On Kyle Ryan and the improvised bullpen
Here’s what Tigers manager Brad Ausmus and pitching coach Jeff Jones saw in Kyle Ryan as they were looking for an alternative to Blaine Hardy for Monday’s series opener at Minnesota:
“Obviously we saw how he carried himself in his first outing against the White Sox. I knew, when I brought him in, there was going to be questions why Kyle Ryan, but the truth is, part of pitching in a pennant race is being able to control your emotions and relax and still be the same player you are, regardless of what’s happening in the game around you. And he just struck us as someone who could do that. And I can’t give you any hard evidence for it. We didn’t give him any psychological test. We just felt like he fit the mold of being able to do that. I can’t give you anything other than I guess some type of instinct.”
Here’s what Kyle Ryan said he felt as he warmed up during the eighth inning for a potential game-saving opportunity:
“I was shaking like a leaf on the mound in the bullpen, and then out on the mound on the field I was still shaking, just knowing I’m coming into a situation where I need to get two outs.”
It worked out. After so many logical situations that didn’t work out that inning — Joba Chamberlain starting his usual inning, Phil Coke facing a left-handed hitter he has owned for the last few years, Al Alburquerque facing a right-handed hitter he has generally owned — Ryan making his third Major League appearance with one out and the go-ahead run in scoring position in the eighth inning did.
“I needed a double play,” Ryan said, “so I went out there and did what it took.”
Two factors, beyond Max Scherzer’s middle-inning damage, shaped the way that inning came together:
First, Joe Nathan was ruled out. Ausmus did not want to use him for a third day in a row after what he saw Sunday.
“Joe needed a day,” Ausmus said. “I talked to Joe after the game yesterday. I thought he looked a little tired, a little achy. He said he could go, but I just felt like give him a day today and he could go the next couple days.”
With Nathan out, Ausmus told Soria before the game that he’d be closing if the opportunity arose. That meant Soria would not be able for the eighth inning — not simply because of the traditional closer role, but because he has pitched more than three outs in a game only once in a year and a half since coming back from Tommy John surgery.
Second, as mentioned, was Hardy’s struggles.
“We need another lefty to be able to pitch late in games,” Ausmus said. “Blaine’s been scuffling a little bit with his command. Jonesy and I spoke about it before the game, who that lefty would be. In terms of handling the pressure, we thought Kyle Ryan could manage that.”
It was Ryan over Pat McCoy and Robbie Ray, both of whom have more Major League appearances and more relief work.
Had Nathan been available, it likely would’ve been moot. If Nathan had a save situation, Ausmus said, Soria likely would’ve entered in the eighth, probably after Mauer’s game-tying blooper off Phil Coke. He would not have pitched in place of Chamberlain, even though Chamberlain was pitching for a third straight game. Chamberlain’s pitch count in those two games was lower, including a seven-pitch inning on Sunday.
Still, from the first pitch, Chamberlain showed wear and tear.
“You could tell right away that Joba was tired,” Ausmus said. “His velocity wasn’t there. That’s why the short leash with him tonight. We tried to find another way to get through that eighth inning because you could tell he just didn’t have the zip on his fastball. His slider wasn’t sharp. Joba’s going to take the ball anytime you ask him to, but this was a day where you could just tell he wasn’t 100 percent.”
Chamberlain threw 12 pitches, and just four were strikes. That brought up Mauer with two on, including the tying run, and nobody out. That brought out Ausmus to turn to Phil Coke, who had a key strikeout of Mauer during the Tigers’ last visit to Target Field a month ago.
Mauer was 3-for-5 with a home run off Chamberlain, but 4-for-20 against Coke, including 1-for-16 since 2010. He drew a bases-loaded walk early in the season, but was 0-for-4 otherwise against him this season.
Coke and Mauer battled for nine pitches, eight of them fastballs at 95-96 mph. Mauer fouled off three of them with a full count, late on all of them as he fouled off into the third-base seats. The fourth was the trick, allowing him just enough of an opportunity to send a bloop single into short left field.
It was too deep for Tigers infielders to get, yet too shallow for J.D. Martinez to have a chance at nabbing the potential tying run at the plate. And with both baserunners having advanced into scoring position on a double-steal, the damage was potentially devastating.
“I wish I could say I was surprised,” shortstop Andrew Romine, “but he’s a good hitter. He’s a great hitter. He knows how to go to the plate with a plan and execute the plan. He never gives in. He never gives up. He always battles.
“I told him when he got to second, ‘Man you are one of the best hitters that I’ve ever seen.’ Obviously you know Joe, he didn’t really say anything. He’s very modest. And I’m looking him like, ‘That was a battle.’ I know that he was battling with his mind, not just with his bat. Watching him hit, it’s pretty fun to watch. It’s kind of up there with Victor, too, watching them both hit.”
Coke nearly had far worse fortunes, but recovered from a 2-0 count to strike out Kennys Vargas, leading to Alburquerque against Plouffe, leading to a single off a first-pitch fastball and bringing up runners at the corners with one out and Oswaldo Arcia due up.
Ausmus could’ve given more leeway to Alburquerque, looking for a strikeout against Arcia, but Ausmus didn’t want to take a chance. He brought in Ryan.
“They ended up pinch-hitting for Arcia,” Ausmus said, “but at the time it was more about Arcia’s numbers against lefties.”
Instead of the power-hitting Arcia, Twins manager Ron Gardenhire turned to Eduardo Nunez, hoping for one big hit in a more favorable matchup. Ryan’s heart was racing, but he wasn’t showing it.
“I was born and raised to keep my emotions to myself,” he said. “Whether I went out there and gave up four runs, I’m going to be mad inside, but I’m not going to show it. I mean, most of the time if you show it, the other team gets onto it and they’re just going to feed off that.”
That emotional control impressed Ausmus. So did the concept of an inning-ending double play. It was surprisingly easy, but he got it.
“That was the perfect pitch,” Romine said,. “He hit his spot, and we were playing to that area to hopefully get that ground ball. I mean, all the credit goes to him, because he made his pitch and we ended up being in the right place.”
So, certainly, did Ryan, who now has two Major League wins in three appearances, only one of them a start. When asked how he felt after the Tigers rallied in the ninth, Ryan shrugged.
“Relieved,” he said. “Shocked and relieved. To see him roll over and hit a ground ball perfectly placed to Romine, that’s the ideal play that we needed. … When Torii hit a bomb and then Miggy right behind him, that was huge. I could actually take a deep breath. Brad said I’m staying in unless we get ahead.”