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Wednesday, July 23, 2014
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Published: Monday, 10/7/2013

SPORTS COMMENTARY

Imperfect pitchers need to be perfect

Tigers face elimination this evening in Game 4 of the ALDS

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST

DETROIT — The pitcher was chirping, the batter didn’t appreciate it, the benches emptied, the bullpens too. But, like most baseball squabbles, profanity aside, the whole thing was rather harmless.

Sort of like the Detroit Tigers’ bats.

It was a different story for Oakland, which cranked out three home runs Monday at Comerica Park. Two came in the fifth inning just after Detroit had forged a 3-3 tie and produced a 6-3 win for the A’s.

So, the Tigers are in trouble. They face elimination this evening in Game 4 of the ALDS.

But this trouble is nothing new. Detroit used to be a high-scoring team. The Tigers would swing and the ball would be going, going, gone. Since the start of September, though, it is the run production that has been going, going, and gone.

These punchless Tigers have little or no margin for error. Their pitching has to be close to perfect. And it often is.

This time, Anibal Sanchez was not. Jim Leyland was the first to admit it. Yet, at a critical juncture, with Sanchez already at 100 pitches in the fifth inning, Leyland left him in to surrender the killing blow.

Sanchez had just allowed a line-drive blast to Brandon Moss to fall behind 4-3 and a single to Yoenis Cespedes and now the righty was to face Seth Smith, a left-handed hitter whose career average against Sanchez was, at that particular moment, .381 with three home runs.

Leyland had a lefty, Jose Alvarez, up and ready in the bullpen. But the Tigers’ skipper sat in the dugout and sipped his coffee.

“He obviously wasn’t sharp,” Leyland said of Sanchez. “He’s a guy who once in a while starts out slow and [then] gets it going. Today he did not. [But] he’s my guy, and he did lead the league in earned run average. You figure he’s going to get out of it at any time because he’s good at making pitches. … I don’t think twice about that.”

He may have been thinking differently three pitches later when Smith ran into a high fastball, drove it the opposite way into the jetstream, and made the score 6-3. Smith is now hitting .409 against Sanchez with four homers.

Leyland is loyal, sometimes to a fault. But his reasoning was somewhat understandable. Not only did Sanchez lead the American League in ERA, he gave up fewer home runs per nine innings than any pitcher.

But this was a mistake-filled effort built on lousy pitch location.

“You don’t really expect to put up six runs on Anibal Sanchez,” Moss said, “so we’re definitely happy with that.”

Oakland batters struck out 12 times Monday and that’s a whopping 41 Ks for the A’s in three games. But they have been trading strikeouts for home runs all season and now they are one victory from advancing.

To prevent that, the Tigers would have to win two straight, including one game in Oakland. They did snap a 20-inning scoreless streak by stringing together four base hits in the bottom of the fourth, but any power died on fly balls to the biggest part of Comerica.

“We ran into another situation where we didn’t put enough runs on the board,” Leyland said.

Maybe Victor Martinez’s ninth-inning shouting match with Oakland closer Grant Balfour will fire up the Tigers and their bats. If not, it’s all on the pitchers. And that wasn’t good enough in Game 3.

Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: dhack@theblade.com or 419-724-6398.



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