In two losses, Lange can’t harness nasty arsenal

Detroit Tigers

PHILADELPHIA — The Tigers spent a good portion of their six-game road trip waiting for their first hit of the game. The last thing they expected to do was end the trip wondering about the final out.

It’s the Murphy’s Law aspect when the team hits a skid: Just when the Tigers seem to work through one problem, another pops up. To be fair, Alex Lange remains far down the list of Tigers’ worries while Detroit tries to find offense, a struggle which adds to the degree of difficulty for Detroit’s young back-end reliever.

“Any day of the week, we want Lange out there,” said Zack Short, whose eighth-inning squeeze bunt was the Tigers’ second RBI hit of the series and third of the six-game road trip.

Still, with two losses on the Tigers’ winless trip — the latest a 3-2 loss to the Phillies on Thursday in which they carried a ninth-inning lead against seemingly all probability but lost on a walk-off single from former Tiger Kody Clemens — Lange put the responsibility on his shoulders.

“Two opportunities to shut the ballgame down for me on this road trip, didn’t come through,” Lange said after sitting at his locker in contemplation. “It’s tough when the boys are grinding and you have an opportunity to win a ballgame and you let it go like that. It’s tough. It’s a good team and we had a chance to win a ballgame and I didn’t execute.”

His other outing Sunday against the White Sox was an effort to send a tie game into extra innings, spoiled by a Jake Burger grand slam following back-to-back walks. Thursday’s getaway affair at Citizens Bank Park was more of a roller coaster befitting Hersheypark down the road. The Tigers, five outs away from being no-hit by Zack Wheeler and suffering back-to-back 1-0 losses for the second time in franchise history, instead tied the game on Short’s squeeze bunt, then took the lead in the ninth on an RBI single from former Phillie Nick Maton off Phillies closer Craig Kimbrel.

On came Lange for his first save opportunity since May 31 and a chance to turn the Tigers’ late-night flight back to Detroit into a happy one. All he had to do was go through the formidable center of the Phillies’ order, starting with two-time National League MVP Bryce Harper.

Harper’s first-pitch double off a hanging curveball immediately put Lange into trouble, one hit away from a tie game.

“It felt like Harper’s at-bat was huge because he got on base,” manager A.J. Hinch said. “And then as soon as that’s really big, it’s first and second, now the winning run is on base.”

But Lange’s downfall after that was arguably the inability to throw strikes, whether swinging or called. He fell behind on four of his final five batters, walking Trea Turner to put the winning run on base. The one hitter on whom he did get ahead, Bryson Stott, hit an opposite-field bouncer that shortstop Javier Báez could only stop for an infield hit, momentarily holding Harper on third before Brandon Marsh’s sacrifice fly drove him in.

It’s a reversal of fortune for Lange on one of the nastiest pitches in baseball. His curveball drew a 57.8 percent swing-and-miss rate last year, and just under 50 percent this season. But by the time Clemens stepped to the plate with two outs and the winning run on second, Lange wasn’t trusting it.

“When you’re throwing balls at 58 feet, good hitters don’t swing,” Lange said. “That’s what they did. I’m not executing right now.”

It marked the first time this season that Lange has given up runs in back-to-back outings, and the first time in his career that he has suffered losses in consecutive appearances. It’s that rarity, and the reaction Lange had to it, that makes him worth sticking with. He has the best stuff of any reliever in Detroit’s bullpen, combined with the best mentality.

“Baseball’s all about what you’ve done for me lately,” he said. “You give it up, you go out there and you get an opportunity to play again tomorrow. I’m looking forward to that challenge. When my name’s called again, I’ll be ready.”

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