The Detroit Tigers suffered an ugly loss in Milwaukee on Wednesday allowing the Brew Crew to slip away with a series split. The sloppy walk-filled effort ended a Tigers winning streak but perhaps it did shed light on the urgency Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire will need while the Tigers are a factor in the playoff picture.
Detroit elected not to do a full-blown sell-off at the recent trade deadline…or there was little demand for the players they were marketing. Either way, what’s left in the aftermath of Monday afternoon is now a 17-17 ball club. A team without much better to do than stage an all-out effort to slither their way into the post-season AL tournament and see if they become the real-life Hickory Hoosiers. Can Ron Gardenhire lead this ragtag team on this September mission? The odds aren’t favorable but as Han Solo so perfectly told us, “Never tell me the odds!”
However, if Gardenhire is the man for the job he’s going to need to manage his ball club in general, and his bullpen in particular, with extreme urgency moving forward in an attempt to pile up wins when they’re within reach. The Tigers must adopt a “win today’s game today and worry about tomorrow…tomorrow” mentality.
That did not happen on Wednesday at Miller Park. The Tigers were removing starting pitcher Spencer Turnbull in the 5th inning. Despite Trumbull’s five walks and a generally tooth-extracting outing, the Tigers were clinging to a two-run lead. A sweep on the road was in their reach prior to a huge 5-game set this weekend in Minnesota.
Then the words from Tigers radio voice Dan Dickerson came over the air of roughly “it’ll be John Schreiber taking over on the mound”. That was a disappointing phrase to hear but hardly startling. Gardenhire was managing in a non-urgent fashion as though this were a game in May of 1999, not the start of a playoff hunt in 2020.
Over the next two-plus innings the Tigers would cough up their two-run lead with Schreiber, barely cling to a tie during a wince-filled hold-on-to-your-ass inning from Kyle Funkhouser, and then ultimately yield the game to the Brewers with another disappointing Joe Jimenez effort.
This put the game in the hands of Brewers stud reliever Josh Hader. Buck Farmer allowed two runs to give Hader a big cushion, but even at a one-run deficit, the Tigers popgun offense had only a slightly better chance at the lead than I do of winning the Mr. Iowa Bodybuilding Championship. Hader, you might have heard, is good.
This game slipped away all while the Tigers arguable six best relief pitchers were sitting comfortably in the bullpen waiting to protect a late lead that never arrived. All with an off-day looming on Thursday as a buffer before the Twins series. Frankly, it was an unacceptable night of bullpen tactics by the Detroit skipper. Better options to shut down the Brewers rally were available instead of letting Schreiber inherit two runners with only one out. It was a spot that called for the ability to miss bats and overpower an opponent. Jose Cisnero and Gregory Soto would have been excellent options at this point. Schreiber’s soft toss repertoire a bit less ideal as his walk of the first batter he faced showed.
Yes, the Tigers offense can take responsibility for the inability to score any runs late in the game to stave off the Brewers, but the chance to squelch that 5th inning rally really demonstrated what Gardenhire must see has to be done over the final weeks or until the Tigers tumble from the race…Detroit must make profligate use of its better bullpen pitchers in 2020 and save the ham-n-eggers for strictly mop-up duty.
An urgency to squash middle inning rallies must become part of the process as well. Two outs from Cisnero in the 5th inning would have gone a long way for a Soto Save Opportunity in the 9th.
The Tigers, to this point, have six relief pitchers who have shown enough to this point to be an asset. Cisnero, Soto, Tyler Alexander, Bryan Garcia, Daniel Norris, and Farmer. These six pitchers must be asked to carry the bullpen load for the next three weeks.
The schedule is, of course, daunting. There are double-headers ahead (albeit only 7 innings) and not a lot of off days. But it can’t be emphasized enough, this isn’t the usual September at the deadline of the marathon season. This is the end of the sprint season. None of these relievers has even logged 25 innings yet. Being asked to ramp up hard for three weeks isn’t the sacrifice some might portray it to be.
It would be nice if the Tigers starting pitchers could add in an inning or more respectively to their starts. This would lighten the workload on the “Circle of Six” of course. Tarik Skubal and Casey Mize are being inserted into this playoff race. They can’t be given a rookie pass in that case. They need to give the Tigers 5+ frames in their last 5 starts consistently.
In the bullpen, perhaps Daniel Norris can face three key batters once a week in addition to caddying for Michael Fulmer. Gardenhire might need to take Soto, Garcia, and Cisnero out for a real spin and see who can take the hill and get out three days in a row a few times. Can Garcia get six outs on occasion when necessary? If your club is going for it, these are the chances you need to take. Pushing key guys to their limit to extract the most value will be the ticket to a wildcard. Nothing less.
Plus the risk might not last long. If Detroit struggles in Minnesota and doesn’t immediately bounce back quickly from there the playoff drive will be short-lived and Gardenhire can make plans for deer season while letting Rony Garcia face Francisco Lindor in a tie game a couple of weeks from now as they play out the string.
The Tigers haven’t needed more urgency to their actions and tactics for several years. It’s gotten comfortable for them not to worry a whole lot about chasing outs early in games with key pitchers and they’ve basically been holding regular season tryouts. That was fine in 2018. That’s done for now. They’ve been forced by circumstances to take their shot this month. If they don’t run this operation for the last three weeks as “playoffs or bust” why did they hold on to vets at the deadline? Until it’s over they have to act like they want it. They didn’t on Wednesday…starting Friday they must.