Alex Avila is calling his injury a concussion. His manager is calling it the aftereffects of a concussion. That has become clear while Avila struggles with dizziness and disorientation during baseball activity.
What isn’t clear is when Avila might return.
“Alex will each day come in and do some type of activity,” Tigers manager Brad Ausmus said. “And until he can go through that activity without any side effects, we probably won’t be able to play him.”
The way things are going, the Tigers are now preparing for the possibility that Avila might not be able to return this season. It was with that mind that Ausmus gave September callup James McCann his second Major League start for Friday’s series opener of their division clash with the Royals.
Ausmus has hesitated to use McCann in big situations of a division race, including pinch-hitting opportunities against a left-hander. That was before the extent of Avila’s concussion symptoms became clear.
“The truth is, we don’t know when Alex is coming back,” Ausmus said, “so we better be prepared for the fact that if he doesn’t come back, we’re going to need two catchers.”
Avila believes the concussion happened when he was picked off first base Sunday against Cleveland. First baseman Carlos Santana’s arm hit Avila’s head while Santana swiped to apply the tag. He does not know whether the foul tip off his mask Sept. 2 in Cleveland, which also forced him to miss a few days, had a cumulative effect, something he has been told by doctors is a possibility in cases of repeated blows.
“To be honest with you, it might have,” Avila said. “But that’s my opinion, and I’m not a doctor.”
On Thursday and Friday, Avila was able to lift weights without trouble, but felt disoriented after a while hitting in the cage.
“A little disorientation, difficulty focusing, things like that,” Avila said. “I’ve gotten to the point where I can do things like stuff in the weight room, just normal training things. Even hitting off the tee, everything is fine. But once I get to the point where I’ve got to track a baseball, whether it’s hitting or the ball’s in the air or somebody’s throwing the ball to me, at a certain point I’ve found myself having to step back because I have trouble focusing, I get a little bit disoriented. That’s been the tough part the last couple days, what’s kind of still set me back.
“Basically, it’s kind of like a hoping game each day when I get up.”
If there’s progress in this, it’s that he’s not suffering headaches, unlike past concussions. He’s sleeping well, he says, and he’s perfectly fine when he’s not working out. He talked with reporters Friday for close to 20 minutes in the Tigers clubhouse and seemed perfectly normal.
While he was trying to stay upbeat in those minutes, he was also honest about his situation. He’s further along now than he was at the same point dealing with past concussions.
“This concussion wasn’t any worse than last year’s,” he said.
That said, he’s now dealing with concussions for three straight seasons. Last year, it was a foul tip. The year before, it was a collision with Prince Fielder while chasing a popup.
He’s frustrated at not playing in the heat of a playoff race, yet realistic that he can’t afford to play while he’s dealing with this.
“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t concerned or worried about it,” he said. “But at the same time, talking to doctors, the concern would be if I’m concussed and I continue — instead of coming not and not playing, continue to play and have a situation where I get hit again or something like that while I’m still concussed. That’s where the concern really lies with the doctors, not so much what happened last year and happened this year. …
“I know for a fact I’ve played games with concussions, even in the big leagues. You don’t feel right, but you keep playing, because that’s what you do. That’s my job. But it’s one thing to play when you may not feel 100 percent, but then it’s another thing when you know you’re just not mentally right. There’s been a lot of games where I’ve been able to manage where maybe I’ve gotten hit and I know maybe I’m not 100 percent right now but I keep going. But last year and right now, it got to a point where I couldn’t manage it.”
James McCann’s second Major League start behind the plate for the Tigers is going to be a pretty big one. He gets the start for the opener of this series against the Royals, and he’ll catch Justin Verlander, whose pitch selection could be crucial. The interaction between Verlander and McCann could be an interesting subplot to watch.
We’ll find out later what this means for Alex Avila, who was supposed to catch Anibal Sanchez’s bullpen session yesterday to see how he felt.
Also worth noting is Eugenio Suarez’s return at shortstop. Andrew Romine, who started nine of the previous 10 games at short, is 1-for-6 with a strikeout against Jason Vargas this season.
The Royals lineup reflects the changes Ned Yost made a week ago, with Alcides Escobar leading off, Lorenzo Cain batting third, Alex Gordon at cleanup and Omar Infante near the bottom. Longtime Verlander nemesis Billy Butler still has a place, but it’s the seventh spot.
Reminder: Tonight’s game is on ESPN2 outside of the Detroit market, so if you’re somewhere else for the weekend, you can check it out.
TIGERS (2014 vs. Jason Vargas)
- Ian Kinsler, 2B (5-for-12, double, HR)
- Torii Hunter, RF (4-for-11)
- Miguel Cabrera, 1B (2-for-9, 2 doubles, 3 walks, K)
- Victor Martinez, DH (3-for-10, 2 walks, 2 K’s)
- J.D. Martinez, LF (1-for-3, HR, K)
- Nick Castellanos, 3B (1-for-12, HR, 4 K’s)
- James McCann, C
- Eugenio Suarez, SS (0-for-2)
- Rajai Davis, CF (5-for-11, 2 doubles, HR, 3 K’s)
P: Justin Verlander
ROYALS (2014 season vs. Verlander)
- Alcides Escobar, SS (3-for-13, double, walk, K)
- Nori Aoki, RF (2-for-11, 5 walks, 2 K’s)
- Lorenzo Cain, CF (4-for-9, double, HR, K)
- Alex Gordon, LF (2-for-9, 3 walks, 2 K’s)
- Salvador Perez, C (6-for-12, 3 doubles, 2 K’s)
- Eric Hosmer, 1B (5-for-16, double, triple, 2 K’s)
- Billy Butler, DH (4-for-14, double, walk, 3 K’s)
- Omar Infante, 2B (2-for-16, HR, walk, K)
- Mike Moustakas, 3B (2-for-14, 2 K’s)
P: Jason Vargas
Justin Verlander vs. middle of Royals order
Verlander arguably pitched better than his numbers when he beat the Royals at Comerica Park on Sept. 8, missing out on a quality start thanks to Lorenzo Cain’s inside-the-park home run off the Don Kelly-Torii Hunter collision. He held Salvador Perez and Billy Butler hitless in the same game. He hadn’t kept Butler off base in a game since Aug. 6, 2011.
That said, Verlander also had 15 fly balls, compared with seven balls in play on the ground. He has had a handful of games like that this year, and either been really good or really bad in the end. If he can contain Perez and Butler, he can live with three hits from Eric Hosmer, or a lucky home run for Cain.
Miguel Cabrera vs. Kauffman Stadium
Normally, Cabrera owns this place, despite a low slugging percentage. Five of his six hits in Kansas City this season are doubles, resulting in nine RBIs in seven games. That said, the Royals held him 0-for-10 over the final three games of the Tigers’ last visit here in July, then kept him relatively contained (3-for-10, double, RBI) in Detroit earlier this month. The Tigers were able to overcome it with stingy pitching and clutch hitting around Cabrera. That’s not a safe assurance this weekend, neither the low-scoring games nor offense around him.
Royals basestealers vs. Tigers pitchers/catchers
Alex Avila rode an exercise bike without any concussion symptoms Wednesday, and he was scheduled to catch Anibal Sanchez’s bullpen session at Kauffman Stadium Thursday. If he returns, it’s a major boost to defend against the Royals’ aggressive baserunning. He started all three games between the two clubs at Comerica Park a week and a half ago and threw out a would-be basestealer in the middle-game 4-2 win, the same game in which Joe Nathan and the Tigers middle infielders caught Jarrod Dyson off second base with the tying run on first in the ninth inning. A day later, the Royals stole two bases off Porcello, who has seen opponents go 4-for-5 in attempts against him over his last four starts. By contrast, opponents are 2-for-5 stealing on Scherzer since the beginning of July.
Then again, considering the situation, the bigger test is likely to come in the late innings against a Tigers bullpen that relies more on its catchers and infielders to hold baserunners. As Joe Nathan admitted, they don’t do a whole lot of work on pickoff moves, though they’ve set aside time for early work a couple different times this season before batting practice.
Joakim Soria vs. his old team
Between three starters who normally go deep into games, and a bullpen that just had an off-day to recharge, opportunities could be few for Soria against the team for which he once closed. On the other hand, the lack of a set role gives Brad Ausmus an opportunity to throw him into a lot of different situations if a Royals rally arises.
“I’m not going to put an inning on it, because I don’t know,” Ausmus said. “Really, one of the biggest strengths of our team is our starting rotation, so in theory you hope that you don’t have to go to the bullpen early.”
He didn’t rule out bringing in Soria as early as the sixth inning, but he also didn’t sound interested in doing so unless it’s an emergency.
“I’ll stick to my guns when I say that getting the 27th out is much more difficult than getting the 18th out or the 21st out,” Ausmus said. “Does that mean that I wouldn’t bring somebody like Soria in the sixth inning? No, it doesn’t mean that.”
Watch the video clip of the double play that ended the seventh inning, and you’ll see a notable sight in the bottom right-hand corner. As first baseman Joe Mauer touches first base, spots Miguel Cabrera off second and fires there, Victor Martinez — who hit the fateful ground ball — sees the same thing. As the confusion becomes apparent, Martinez throws up his arms in frustration.
It not only summed up the play, but the game as a whole, the night, and the series in general. Somewhere along the path of the Tigers’ roll through Minnesota on their way to Kansas City, the Tigers tripped up. Wednesday’s double play, as well as Tuesday’s ill-fated diving attempt by Ezequiel Carrera, will be the lasting images.
At first glance, the double play looks like a miscue by Cabrera, caught too far off second base as Martinez grounds out and Torii Hunter stays at third. Another look, however, shows Hunter not breaking home on a ground ball where the Twins were pretty much conceding the run.
“The first baseman started in and moved back,” Brad Ausmus said. “Torii saw that. He initially was not going. He was going on contact to any of the other three positions in the infield except for the first baseman, because Mauer had been up. But then he backed up, and I think it just caused confusion.”
It was a cautious move on Hunter’s part, not wanting to squander an opportunity with an out at home plate. His reaction, however, left Cabrera out to dry.
Said Mauer: “Everything was in front of me. Victor hit it pretty good. So I just tried to make sure I fielded it first. I think Torii saw I could throw home. So I went to first for the out, but could’ve thrown home if needed. And then I saw Cabrera off, and so it was a good double play.”
Hunter took responsibility for the action.
“I got two steps right there, you have to make sure that you’re safe for sure at home. I didn’t want him to throw the ball and I’m out at home. That would’ve looked worse. I just took a jump and probably got Miggy off in no-mans land. I accept that — full responsibility. I misled him. It’s my fault.”
Cabrera did not appear immediately after the game for comment.
Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello will get their last chances at the Royals this weekend. Kyle Lobstein will not.
After waiting until Wednesday to announce his rotation for this weekend’s American League Central showdown in Kansas City, manager Brad Ausmus ended up laying out his rotation as expected, lining up his veteran starters for a three-game set that is likely to swing the division towards one team’s direction with a chance to close it out next week.
Verlander, Scherzer and Porcello will start in order, all on their regular four days’ rest. The extra rest that Thursday’s off-day would’ve afforded them vanished when Ausmus decided to push back Lobstein, the rookie left-hander who was thrust into the division race as an injury replacement for Anibal Sanchez.
It was the potential value of that extra rest down the stretch, Ausmus said, that kept him holding off from announcing his rotation. He wanted to wait and make sure all three starters felt fine before lining them up.
“We’re late in the season, there are aches and pains, and sometimes that extra rest is good,” Ausmus said. “But ultimately, this is extremely important.”
Verlander did not have his usual velocity, even by this season’s standards, in his last start Sunday against Cleveland. He also had a nasty blister on his thumb that he was battling. He said the last couple days that he doesn’t expect the blister to be an issue.
Lobstein will not pitch out of the bullpen for the series. Instead, he’ll prepare to start Monday’s series opener against the White Sox at Comerica Park to begin the Tigers’ final homestand of the season. That will give David Price an extra day of rest before his next start.
By pushing Price back a day, the Tigers also put him on track to pitch the regular-season finale next Sunday if need be. Verlander, meanwhile, would be in line to pitch a tiebreaker game, with Scherzer on turn for a potential Wild Card game.
Rajai Davis returns to the lineup in center field against Kyle Gibson, who’s allowing a .244 average and .661 OPS to right-handed hitters (compared with .274 and .713 to left-handed batters). With lefty Jason Vargas starting for KC to open the weekend series, and the Tigers looking to mix things up against James Shields after last week, this has the chance to be the start of a lengthy stretch for Davis.
The Twins turn to Eduardo Nunez and his history against David Price for a start at shortstop, a position that was once Nunez’s future in New York but has not been his present in Minnesota. Aaron Hicks, author of last night’s game-winning infield hit, gets his second consecutive start in right.
TIGERS (career numbers against Gibson)
- Ian Kinsler, 2B (3-for-7, walk, K)
- Torii Hunter, RF (1-for-4, walk)
- Miguel Cabrera, 1B (2-for-5, HR, K)
- Victor Martinez, DH (2-for-8, double)
- J.D. Martinez, LF (2-for-5, double, walk, K)
- Nick Castellanos, 3B (0-for-6, walk, 3 K’s)
- Bryan Holaday, C
- Andrew Romine, SS
- Rajai Davis, CF (1-for-3, K)
P: David Price
TWINS (career numbers against Price)
- Danny Santana, CF (0-for-4, 4 K’s)
- Brian Dozier, 2B (3-for-13, double, 2 HR, K)
- Joe Mauer, 1B (3-for-18, double, 3 walks, 5 K’s)
- Kennys Vargas, DH
- Trevor Plouffe, 3B (4-for-9, double, walk, 3 K’s)
- Kurt Suzuki, C (4-for-20, 2 doubles, HR, 9 K’s)
- Eduardo Nunez, SS (9-for-31, 2 doubles, HR, 3 walks, 3 K’s)
- Aaron Hicks, RF
- Jordan Schafer, LF
P: Kyle Gibson
Just a reminder that tickets for potential Wild Card and Division Series home games go on sale today at noon ET. If you’ve bought these in previous seasons, you know the drill. Tickets are available only online at tigers.com, not by phone or at the box office. There’s a limit of 12 per customer, per game.
Unless something crazy happens, plan on the Tigers having the worse seed if they get to the Division Series, whether they win the AL Central or not. That means hosting Games 3-4 on Oct. 5-6. Game 3 could create another football-baseball doubleheader downtown, as the Lions are hosting the Bills at 1pm that day. Those ALDS matchups are the only postseason games scheduled on a Sunday until the World Series.
Tuesday, Sept. 30: AL Wild Card game, televised on TBS (NL game is Oct. 1 on ESPN)
AL Division Series (all games on TBS)
- Game 1: Thursday, Oct. 2 (better seed hosts)
- Game 2: Friday, Oct. 3 (better seed hosts)
- Game 3: Sunday, Oct. 5 (worse seed hosts)
- Game 4: Monday, Oct. 6 (worse seed hosts)
- Game 5: Wednesday, Oct. 8 (better seed hosts)
AL Championship Series (all games on TBS)
- Game 1: Friday, Oct. 10 (better seed hosts)
- Game 2: Saturday, Oct. 11 (better seed hosts)
- Game 3: Monday, Oct. 13 (worse seed hosts)
- Game 4: Tuesday, Oct. 14 (worse seed hosts)
- Game 5: Wednesday, Oct. 15 (worse seed hosts)
- Game 6: Friday, Oct. 17 (better seed hosts)
- Game 7: Saturday, Oct. 18 (better seed hosts)
World Series (all games on FOX)
- Game 1: Tuesday, Oct. 21 (AL hosts)
- Game 2: Wednesday, Oct. 22 (AL)
- Game 3: Friday, Oct. 24 (NL)
- Game 4: Saturday, Oct. 25 (NL)
- Game 5: Sunday, Oct. 26 (NL)
- Game 6: Tuesday, Oct. 28 (AL)
- Game 7: Wednesday, Oct. 29 (AL)
For eight innings, this looked like one of the quickest, least eventful playoff race shutouts the Tigers have suffered in recent memory. Then for about 10 minutes, this looked like another chapter in the book of J.D. Martinez’s heroics, which it arguably still is. Then in the end, it looked like the toughest loss so far this month for this team.
It was also the type of game that left strategic decisions and accompanying questions from the seventh inning on.
The Tigers didn’t have multiple runners on base against Ricky Nolasco until the seventh, when back-to-back two-out singles from Victor and J.D. Martinez put the potential tying run on base. Up came Don Kelly, who started the game to add a left-handed bat against Nolasco (.339 average to left-handed hitters entering Tuesday) but who had hit into a second-inning double play and popped out on the first pitch with a runner in scoring position in the fifth.
Ausmus, with two rookie left-handed hitters on his bench with Steven Moya and Tyler Collins, stuck with Kelly, who drew a 2-0 count before flying out to left. The situation, he said, was too soon for a pinch-hitter.
“It was too early in the game [to pinch-hit],” Ausmus said. “Keep in mind, I started Kelly [to hit] against Nolasco. It doesn’t really make a lot of sense if I’m going to start him against Nolasco then to pinch-hit for him against Nolasco. I wasn’t going to pinch-hit at that time.
“And the truth is, it’s dangerous to take Donnie out of the game because if you get the lead, you need him in the game [for defense].”
Part of that need might have been created by Nick Castellanos’ scratch from the starting lineup with a sore foot. However, Castellanos was available to hit and was on deck to hit for Kelly when J.D. Martinez homered in the ninth.
Moya has been used as a pinch-hitter three times this month. Once was in the ninth inning of the rout they posted at Cleveland Sept. 1. Another was in the eighth inning of a tie game Sept. 4, also in Cleveland. He pinch-hit for Hernan Perez in that situation against Bryan Shaw with two out and nobody on. Then, on Sept. 14 against the Indians at Comerica Park, he pinch-hit for Andrew Romine with runners at first and second, a 3-2 deficit and Scott Atchison pitching.
So Ausmus has used Moya that early before. The only difference in those cases has been that the starting pitcher was out.
Ausmus said he had a pinch-hitter as an option if somebody reached base in the eighth, when the bottom third of the order came to bat.
“We did have guys,” Ausmus said. “If Holaday had gotten on, we may have pinch-hit for Romine. We may have hit-and-run with Romine. There were a couple options.”
Those situations took a back seat when J.D. Martinez hit a go-ahead three-run homer in the ninth. The Tigers had both Joe Nathan and Joakim Soria warming at the time. However, Ausmus said there was no question who would close.
“Soria was coming in if we were tied,” he said. “Joe was coming in if we had the lead.”
A one-out walk to Trevor Plouffe started the Twins rally.
“You don’t want walks obviously,” Ausmus said, “but you’ve got to keep in mind: In a one-run closer situation, with a guy like Trevor Plouffe, who has the ability to drive the ball, you can’t just lay a 3-2 pitch down the middle. If it’s a home run, it ties the game. If it’s a double, it puts a guy in scoring position. So you still have to pitch him carefully. It’s a little bit different than a 3-2 count in the first inning. So you do have to be smart about it.
“Now if it’s a guy without a lot of power, that’s a different story. Plouffe has about as much power as anyone in their lineup.”
Kurt Suzuki did get a pitch to drive into left-center, where Ezequiel Carrera made his attempt at a diving grab.
That drive, and the play on it, turned the inning. A single there puts runners at the corners, or possibly first and second with one out for Eduardo Nunez, and two ground balls either seal the game or send it into extra innings. Instead, the tying run was in, with the winning run on second.
In that case, Carrera’s attempt at heroics set up the extra-base hit they couldn’t afford.
“We’ve actually already spoken to him about it,” Ausmus said. “I just think this is a case where if it happened all over again, he would understand that containing the runner at first as opposed to taking a less than high percentage at a catch, he would’ve probably backed up and just contained the line drive.”
Carrera did not talk after the game.
“We’re human beings,” Ausmus continued. “They’re going to make mistakes out there. I’m sure for a split second, he thought he could catch the ball. It just didn’t work out. But I do think if he could do it all over again, you’d see the proper play.”
Ausmus indicated the result will not lead to a rethinking of the Nathan-Soria roles.
While Soria’s return has given the Tigers depth from the seventh inning on, his lack of a regular role has become conspicuous in situations like the last couple nights, when Joba Chamberlain and Joe Nathan have both either given up crucial runs or put them on base. He’s a versatile reliever who can pitch well in several different situations, but that versatility means he owns none of them. That said, the struggles in multiple spots mean Ausmus is trying to fill multiple holes with one reliever.
Alex Avila is out of the lineup again, and will likely remain so until this weekend at Kansas City. Like two weeks ago, he is back at the point where he needs a day free of concussion symptoms or head issues, and he hasn’t had that yet.
“Alex did some baseball activity today and felt a little lightheaded,” manager Brad Ausmus said Tuesday afternoon, “so he’s going to be off.”
Andrew Romine gets another day at shortstop, both for the way he’s hitting, the presence of a left-handed bat against Ricky Nolasco (who’s allowing a .339 average and .928 OPS against left-handed hitters this year) and for the glove behind sinkerballer Rick Porcello.
The lefty-righty splits werealso the primary reason Ausmus cited for Don Kelly’s start, his first since last Wednesday’s series finale against the Royals. He was going to start in center field for Rajai Davis, but then Nick Castellanos was scratched from the lineup with left foot soreness from a foul ball he hit off of it last night. Thus, Kelly starts at third, with Davis in center.
For what it’s worth, Rajai Davis is 1-for-3 with a double off Nolasco, who’s also allowing a .304 average to right-handed batters.
The Twins are without Oswaldo Arcia, who left yesterday’s game with back tightness. Aaron Hicks starts in his place.
TIGERS (career numbers off Nolasco)
- Ian Kinsler, 2B (4-for-6, 3 doubles, K)
- Torii Hunter, RF (0-for-3)
- Miguel Cabrera, 1B (1-for-3, 2 K’s)
- Victor Martinez, DH (2-for-2, double, walk)
- J.D. Martinez, LF (2-for-6, K)
- Don Kelly,
CF3B Nick Castellanos, 3B (1-for-2, double)Bryan Holaday, C
- Andrew Romine, SS
- Rajai Davis, CF (1-for-3, double)
P: Rick Porcello
TWINS (career numbers against Porcello)
- Danny Santana, CF (0-for-4)
- Brian Dozier, 2B (5-for-18, 2 HR, walk, 2 K’s)
- Joe Mauer, 1B (11-for-39, 4 doubles, 4 walks, 3 K’s)
- Kennys Vargas, DH
- Trevor Plouffe, 3B (5-for-19, 2 doubles, HR, 2 walks, 2 K’s)
- Kurt Suzuki, C (4-for-18, 2 doubles, 4 walks)
- Eduardo Escobar, SS (2-for-7, double)
- Aaron Hicks, RF (1-for-5, 2 K’s)
- Jordan Schafer, LF (1-for-2)
P: Ricky Nolasco
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.”