Tigers season disappears in dribbles at fitness center

The worst two-day stretch in Tigers postseason history – since the current era of playoff baseball in Motown began in 2006 – occurred Thursday, Oct. 2, and Friday, Oct. 3.

Bullpen and defensive mishaps were aplenty. And, quite simply, they defined the Tigers’ 2014 season.

When it wasn’t Joe Nathan blowing a save or Joba Chamberlain coughing up a lead in the eighth inning, it was Torii Hunter dropping a fly ball in right field or J.D. Martinez misplaying a ball in left field.

In the postseason, when every mistake is magnified, the Tigers’ season-long Achilles heel of being unable to preserve leads cost them dearly in the first two games of the American League Division Series against the AL East champion Baltimore Orioles, especially in game number two.

With the game being 6-3 in favor of the Tigers going into the top of the eighth, I thought the Tigers had it in the bag.

In fact, I didn’t feel the need to watch the eighth, as I was playing basketball with a few buddies in the UDM fitness center, doing my best to prevent getting beat off the dribble against the opposition’s taller and quicker players.

Without any worry in my mind of a Baltimore comeback, I brought the intensity on defense, although I still failed to consistently stay in front of the man I was tasked with guarding.

Walking from the court to the TV in the fitness center in between the third and final pick-up game did me no good, as my eyes – much to my chagrin – were opened up to what the scoreboard on TBS read: Baltimore 7, Detroit 6.

Through the combined efforts, or lack thereof, of Joba, trade deadline acquisition Joakim Soria and inexperienced playoff skipper Brad Ausmus, the Tigers choked away the three-run lead.

In what I considered a must-win situation for the Tigs and starting pitcher Justin Verlander, the O’s had effectively stolen all the momentum that a Detroit road victory would have secured for the rest of the series.

My level of surprise regarding the come-from-behind victory for the O’s should have not been nearly as high as it was. However, what I failed to realize – while part of my mind was on basketball – is that the 2014 Tigers were detrimentally affected by the same flaws that posed a threat to the 2012 and 2013 versions of the club.

As was the case last year when Joaquin Benoit gave up a game-tying grand slam to David Ortiz of the Boston Red Sox in the eighth inning of game two of the AL Championship Series and two years ago when Jose Valverde gave up a game-tying, two-run home run to Raul Ibanez at Yankee Stadium in game one of the ALCS, the bullpen – no matter the manager responsible for handling it – has once again held the team back from winning the organization’s first Fall Classic since 1984.

The pen’s season-long mishandling by Ausmus – exemplified by his decision to go to Chamberlain in the eighth in game two instead of leaving Anibal Sanchez out for a third inning of work or giving a more consistently productive reliever like Al Alburquerque a chance to prove his worth – plus the lack of quality late-inning relief options caused the Tigers to miss out on the second round of Major League Baseball’s eight-team tournament for the first time since the club made its first of four consecutive October appearances in 2011.

The club was simply less equipped.

The bullpen missed the effectiveness of last season’s ninth- and eighth-inning arms in Benoit and Drew Smyly, who is now with the Tampa Bay Rays after being dealt for David Price at the July 31 MLB trade deadline.

The team also had a too-depleted outfield defense to emerge from the first round while down two games to none in a best-of-five series.

Despite everything negatively said about Ausmus, the man handpicked by Tigers president and general manager Dave Dombrowski to succeed Jim Leyland, he’s not going anywhere after a first season marred by mistakes.

That’s in large part due to the bad PR move it’d be for Dombrowski to fire him. It’d be an admittance of a mistake made by Dave D, and an unwarranted bold move as a result of Ausmus going through a “baptism by fire” in his rookie managerial campaign with no prior coaching experience at any level.

Thus, it’s now up to Dombrowski to make the necessary moves this offseason to prevent the same Achilles heel from cutting the club’s season short yet again in 2015, especially with the window of opportunity rapidly closing on this era of baseball in Motown.


Chirco is VN sports editor