By: Eric Thomas
The Tigers’ Sunday Night Baseball loss was a single game among 162, in June, probably meaningless when all the final results are tallied; even though the sight of Big Papi hitting a ninth inning home run isn’t really a memory anyone wants to revisit. Brad Ausmus was all shrugs in his post-game comments, and he’s right, it’s one game. Joba Chamberlain got in trouble against one of the best hitters the game has ever known and that happens. The Tigers won the series against the Red Sox and that’s all you can reasonably hope for.
If game three against the BoSox sticks in your craw, it should. The bullpen is still a problem. It’s going to be a problem for the team in the future. Despite having one of the best starting rotations in baseball and the game’s best hitter, the Tigers have a glistening Achilles heel, and it’s the same one that’s persisted for the last few years. Teams that seek to wear out starters are ably built to beat the Tigers without much issue.
It isn’t likely going to get better. Joel Hanrahan, the former All-Star closer who the Tigers signed a month ago, still has a long way to go until he’s back from Tommy John surgery. Joe Nathan was signed for two years in the offseason and isn’t going anywhere. Joba Chamberlain had less than encouraging results in his first attempted save with the Tigers. This is the girl we brought, and she’s the dance partner.
It’s easy to blame Dave Dombrowski, but this isn’t his entire fault. This isn’t 2013 when he bet the farm on Bruce Rondon. The team tried their best to bring in quality bullpen talent. Joe Nathan was the best available arm in free agency, and he signed him to a contract worth $20 million. Joba Chamberlain was picked up off the scrap heap from New York, and until his, um, unpleasantness against the Red Sox he was dominant. Dombrowski did all he could. Sometimes your best efforts come up snake eyes.
It’s a long season, and individual games among the 162 don’t matter, but it presents Tigers fans with a good preview of things to come. The Tigers have made the ALCS the last three years, and they’ve been sent away by the same formula the last few times. The Tigers get great starts from the rotation, and opponents pick them apart in the late innings. That’s a reliable way to beat any baseball team, but the Tigers seem more vulnerable than most.
For all the caterwauling about the short stop position, and the bats that slump in all the wrong times, the bullpen is consistently porous. You can’t expect your relief pitchers to be lights out every single night, but they have to hold leads more often than this. It’s hard not to envy the Red Sox when Koji Uehara comes out of the bullpen; he looks like nothing short of the second coming of Mariano Rivera.
Will all this change before the trade deadline? That’s unlikely. The only thing we know for sure is that Dave Dombrowski will acquire a player no one is thinking of and that player will probably produce for the Tigers at least in the short term. The Tigers started the season riding on a rocket ship that seemed destined for 100 win season, and despite spending the last month looking like the first half of the movie Major League, they still have enough talent to take them far. Dombrowski will hear calls from fans in the next several months saying he should “go all in,” and trade future stars for proven players and push the pedal to the floor on a World Series run. This team may be missing a single piece.
The Sunday Night Game against the Red Sox is only one game out of 162, and it’s relatively meaningless, yes. But when the Tigers make the playoffs, which they are almost assured to do, I think most Tigers fans already know how they will be eliminated.