What gives someone more nerve troubles, a roller coaster, or watching the Detroit Tigers’ bullpen pitch? It’s seeming like people can expect more consistency from a fast-food meal than the Tigers’ pen. Yes, the very same bullpen that struggled immensely last year, giving up two grand slams in the postseason. It was sad, considering on one of the grand slams, all four runs were charged to different pitchers. That grand slam was the shot of adrenaline the Boston Red Sox used and carried with them to win the 2013 World Series.
This is the same bullpen that could potentially give other opposing teams boosts of adrenaline to flat-out whip the Tigers, regardless of what their starting pitchers and hitters do. This season — though still early — hasn’t exactly shown Detroit’s bullpen in a bright light.
It started in Detroit’s second game of the season against the Kansas City Royals. Detroit led 1-0 in the top of the ninth, sending in new closer Joe Nathan to slam the door shut. Nathan blew the save, allowing Kansas City to tie the game. Detroit managed to muscle out the win in extra innings. No big deal, right? After all, it was just Nathan fighting through some nerves with the first save of being on a new team, right?
Then comes the third game of the season against the Baltimore Orioles. Detroit is holding a 10-2 lead in the ninth inning. Reliever Joba Chamberlain begins to struggle, letting in two runs. He eventually gets out of the inning, as Detroit obtains their third victory.
Now, let’s move to the absolutely disgusting fourth game, where the ninth inning unfolded to be one that showed the true uncertainty of this shaky bullpen. Detroit has a comfortable 7-1 lead at the top of the ninth. The fans are bored, expecting the Tigers to step on the gas and cruise straight through this inning against the lifeless Orioles. Enter Phil Coke, one of the most unreliable lefties in all of baseball. He begins by giving up a single to a left-handed batter; everyone knew it was doom from then on. Coke proceeds to give up two runs, the score now being 7-3. He then walks a batter. It was still okay right? Coke is known to struggle. Surely the next relievers will suck the life straight out of Baltimore, correct? Nope. It gets more gruesome. Al Alburquerque takes the mound, and gives up an easy single. Two men are now on the bases. Finally, the Tigers bring in Nathan, putting him in a save situation. Nathan began to get rocked. He gives up a double and let’s two runs in, making the score 7-5. Then another run gets in on a throwing error by shortstop Alex Gonzalez. Nathan finally gets the last outs, still nearly blowing a comfortable lead.
In the finale against the Orioles, Alburquerque gave up an insurance run in the top of the ninth inning, comforting Baltimore with a 3-1 lead. That was huge. Had he held, Detroit would have been down by one run instead, allowing an easier attempt for a tie in the ninth.
The season’s still early, but Detroit’s bullpen needs to do better than that. It’s getting to the point where people sit on the edge of their seats, expecting the bullpen to blow a 20-0 lead in the ninth. Analysts and players say bullpen mishaps occur a lot during times when their teams possess comfortable leads. That still doesn’t matter. The fact is that relievers — just as starters — are expected to go out there, throw strikes, and get the outs, period. The relievers should also be able to hold tight leads, or keep the Tigers in games where they are down by just a run, preventing teams from gaining more cushion. So far, the bullpen has failed miserably in these aspects. The bullpen gives opposing teams everlasting confidence; they know they’re never truly out of a game, and that’s bad; very bad. Surely Detroit has a fantastic starting rotation, along with an offense that contains much pop in their bats, but the bullpen is just as important. Detroit has been surpassed by other teams the past few years in the playoffs and World Series because of a faltering bullpen.
It’s too early to count the bullpen out, or deem them as unserviceable, but they definitely need improvement. Nathan, a premier closer, hasn’t looked sharp at all. The rest of the bullpen is struggling to find their rolls. Nobody seems to have their command down, missing the strike zone like it’s in outer space. It’s still a long season, but one thing’s for sure: if Detroit doesn’t have a steady bullpen, they can kiss their World Series dreams goodbye.