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Tigers bullpen predictably fails again

This shouldn't be a surprise to anyone, and there is no real way to fix it now.

Rob Carr

SB Nation 2014 MLB Bracket

Justin Verlander is not the pitcher he used to be. He might someday be that workhorse ace again, maybe even as soon as 2015, but in the present, that's not who he is. He's a diminished version of his former self who can still show flashes of excellence, but is now prone to brushes with pitching mortality that didn't even seem possible for someone with his ability before 2014 began.

Anibal Sanchez is still a great starter, but he made just 21 starts thanks to a pectoral injury, and returned too late in the year to rehab in the minors. He received a single relief appearance in late-September after not pitching for almost two months, meaning he had not been able to build back up his strength and stretch out in time to be part of the ALDS rotation. The stuff is still there, but Sanchez isn't an innings machine even when his season is going well: immediately coming off of an injury, he can only be used for so long.

To compensate for Verlander and Sanchez's respective deficiencies, Tigers' manager Brad Ausmus made them a tag team today: after Verlander took a mild beating, giving up three runs, six hits, and a homer over five inefficient frames, Sanchez got the hot tag and laid waste to the Orioles. He got through two innings of relief unscathed, striking out two without allowing a baserunner. The plan almost worked to perfection, but there was a problem: there were still two innings left, and the Tigers were up by only three runs.

If it were a little later in the playoffs, or Sanchez had returned from his injury just a little earlier, he might have had more than 30 pitches and two innings in the tank. Neither of those situations is the one Sanchez and Ausmus found themselves in to start the eighth inning, however, so in came Joba Chamberlain, who received an ovation from the Orioles fans in Baltimore who knew he was the key to their comeback. Three runs in two innings might seem like a lot to score against a bullpen  after the joint performance of Verlander and Sanchez, but this is the Tigers bullpen.

On Thursday, Max Scherzer lasted 7-1/3 innings, allowing four runs before he was lifted for Chamberlain. Joba allowed Scherzer's final baserunner to score as well as one of his own, then Joakim Soria came in to allow one of Joba's to score, as well as four of his own. For good measure, Phil Coke came in and allowed a run, too, making it 12-3 Baltimore. On Friday, there weren't as many names, but there didn't need to be. Chamberlain allowed two baserunners, including one thanks to a hit by pitch on a fastball that got away, and made way for Soria once more. Soria walked J.J. Hardy, and then Delmon Young saw a hanging slider down the middle of the plate for the first and only pitch he would see on the afternoon. Young stood on second while three Orioles triumphantly slid home, giving Baltimore a 7-6 lead, and eventually, a 2-0 series lead with home-field advantage still intact.

This is not some two-game stretch where the Tigers' pen strangely can't get the job done. On the year, the Tigers bullpen posted a 4.29 ERA -- the American League average was 3.63. They struck out batters at a lesser rate (7.8 per nine to 8.3), walked batters more often (3.9 against 3.3), and averaged two baserunners more per inning than the average pen. It's not the worst bullpen of all time, but it's bad enough to waste a Scherzer quality start and a combined Verlander/Sanchez gem on consecutive days without it feeling like a surprise to anyone watching.

The Tigers can't fix their bullpen while the playoffs are happening. They tried to make it work in-season by acquiring Joakim Soria, but he hasn't missed bats in Detroit and posted a 4.91 ERA in his 13 regular season games with them. Joe Nathan remains the closer even though he had as bad  a year in his own way as Verlander has, just in a different role -- remember, too, that Nathan hasn't even been given a chance to redeem himself or lose a postseason game for the Tigers, as they haven't carried a lead into the ninth yet thanks to the pitchers who are supposed to bridge the starters to him.

What the Tigers need, and it's a lot to ask even with their personnel, is for the starters to go even deeper into games. They need the offense to pick things up even more to compensate. They need a reliever or two to get lucky and manage to do their job because of it. Stretches like this didn't kill the Tigers in the regular season, but they did make the AL Central more interesting than it ever should have been. In a five-game series instead of a 162-game season, these problems will be magnified,  have been magnified, and now the Tigers are down to what could be their final game of 2014 on Sunday. The Orioles are a good playoff team, and they deserve credit for pouncing on the Tigers' pen as they have on consecutive days, but that fact only makes Detroit's win or go home situation all the more precarious.