In seven innings, Max Scherzer threw 108 pitches. For him, this is not a huge number of pitches. His high during the regular season was 123, and he threw more than 108 pitches in 14 of his 32 starts. He breezed through the seventh on 14 pitches. In the eighth, the Red Sox' 8-9-1 hitters were due up. We don't know what Scherzer said to Leyland or pitching coach Jeff Jones after the seventh; maybe he was just out of gas. It's been a long season. But if Leyland had sent Scherzer back out for the eighth, nobody would have questioned Leyland's judgment. And if Scherzer had recorded two or three outs in the eighth, the game probably has a completely different ending.
Now, the actual eighth inning. Jose Veras, a perfectly competent right-handed relief pitcher for some years now, took the mound for the Tigers. He retired Boston's No. 8 hitter, and gave up a semi-ringing double to Boston's No. 9 hitter. That brought up lefty-hitting Jacoby Ellsbury, and Leyland yanked Veras in favor of lefty Drew Smyly.
Smyly was devastating against left-handed hitters this season. He held them to a .189 batting average, along with one home run and six walks in 129 plate appearances. You don't know what Veras is going to do. You figure Smyly's going to retire Ellsbury, even though Ellsbury's got a solid on-base percentage (.343) against southpaws.
Smyly got ahead of Ellsbury, two strikes and a ball. And then Smyly walked Ellsbury. Or Ellsbury walked. You can decide for yourself who gets the action verb.
With righty-hitting Shane Victorino and righty-hitting Dustin Pedroia coming up next, Leyland yanked Smyly in favor of righty Al Alburquerque. Percentage move. Alburquerque struck out Victorino, and gave up a line-drive single to Pedroia. Which loaded the bases.
Jim Leyland wasn't going to let Alburquerque pitch to David Ortiz with the bases loaded. His only real options were lefty Phil Coke and righty closer Joaquin Benoit. Leyland chose his closer, whose first pitch got hit, and caught ... by a bullpen catcher. In case you missed it:
Phil Coke has faced David Ortíz 20 times in their careers, and Ortíz has reached base exactly three times: single, double, walk.
Later, MLB Network's Dan Plesac and Daryl Hamilton engaged in this little colloquy:
Plesac: I know a lot of questions are going to be asked, and were asked after the game, to Jim Leyland. You have Phil Coke, a lefty, he's up and warming up. Why don't you bring him in to face David Ortíz. David Ortíz, 2 for 18 career off Phil Coke.
I think the reasoning is, Phil Coke hasn't been as good in 2013. He had a little stint down in the minor leagues. Those stats might be a little bit deceiving. I think Jim Leyland did the right thing. I think he went with his go-to guy, Joaquin Benoit. He knew getting a four-out save could be a knockout punch, give them a big leg up in this series if they could win this game. Go back to Detroit [for] Game 3, having Justin Verlander. It just didn't work out.
Hamilton: Dan, I understand what you're saying, that Benoit is his go-to guy. I get that. But why is Coke on the roster if you're not going to bring him in to face Big Papi? That's the biggest problem I have.
Plesac: Here's my reasoning, Daryl. Because even if Big Papi were to start the ninth inning in a one-run game, Joaquin Benoit's going to start the ninth inning. When you have your guy that's closing games in the ninth inning, you're not at that mix-and-match game. They're not a bullpen-by-committee like they were for a couple of months during the season. Benoit is going to be in at the crucial times to get the big outs. That's when they needed him to come through.
Hamilton: I understand that. But we're not talking about the ninth inning. We're talking about two outs in the eighth inning with the bases loaded.
Plesac: But the game could have been won right there. They get that out, they more than likely win that game.
Hamilton: But the questions are always going to be asked, why not bring in the lefty to face the lefty. And if you have Coke in your bullpen, and he's on your roster, and you don't feel comfortable with him out there, do not have him in your bullpen and in your roster.
Plesac: But this is where you get in a real tight situation. You're asking a guy that has struggled most of the year. And maybe in a perfect world, Jim Leyland would have liked to have used Phil Coke, but used him in the sixth, seventh inning, not in an eighth inning, game on the line, David Ortíz. He more than likely wasn't comfortable bringing him in because of the way he pitched, 2013.
and ... SCENE
I certainly don't agree with everything those guys said. But it was a deeper conversation than you're usually going to see on a sports network. Or for that matter, a news network. Which I appreciate.
Now, about the merits ... Both guys score some points here, but I'm siding with Hamilton. For one thing, while Coke certainly struggled this season -- yes, that's a 5.40 ERA next to his name -- he did not particularly struggle against left-handed hitters. The problem, as Brian Kenny was saying way back in April, is that Coke should be used as a lefty specialist. Early in the season, Leyland for some godforsaken reason wasn't using Coke that way. But this season, even with that 5.40 ERA, Coke struck out three times more left-handed hitters than he walked, and gave up one home run in 88 plate appearances.
If Leyland had any confidence at all in Coke, he might have used him against Ellsbury and saved Smyly for Ortíz. But it's pretty clear that Leyland doesn't have any confidence in Coke. Which does, as Hamilton astutely points out, lead one to question why Coke's on the roster at all. And the answer is that the Tigers have to fill 25 slots, and Leyland actually likes only 24 guys on the 40-man roster. So Coke probably made it because he's been around for a while.
Ortíz destroyed Benoit's first pitch for the game-tying grand slam. Then Benoit struck out Mike Napoli. The Tigers went down quickly in the top of the ninth. Now it's the bottom of the ninth, and here's another decision of Leyland's that we might question.
Veras threw three pitches before Leyland pulled him. Smyly threw six pitches before Leyland pulled him. Alburquerque threw eight pitches before Leyland pulled him. And now Benoit has thrown eight pitches, and Leyland pulls him. Only eight pitches, and Benoit's out of the game, replaced by Rick Porcello.
What? Remember, Benoit was going to get the four-out save. But now he's out of the game ... why? Because it's no longer a save situation? Because his spirit has been crushed by the grand slam? Because he's not actually as good as Rick Porcello?
I'm so confused. He's your go-to guy ... and he throws eight pitches? With a day off next?
I know I should leave well enough alone, and leave you with those questions. After all, we have to explain that incredibly bizarre ending somehow. But I don't think it's fair to question Leyland without questioning John Farrell. In the sixth inning, he waited way too long to get somebody warming up behind Clay Buchholz, who remained in the game long enough to give up Alex Avila's two-run homer that made the score 5-0.
Oh, and exactly why was Jonny Gomes in the lineup? His first three times up, Gomes struck out. Meanwhile, lefty-hitting on-base machine Daniel Nava was rotting away on the bench, and in fact never did get in the game. In the ninth, with the righty Porcello on the mound, Gomes was due to lead off and Farrell let him. After the game, someone asked Farrell about that ...
Well, we had one more move on the bench with Nava, and we were holding him back for Will (Middlebooks) if that spot came up. But, you know, in those pressure moments we've seen, you know there's complete trust in Jonny. And against Porcello, we knew it's gonna be sinker-slider, and felt like Jonny's equipped to handle that, and he gets a ground ball in the 5-6 hole ...
Well, yeah. It was a ground ball, hit not very hard at all, that found the right spot. Iglesias fielded the grounder, and made an ill-advised throw that turned into an error and pushed Gomes to second. A wild pitch (that looked to me like a passed ball) and a single later, the Red Sox completed their improbable comeback. And while it's quite possible that Gomes is especially equipped to handle Porcello's repertoire, let's not pretend that Gomes did much in Game 2 except strike out three times and hit a grounder with eyes.
It's impossible to manage a perfect game. There are too many competing interests, and so many things happening so quickly. And it's worth remembering that the manager who makes the most mistakes isn't necessarily the one who loses.