Tigers pay for pitching to Altuve as Tucker looms on bench
Brad Ausmus saw Preston Tucker hit his third game-tying homer of the season off Tigers pitching Saturday night. He did not want to give Tucker a chance at a go-ahead shot Sunday afternoon, and he was willing to pitch to reigning AL batting champion Jose Altuve with the winning run on third to do it.
“You have to pick your poison there,” Ausmus said.
Agree or disagree, the strategy seemed to be clear. The execution between Ausmus, catcher Alex Avila and pitcher Alex Wilson on how to execute it seemed to vary.
“We were trying to pitch him carefully,” Ausmus said after Altuve hit Wilson’s first-pitch cutter up the middle for a walkoff single. “We weren’t trying to give him anything to hit, but sometimes the location is missed, so a guy gets a hit.”
Avila saw it the same.
“We were trying to get him to chase something,” Avila said. “Probably in that situation, if we fell behind, we’d probably just walk him.”
In other words, Altuve would’ve gotten the unintentional-intentional walk, something Ausmus confirmed would’ve been the option if he got to a two-ball count.
Wilson, who had held Altuve 0-for-6 dating back to 2013, was focused on getting him out.
“Pitching carefully, you’ve still got to attack,” Wilson said. “You want to get people out. You don’t want to get behind. The goal is to get him out, because the next guy on deck is a left-hander.”
Switch-hitter Marwin Gonzalez — 2-for-7 off Wilson — was waiting. After Gonzalez was Carlos Correa, whom the Tigers retired just three times this series.
“The matchup right there is for me versus Altuve,” Wilson said. “You can be careful, but at the same time you still have to work within the zone.”
Avila lined up off the plate for Wilson’s first-pitch cutter, which floated over the middle of the plate. Though Altuve entered Sunday batting .274 with a .674 OPS against right-handers this season, he had little trouble centering the pitch with authority.
“I wanted to get ahead,” Wilson said, “and unfortunately I hit the top of the zone rather than the bottom of the zone.”
Said Avila: “Just a cutter that kind of came out sideways.”
Ausmus’ wariness of the left-handed hitting Tucker impacted his pitching to start the ninth. Lefty Tom Gorzelanny entered with two out in the eighth to face Colby Rusmus, who popped out on a 3-0 pitch. With the bottom third of the Astros order due up, Ausmus stuck with Gorzelanny to face right-handed slugger Chris Carter, switch-hitting catcher Hank Conger, and right-handed hitter Jake Marisnick.
“You can bring a righty in and know they’re going to pinch-hit Tucker at some point,” Ausmus said, “or you can leave a lefty in there against guys that you think a lefty has a chance to get out and leave [Tucker] in the dugout.”
That strategy very nearly worked. Gorzelanny, whose new sidearming style yielded similar numbers against lefties and righties at Triple-A Toledo before his return, got a fly ball from Carter to deep center field on a full count, and a groundout from Conger into an infield shift.
Gorzelanny didn’t get the call on a 1-1 pitch that he felt hit the outer edge on Marisnick, but recovered to get the count full when Marisnick fouled off a 3-1 fastball.
“We had him diving out to the outside part of the plate,” Avila said, “and wanted to go with a good fastball inside, try to get him tied up.”
Marisnick got a fastball over the plate and sent it to the fence in right-center, earning him a two-out triple and forcing Ausmus to make a decision.
Tucker is 2-for-5 as a pinch-hitter, both hits being home runs against the Tigers. All 12 of his home runs this season are off right-handed pitching, which he hits for a .272 (52-for-191) average.
In the end, he haunted the Tigers again without stepping to the plate.
“I go back to the playoffs here when Albert Pujols hit that home run,” Ausmus said, recalling Pujols’ ninth-inning go-ahead homer off Astros closer Brad Lidge in Game 5 of the 2005 NLCS. “We were trying to be careful with him. Sometimes you miss your spot and it ends up costing you.”