MLB.com Columnist

Anthony Castrovince

Bullpen woes threatening to derail Tigers

Bullpen woes threatening to derail Tigers

BALTIMORE -- It is a statement about the state of this Tigers bullpen that the only approval its members are receiving these days comes from the shouting mouths and clapping hands of the opposition's fans.

The Camden Yards crowds in the first two games of this Division Series have been deafening in support of the O's, who now have a commanding 2-0 lead after Friday's 7-6 comeback victory in Game 2. But sarcasm is another one of their strengths, as evidenced by the roar of approval Joba Chamberlain received when he was announced at the outset of the eighth.

  Date   Matchup/Result Highlights
Gm 1 Oct. 2   BAL 12, DET 3 video
Gm 2 Oct. 3   BAL 7, DET 6 video
Gm 3 Oct. 5   BAL 2, DET 1 video
Chamberlain would claim, later, that he was merely adjusting his hat, but it sure looked to the naked eye as if he gave a slight tip of the cap to the orange-clad crowd, a sly sort of, "I'll show you" that never actually materialized. Because mere minutes later, there were a couple baserunners aboard, a Steve Pearce single landing in the outfield grass and a 6-3 lead that would have been commanding in the hands of almost any other respectable playoff club officially placed on life support.

"Nothing's going to catch me off guard in this game," Chamberlain would say of the crowd, "I promise you that."

What the Tigers' setup man can't promise you is that his stuff is anywhere near as strong as it was in the first half. Same goes for Joakim Soria, the supposed relief savior acquired from the Rangers in July who recently returned from an oblique issue and has looked positively rattled and lost in these first two games. After Pearce's single off Joba made it 6-4, Soria came in to walk J.J. Hardy and then serve up the slider that Delmon Young punched into left for the bases-clearing, game-clinching double.

By now, the raging dumpster fire that is the Detroit 'pen is an entity and Twitter trending topic all its own. Its reputation precedes itself, and it has done an awfully convincing job of making this seemingly even series look like it's going to be a remarkably short affair.

Maybe David Price goes nine shutout innings in Game 3 at Comerica Park, and the conversation suddenly shifts. But that's about the only scenario that's not going to induce intestinal agony for the Tigers faithful, who are praying for a relief ace and savior. And even if such a savior exists, it's currently questionable whether manager Brad Ausmus is going to turn to him or keep going with a paint-by-numbers approach that's leading to a lot of spills.

Third-base coach Dave Clark's decision to wave Miguel Cabrera home toward that ill-fated play at the plate in the top of the eighth wasn't very good, but Ausmus' decision-making in the bottom of the inning is also worthy of scrutiny.

In a less-than-24-hour period, Tigers relievers not named Anibal Sanchez -- and more on him in a moment -- gave up 11 runs on eight hits with three walks and zero strikeouts in -- get this -- 1 2/3 innings.

Such efficiency would be impressive if it weren't so repulsive.

"You play for six months," said closer Joe Nathan, "and then hopefully you're at your best during a five-game set. That's the way it is."

What does it say about the Tigers bullpen that it has been this bad and Nathan, its most-maligned member, hasn't even pitched yet?

Heck, if Ausmus still somehow has enough confidence in Nathan, for whom clean innings have been a white whale all year (his 1.534 WHIP was the seventh-highest in the AL), as his ninth-inning arm, maybe that should have been Nathan out there in the eighth, when the heart of the O's order was due up and a lockdown inning was in order.

Sure, that sounds crazy. But is it any crazier than reflexively turning to a clearly gassed Joba?

More realistically, would it have been totally crazy to send Sanchez, who was lights-out in two innings of relief of Justin Verlander with his devastatingly deep arsenal, back out for the eighth inning? Sanchez might very well be that aforementioned savior. I'm not suggesting he become the second-coming of Willie Hernandez and go for a four-inning save, but perhaps he could have at least started the eighth and eked out another out to set a tone.

Hey, maybe that would have been nuts, given that Sanchez has thrown all of one inning and one side session since Aug. 8 due to pectoral muscle strain and that he's so vital to a 2015 season that is, suddenly, inching into view. But the Tigers aren't exactly in position to be rational at the moment. They just need a win.

"It's more about him not being stretched out," Ausmus said of the decision to pull Sanchez after the seventh. "He was hurt -- he was out, what, six weeks and he threw one inning, one simulated game? Asking him to throw really anything more than 30 pitches is a stretch."

Fair enough. But is it a stretch to suggest Al Alburquerque's absence from these first two games borders on bizarre? Like Chamberlain, the Tigers rode him hard in the first half. Unlike Chamberlain, he did not crater in the second, with opponents batting just .185 off him while he strung together a 1.84 ERA in 23 1/3 innings.

He could not possibly have fared worse than Chamberlain and Soria did in that spot.

With all that said, I must admit I feel a little bit uncomfortable piling on Ausmus at the moment. Sympathy is the prevailing emotion. Ultimately, managers are only as smart as their bullpens are stable, and Ausmus' relief unit, to paraphrase Bob Dylan, balances like a mattress on a bottle of wine.

"If we have a lead in the eighth inning on Sunday," Ausmus said, "we're going to have to find somebody."

Look, this is as much an organizational issue as an Ausmus one. At a time when it feels like other organizations are plucking 95-mph middle relief arms off trees, the Tigers have had nothing of substance come up from their system this season and haven't made any in-season moves to fix this obvious issue. And it has been an issue for them year after year in a steady search for an elusive October crown. What gives?

The Angels rebuilt their brutal bullpen on the fly this summer, not just with Huston Street, but also Joe Thatcher and Jason Grilli. The Royals found success with a Ranger other than Soria, Jason Frasor. For crying out loud, the Pirates found John Holdzkom and his mid-90s heat in independent San Angelo, of all places. There were guys out there.

The average Major League relief ERA this season was 3.57, the lowest such number in 22 years. The Tigers, with a payroll that eventually stretched upwards of $170 million, put up a 4.29 mark.

In September, a veteran member of the Tigers confided, "We have no bullpen. None. You feel like you have to score seven runs every night to win."

The feeling has continued on into October. And if somebody doesn't step up quickly, it's going to be a short month for the Tigers.

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.