In the middle of a 9-19 slide in June, I wrote a guest column for the Detroit Free Press where I stated that I thought if the Detroit Tigers continued to flounder in such a way, don’t be surprised if the team pulled a Les Moss and fired manager Brad Ausmus mid-season.
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As often happens, commenters attacked me without reading the article. Make no mistake, I was not advocating for the termination of Ausmus, simply saying that with this team running out of their window of championship opportunity, anything could happen.
Of course that did not happen and the Tigers rallied to the All-Star break with a commanding AL Central lead. Cold streaks and hot streaks have come and gone after that. First place to second and then back again happened, but one thing has remained the same: Joe Nathan as closer.
Looking back at that column from June, I now acknowledge I was wrong. There was no way that the Tigers were going to fire their rookie manager, even if they had an Oakland Athletics-like second-half swoon. The reason I now feel this way is simple: Joe Nathan.
Dave Dombrowski has always taken a position of not meddling in day-to-day management of the team. That is usually a good thing. Yet it became abundantly clear that DD was not going to step in and “suggest” to Ausmus that Nathan be removed from the closer role when he traded for Joakim Soria. If he was going to, that would have been the time to do it.
This has been Ausmus’ biggest failing this year. I don’t want to say he has no guts, but some might classify it that way. Perhaps we can say he’s gun-shy. Brad is gun-shy about challenging the veterans, especially Nathan.
The Tigers continue to turn to Joe Nathan in nearly every save situation. The only time they do not is when Nathan has gone 2-3 days in a row or threw too many pitches the previous outing.
Saturday’s game in Kansas City was as close to a regular season playoff game as you could get. The Tigers were trying to eek out a victory to guarantee they left KC with a bigger divisional lead than they came in with on Friday.
Ausmus stuck exactly to the script and went with Joba Chamberlain in the eighth. Joba has been pretty awful in the second half, but Ausmus stuck with him and he let the Royals to get one run closer.
Enter Nathan in the ninth with a one-run lead, even though Soria had been throwing in the bullpen during the eighth inning. I had said all season you cannot trust Nathan in the playoffs and here was a legitimate playoff scenario. He allowed two on with one out. A gapper could have won the game for the Royals.
At this point, Nathan should have been pulled. It’s late September, players have to understand they are on short leashes. Bring in Soria in that situation.
With two out, the runners moved to second and third, and a simple base hit would have won the game for the Royals. It was that close. One swing of the bat and the division race could be much tighter. Luck played a part and Nathan safely recorded the final out.
One of Kansas City’s problems down the stretch has been their inability to come up with big hits because of a light-hitting lineup. Had this been against a better hitting team like the Los Angeles Angels or Baltimore Orioles (the likely first round opponents for the Tigers should they win the division), do you honestly think a run or two would not have scored in that scenario?
It is pretty apparent that if a change was going to be made, it would have already been made with the division still up for grabs. So what this means is if the Tigers find themselves in a wild-card game or ALDS matchup next week, expect ol’ horselips Joe to trot in from the bullpen in a save situation.
And if you thought Saturday’s anxiety level was high…just wait.