Monday, June 30, 2008

Bitter Aftertaste

"Slow, old, and a little indifferent." That's how I described the Tigers in the second series versus the Twins this year, though I also mentioned how explosive they could be in the first series. Then, last month, we saw both in the same series as the Tigers sandwiched an explosive 19-3 victory with two anemic outings. Last night we saw both in the same game.

The Tigers entered the game with Magglio Ordonez on the disabled list. By the third inning, they had sought medical attention for two more of the veterans as the Tigers spent some time looking at catcher Ivan Rodriguez's knee and pulled Miguel Cabrera from the game with a hip flexor. They also had committed three fielding errors.

Their quite march to a meek loss was changed in the seventh inning. I suspect manager Ron Gardenhire will take a fair amount of abuse from at least two group of fans about pulling Perkins after 6.1 innings. First, Fans who think Ruining Arms is Good(FRAG) will wonder why Perkins wasn't allowed to get himself out of the inning when he had only thrown 91 pitches. After all, that's how Bert did it. Second, the Wins Are Statistical Tomfoolery group(WAST) will probably wonder if Gardy didn't take Perkins out so he could make sure his young pitcher had no chance to get a loss after that outing.

Both may be right, but there was nothing wrong with that move. Two right-handed batters were coming up, and both of them have hit significantly worse against right-handed pitchers this year. But for those who want to question a bullpen move, Gardy gave us a nice morsel to pick apart an inning later. Or rather a bullpen non-move.

The Twins were clinging to a 4-3 lead, the tying run was on second base and there was one out. Right-handed Matt Guerrier was pitching for the Twins, and so the Tigers announced that left-handed Matt Joyce would be a pinch hitter. Joyce not only hits right-handed pitchers better than left-handed pitchers, he almost only hits against right-handed pitchers. This year he has only two at-bats, and no hits, against southpaws. What's more, he was being followed by Curtis Granderson, another left-handed hitter who is hitting significantly worse against the southpaws.

Fortunately, the Twins had a southpaw sitting in the bullpen. Unfortunately, the active verb was "sitting". It was Craig Breslow, who sports a 1.47 ERA and 17 K in 18 innings. He's not only been lights out since joining the Twins, he's been lights out against left-handers, and even better against right-handers, if you can believe it. But he wasn't warmed up. He wasn't even off the bench. Apparently Gardenhire, for whatever reason, had decided it was Guerrier's game to win or lose.

It turned out to be the latter. Joyce hit a triple down the right field line and then Granderson singled to center field to drive in the winning run. Guerrier retired the next two batters (both right-handed) to get out of the inning. And Breslow did finally enter the game, but it was in the ninth inning. He retired the two batters he faced.

Those are the facts, and I'll follow it with the caveats. First, I've spent more than a little time praising Ron Gardenhire for developing, building and effectively using his bullpen, and it's deserved. Second, god knows that this isn't the first time this year that the Tigers have shown that they can beat up the Twins bullpen. Of their four wins this year against the Twins, this is the third time they've won it because they slap our bullpen like I slap mustard on a corn dog. (And I REALLY like mustard.) Finally, Bert and Dick mentioned that Breslow had back issues earlier that might have carried into this game. That might have played a part even though he did pitch later in the game.

But I sure hope that someone asked Gardenhire about this in the postgame press conference. Something like "I'm sure you debated bringing the left-hander Breslow in during the eighth inning. What factors made you keep him on the bench versus Joyce and Granderson?" Now, maybe Gardenhire can talk about those reasons ("I have lots of faith in Guerrier") and maybe he can't ("I don't trust Breslow in a high-leverage situation yet"). But the game likely hinged on that decision. It deserves to be answerd, and it really deserves to be asked.

I suspect the manager will do both about 20 times tonight. We'll pick at it, but Gardy will likely gnaw on it in between shots of cherry extract. I wonder which will be more bitter.

(Post Note: OK, I'm a dumbass. I was listening when Gardy was thrown out. I was watching when Ullger pulled Perkins. And as I was writing this, I must've seen the "highlights" of Gardenhire being thrown from the game at least three times. And yet, at no time, did I think "So this was Ullger making those decisions".

It raises another question which we likely won't really get answered publicly. Just how much influence does a thrown out manager have in a game like that? We know he shouldn't have any, so that will be the public answer. But was Ullger sticking with Guerrier because he thought Guerrier was the designated eighth inning guy? If Gardy would have been making the moves, would it have been done differently, because he's more comfortable second-guessing himself than Ullger is second-guessing his boss?

It adds a whole new level of helplessness to this depressing loss knowing that it may have resulted from Gardy's Holy Crusade Against Warnings. That sounds like a topic for a comment Friday.

Anyway, my bad. I'll gnaw on this the way I said Gardy would be gnawing last night on that loss. And I suspect the bitter aftertaste is similar. Only I'll wash it down with some Diet Pepsi Max.)


neckrolls said...

Gardy was ejected in the 3rd inning - Scott Ulger made all the pitching changes (and non-changes).

Anonymous said...

It's a great question: does the manager stop managing after being ejected? I've always assumed the answer is no.