Scherzer said, “but when runners were on base and I needed big pitches, I made big pitches. That’s the difference in the game. We got dicey there in the sixth, got myself into a corner and fortunately I was able to collect a big double play and get a big strikeout. That was the difference in the game.”

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