Game Notes: Aces will have to lead Tigers back to the World Series

David Ross barrels into Alex Avila in Game Five of the American League Championship Series in Detroit.

David Ross barrels into Alex Avila in Game Five of the American League Championship Series in Detroit.

The Boston Red Sox have nudged the Detroit Tigers one step closer toward elimination after a 4-3 victory at Comerica Park on Thursday night in Detroit. If it proves to be the final home game for the Tigers this season, it was lackluster in many ways. Outside of a great defensive play by Jose Iglesias in (not so) short left field, and some fire from Torii Hunter after delivering a hit to extend a rally, the club seemed to be sleepwalking a bit. Or maybe the collars are tight or the team is reaching the end of their rope. It’s been 258 days since pitchers and catchers reported to Lakeland back in February. Here they are now in increasingly frigid temperatures, trying to climb the last few rungs of the ladder to get back to the Fall Classic. Down 3 games to 2, they will need to pull out some more road magic this weekend.

It’s up to the aces
Numbers can be used and misused until they numb the senses and wipe the taste out of your mouth. (Just pay attention to any debate in Washington D.C.) But sometimes numbers can be revealing. How about 1.15? As in the combined ERA for Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander, the “Cy New” and “Cy Past” of the Detroit rotation. The duo has struck out an incredible 57 batters in 39 innings, while allowing just 18 hits and 9 walks. Stingy. They’ll have to continue that if the Tigs want to defeat the Boston Red Sox in this ALCS. It’s likely that the two will be in top form again (if JV gets a shot in Game Seven), but the Sox will be facing them for the second time in a week, and it’s a matter of time before the Boston offense explodes.

This team is banged up
Alex Avila, the Human Target, left Game Five after suffering another injury. Apparently it was unrelated to his collision with David Ross on a play at the plate, but you can’t help wonder how many times Avila’s skull can take a rattling. Avila has swung the bat pretty well in the ALCS, and he’s getting on base at a good rate. If he can’t go on Saturday, the Tigers will miss him.

Miguel Cabrera has looked better in this series but on Thursday he again looked gimpy when running the bases, after having wiped a base in Wednesday’s game. Victor Martinez has also been banged up, and Torii Hunter admits that he isn’t 100% after his rendezvous with the wall in Fenway Park last Sunday. This team, largely made up of veterans, is showing the signs of having played 172 games, and for many of them they’ve played 170+ for three straight years.

When does the manager’s shtick grow tiresome?
In addition to the physical issues, many of the Tigers are still carrying some residual angst over the shocking loss in Game Two in Boston. Hunter and Martinez have both shared that they were “pissed” that the team lost that game, Hunter pointing out that allowing David Ortiz to beat them was a hard lesson to learn. According to a few sources I have who have been around the team, there are several players who were scratching their heads over the way their manager rifled through relievers in that game and the fact that Phil Coke, a lefty with great success against Ortiz, was warmed up but not inserted into the game.

The Tigers are a team led by superstars, some of the best at what they do in the game. But in this series the pitching stars have been let down because the other arms in the bullpen have been used in clutch situations. So the Tigers are in the odd position of being one loss away from being eliminated not because their front line talent has failed, but because a critical game was left up to not one, but FOUR relievers. That can’t sit well with a few players on this team who have been around the game a while. The manager has tried to deflect criticism and speculation (with impressive success, since the media hasn’t really questioned his motives much at all), but at some point this seems like it will reach a boiling point. “That’s how this games goes,” and “Some days you win, some days you lose” are nice throwaway phrases that can be utilized when silly questions arise throughout the season, but when the manager has used his bullpen in a way that he hasn’t done all season, when he warms up a pitcher and doesn’t use him because “he hasn’t pitched in a big game in a while,” the “Aw, shucks, isn’t baseball funny?” attitude grows tiring. I think for the first time in the era of this current manager, prominent Tiger players are questioning whether he’s the right man to lead them all the way.

I strongly believe that manager’s rarely win games. Maybe once or twice a season will hey make a move that directly leads to a victory. But a manager can lose games by meddling too much. As I wrote here earlier this week, the man in the manager’s seat for Detroit panicked on Sunday in Game Two. Managers should stay out of the way and let the players decide games. A steady hand is most important, and firm leadership. Over-managing can cost a team wins. I don’t know how many games this manager lost in the regular season, but he lost Game Two in this series.

AJax revitalized
It might just be coincidence, but Austin Jackson has been getting on base since being dropped to the #8 spot in the Detroit lineup. I don’t think it’s all coincidence. Jackson has put pressure on himself, and as his slump grew and grew this postseason, I think he listened to the whispers. That got to him. When you are the first man up to start the game, there’s some self-imposed pressure, if you’re not careful. Jackson has never been a particularly cerebral player – that’s one of the reasons he has never become a good basestealer despite having good speed – he doesn’t use baseball instincts to know how to swipe bags. That translates to the batter’s box, as he is slow or resistant to making adjustments. At the #8 spot I think he’ll be free to be “dumb” at the plate and just go up there and hit pressure-free somewhat. Given his on-base percentage (a slightly above average career mark of .344) and propensity to go into prolonged slumps, I think it’s a better spot for him.

Invisible Porcello
I said here before the playoffs started that I thought Rick Porcello would pitch well in the postseason. I haven’t been correct, but I really haven’t been wrong either. Porcello has been used in one game in each series. It’s been a weird situation in both games. In Game Two of the ALDS against Oakland, Slick Rick was summoned to pitch with the bases loaded and no one out in the bottom of the 9th. He allowed a “basehit” over a drawn in infield as the A’s walked off for a 1-0 win. In Game Two of the ALCS in Boston, Porcello was brought in to pitch the 9th inning and was victimized by his defense. He allowed a harmless slow roller that Iglesias played into an infield hit, the ensuing poor throw being misplayed by Prince Fielder at first, which allowed the runner to go to second base. After a wild pitch moved the runner to third, Porcello allowed a single over a drawn in infield for a walkoff win by the Red Sox. Porcello has faced three batters in the postseason and only one of them hit a ball that was really a hit (that being a very slow roller to Iglesias, and that was questionable). I thought the Detroit manager might use Porcello to come in and get some strikeout in tough spots (Rick has increased his ability to fan batters this season with a wicked breaking ball that dips down and away from lefties and on on righties). Instead he’s been used in a nearly impossible role in Oakland with the bases jammed, and In Boston he pitched fine, other than his wild pitch, which was certainly costly.

Next Commissioner coming from Detroit?
Rumors are swirling that when Bud Selig steps down from MLB’s top post after the 2014 season, Detroit’s own Dave Dombrowski will be his replacement. It’s not far fetched. DD is well respected among his peers, is great at the big picture, a well-spoken man, and he is fair and forward looking. The Tigers would miss him, since he’s pulled off some amazing deals in building the team into a consistent pennant contender, but I think if the job is offered to him, he’ll listen.

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About Dan Holmes

The editor of Detroit Athletic Co. blog, is the author of Ty Cobb: A Biography. He was formerly the Web Producer for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, NY, and worked for Major League Baseball as a producer. He contributed to Sock it to 'Em Tigers: The Incredible Story of the 1968 Detroit Tigers, and Deadball Stars of the American League. Follow him on Twitter at @twebman or visit his personal blog at danholmes.com.