By Ashley Dunkak
COMERICA PARK (CBS DETROIT) – Pitching to nine-time All-Star David Ortiz, a player known for his postseason prowess, with the bases loaded, late in the game, in the American League Championship Series, constitutes the ultimate pressure situation.
That is the scenario first-time closer Joaquin Benoit faced Sunday as the Detroit Tigers tried to finish off Game 2 and take a 2-0 series lead going back to their home field.
In a matter of seconds, Ortiz smacked a ball over the fence for a grand slam. The Tigers’ four-run lead evaporated instantly. Instead of going back to Detroit up 2-0, it would be a 1-1 tie.
Detroit manager Jim Leyland said he should have told Benoit that they did not want Ortiz to beat them.
“I made a mistake by not reminding him, ‘If you end up walking him, it’s okay,'” Leyland said. “He tried to attack him with a ball that was going to be out of the strike zone, and it was one of those change-ups that didn’t go down and away. It just stayed there.”
The idea of the pitch selection was to get Ortiz to swing at a ball. The pitch did not go where it was supposed to, of course, and the result was the hit that changed the game and quite possibly the series as well.
Despite all that, Leyland’s confidence in Benoit has not wavered.
“He’s doing fine,” Leyland said. “It’s just not that easy. When you’re in postseason, that’s why these teams are in postseason. It gets a little bit tougher.”
Leyland said he is not concerned about how Ortiz’s big hit will affect Benoit. Benoit started the season as the setup man – and a very successful one – but got pressed into service as the closer because the Tigers needed him.
“First of all, it was a tough save,” Leyland said. “In reality I’ve been asking a lot of him, probably a little too much in a couple situations.”
Benoit finished the regular season with a 2.01 ERA, but in the much smaller sample size of the postseason that ERA has ballooned to 5.79. In four and two-thirds innings pitched, he has allowed five hits and three runs. As far as the fateful pitch to Ortiz in Game 2, however, Leyland takes some of the blame for Benoit’s difficulty.
Part of what makes the ALCS tough in particular is the presence of Ortiz, who over 72 postseason games has hit .284 with 15 home runs and 24 RBIs. Do-or-die moments seem to bring out the best in the slugger, as many teams know.
“He genuinely likes it,” said Red Sox pitcher John Lackey, who used to pitch against Ortiz before coming to Boston. “He likes being up in those spots. He enjoys all the lights on him. You saw [Sunday] night he didn’t get that fired up about it at the end. It was almost like he expected to do it.
“He’s a special player,” Lackey added.
In Detroit right fielder Torii Hunter’s estimation, Ortiz is so special that no one should try to pitch him.
“You shouldn’t play with him,” Hunter said Monday. “He’s definitely a hot stove. History doesn’t lie.”