By: Will Burchfield
This was bound to happen eventually. It’s bound to happen again.
The Tigers, either through staunch faith or blind loyalty or some combination of the two, are keeping a pair of pitchers on their roster who are shells of their former selves. Generally, the team can shelter Anibal Sanchez and Francisco Rodriguez in low-leverage situations, hide their flaws in spots where no real damage can be done.
But there are going to be times, like Tuesday night, when the Tigers will need either Sanchez or K-Rod to get important outs. And it won’t be a surprise, like it wasn’t on Tuesday night, when they give up runs.
Brad Ausmus did his best to avoid using either pitcher in the series opener versus the Orioles. He delayed and delayed as the innings crept pass, turning to every arm in his bullpen until his hand was forced in the top of the 13th.
With the score tied at 11, he called on Rodriguez.
“It was K-Rod or Sanchez, that’s who we were down to. K-Rod has experience pitching in that situation, he’s done it hundreds and hundreds of times, so I liked him in that spot,” Ausmus said.
In a surprise to no one, K-Rod promptly surrendered a double, a wild pitch and a home run. 13-11 Orioles. Ball game.
“It can happen to anyone,” said Ausmus. “Blaine Hardy’s been pitching very well for us and he gave up three runs, so it’s not K-Rod or Sanchy. I know you like to point fingers and blame people, but that’s not how it works here. We’re a team.”
True, it can happen to anyone. But it’s happened to Rodriguez and Sanchez this season far more frequently than any other pitcher on the team. They’ve given up at least one run in 16 of a combined 25 appearances.
Perhaps Rodriguez deserves a little more time. He only recently lost his job as closer and is still adapting to a new role in the bullpen. More importantly, he’s only a year removed from racking up 44 saves in 49 chances. His success is still recent enough to hold on to.
But time has run out on Sanchez. And quite frankly (to borrow a term from Ausmus), the clock should be ticking on K-Rod, too. The longer these guys stick around, the more often the Tigers will end up shooting themselves in the foot.
This isn’t on Ausmus. He’s doing the best he can with what he’s got. He only called on K-Rod on Tuesday night because he was out of other options, save Sanchez.
No, this is on management. GM Al Avila bears most of the responsibility for the two decaying arms in the Tigers bullpen. It is time he cuts the chord to make room for some more effective relievers. He’s crippling his team by doing otherwise.
After Tuesday night’s loss, Ausmus was asked about the status of the bullpen for Wednesday’s game.
“We should be alright. Chad Bell’s the one guy who (won’t be able to) throw, but we should be fine. Sanchy can cover us,” he said.
But what if the Tigers find themselves in another high-scoring affair in which the bullpen becomes an early factor? What if they need Sanchez to come in and keep things close? Can he cover the team then?
It won’t be a surprise if he can’t.
“There’s no perfect bullpen out there. There’s some that have performed better than others, there’s some that have a little more talent than others, but there’s no perfect bullpen with a 0.00 ERA,” Ausmus said. “That’s just not how it works.”
Tuesday night’s loss to the Orioles highlighted the irresponsibility of keeping Sanchez and Rodriguez on the roster. It precludes the bullpen from being the best it can be. It may seem like it hardly matters. It may seem like it never matters.
It doesn’t bite you until it does.