By Ashley Dunkak
The Detroit Tigers worked hard during the season to shore up their vulnerable bullpen, and they made measurable improvement. Despite those efforts, a lack of dependable relief arms took a dramatic toll Sunday.
Within two innings of taking a 2-0 series lead in the ALCS back to their home field of Comerica Park, the Tigers gave up a 5-1 advantage.
Jose Veras got the first shot out of the bullpen. He induced a ground out from the first batter and then allowed a double. He promptly got the hook.
Drew Smyly came in next. He walked the first batter he faced, and Detroit manager Jim Leyland yanked Smyly too.
With two on, now, Al Alburquerque entered the game. He got a strikeout but then allowed a single, loading the bases.
Essentially the last chance of the bullpen, Joaquin Benoit came in next, and with the bases loaded, Benoit faced nine-time All-Star David Ortiz.
Less than a week earlier, Ortiz had been pictured in a two-page spread in Sports Illustrated, the headline figure for a story entitled “Clutch Much?” about hitters who have an usual amount of postseason success.
Ortiz reaffirmed that reputation by smashing a grand slam to right field. Just like that, the Tigers’ 5-1 lead disappeared. Going into the ninth inning, it was all tied up.
Normally a starter, Rick Porcello pitched the bottom of the ninth, but not for long. He allowed a single, and the runner advanced to second on an error by shortstop Jose Iglesias, then made it to third when Porcello tossed a wild pitch.
Porcello allowed another single, and it scored the winning run, sealing a walk-off victory for Boston.
“Last night our bullpen was flawless,” Leyland said after the game, “and tonight it just wasn’t quite as good.”
The only relievers who did not see action Sunday were Jose Alvarez and embattled lefty Phil Coke, who was sent down to the Triple-A Toledo for a couple of weeks late in the season before returning to the Tigers for September call-ups. He had been left off the ALDS roster because of injury, but he is on the ALCS roster in place of Luke Putkonen.
Since Ortiz bats left, it might have made sense to put a lefty pitcher in against him. Coke fit the bill in that regard, but Leyland essentially said he did not want Coke in the pressure situation because Coke had not been in one recently.
“Coke hadn’t pitched a big game for quite a while,” Leyland said. “Benoit is our guy against the lefties, and we felt he gave us the best chance to get the out.”
The Tigers looked solid in many areas in the first two games in Boston, but Sunday’s performance reminded everyone that even though it has gotten better, the Detroit bullpen remains something of a weakness.