"It was one big crater," he said.
That was the extent of the erosion of the Rogers Centre pitching surface toward the end of the longest game in Toronto Blue Jays history, and that's the feeling most Tigers fans must have after a weekend of 29 innings played in two days, only to end up with two walk-off losses. Toronto won one of the zaniest games you'll ever see Sunday, with Jose Bautista playing the hero after going 1-for-8, and the Tigers getting 22 hits and losing 6-5. A World Series favorite with three Cy Young winners in one rotation is now only a half-game up on the charging Kansas City Royals. One of the most talented teams in Detroit history is tiptoeing around one big crater.
The game was weird even before it became historically odd. Tigers manager Brad Ausmus was ejected in the third inning because he felt the strike zone was too wide for Jays starter Mark Buehrle. He headed down the steps of the dugout after being tossed, then sat in his office and watched TV for another five hours. Once he got too stir-crazy, he walked around the clubhouse and "bounced from TV to TV."
"It was a little strange sitting in here," Ausmus said.
It got stranger. David Price, helped to a 5-0 lead after four innings, took a line drive off the outside of his left leg off Danny Valencia in the sixth. That turned into a double, and Price's next pitch turned into a two-run homer for Dioner Navarro. That sequence changed the game, and if you're optimistic like Jays reliever Casey Janssen, "Maybe this game is the turning point to a hot streak."
An easy Sunday for Detroit turned into the second chapter of a weekend nightmare. On Saturday, Joe Nathan's unsightly blown save got his name trending on Twitter and sent the city of Detroit into fits even on the day of the Lions' preseason opener. (One customs agent at the Canada border on Sunday morning greeted a driver to the Jays game with this query: "What happened yesterday?!") It seems every strong start for the Tigers is wasted because of an inept bullpen, and Sunday it happened yet again. Detroit gave up five runs in the last four innings before extras, with Joba Chamberlain getting the blown save this time thanks to a ninth-inning single, steal, and another single. The Tigers have Justin Verlander as (arguably) their fourth-best starter and they still look vulnerable – even with a lead.
And the bullpen is not the only issue. Once this game got into extra innings, the Tigers got a visit from their other recent demon: trouble at the plate. When Miguel Cabrera is going through a 0-for-14 slump, which he broke Sunday, it's trouble for the whole lineup. On Sunday, Detroit went the final 15 innings without scoring. It went five-for-20 with runners in scoring position and left 19 runners on base. The coup de grace was when Torii Hunter arrived at the plate in the 16th inning with the bases loaded and one out. He bounced into a 1-2-3 double play, and you could hear the groans all the way from Woodward Avenue.
"We've been struggling to score runs," Ausmus said. "We're not getting runs, not driving in runs."
No, it has been the Jays with the clutch hits. Bautista, who had been plagued with frustrating at-bats and weird hops in the field throughout the day, came up in the bottom of the 19th with the bases loaded and one out. He slammed a Porcello pitch into right field for a walk-off single and was bombarded by such a flurry of teammate love that he lost his jersey. In the Toronto clubhouse afterward, it looked like the team had played nine instead of 19. There were fresh faces and loud music.
Down the long concourse, Ausmus had a glazed look in his eye. Asked for the takeaway from the day, he offered, "I don't know if I can sum it up for you."
Moments later, after the press left his office, Ausmus was huddled with pitching coach Gene Lamont and general manager Dave Dombrowski, heads lowered, speaking in low voices. Outside, players dressed in silence. There was no music and there were few words. The loudest sound was the showers running in the bathroom.
For Jim Leyland, this would have been just another harsh baseball lesson during just another long season. For Ausmus, a rookie manager, this is his first real test. Maybe he needs to shake things up somehow. Maybe he needs to stay the course and do nothing. For now, he's trying to figure out how much arm strength is left in his enervated bullpen.
Ironically enough, the newest Tiger could be a source of strength. Price had experienced August and September trouble spots just about every season with the Rays. Tampa Bay under Joe Maddon is almost known for its near-death experiences in the late summer. And Price has worked his entire career on maintaining his calm.
"I don't want to fight myself out there," he said after the loss on Sunday. "It's something I've tried hard to learn to do."
He spoke slowly and deliberately, which is how he pitches, and offered up a reality check and a dose of optimism: "We're still in first place," he said. "That's all that matters."
Still in first place after 29 weekend innings and two crushing losses. Yet still no answers for a weak bullpen and a strangely anemic offense. The Jays got a slice of history and a galvanizing win on Sunday. The Tigers got another gut punch. It will be up to the triumvirate of Cy Young winners to get back on that mound and avoid that crater.
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