KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- During the past few days, Detroit Tigers manager Brad Ausmus has lamented his narrowing list of bullpen options.
Who can he turn to when he needs to preserve the arms of the aforementioned three?
Besides that trio, it seems as if almost every other reliever is struggling.
Either the player is adjusting to a new role, such as Anibal Sanchez, who is now serving as their long-man protection; or working through some issues, such as Blaine Hardy and Alex Wilson; or is unable to be trusted in anything but a low-leverage situation, such as Mark Lowe. In some cases, it’s been a combination of the three.
That level of vulnerability has never been quite as apparent this season as it was on Saturday night at Kauffman Stadium.
The 16-5 score provided a rough outline of just how bad it was. Another walloping from the Kansas City Royals was dire enough, but the defeat came with its own collection of gut punches and shin kicks that left a .500 Tigers team forced to make tough decisions, both before the game and after.
Starter Matt Boyd was pulled before he could even finish the fourth inning, a disappointing outing that earned him a trip back to Triple-A Toledo.
“I let my team down today,” Boyd said, “and hung out our bullpen to dry.”
Hardy was optioned back to the minors, as well, with the Tigers now likely in the position of having to recall a pitcher or two to provide the team with fresh arms for the coming days.
The situation became so dire in the lopsided later innings that position player Andrew Romine pitched the eighth inning. The fact that he escaped his performance over two-thirds of an inning with far less damage than anyone else among the Tigers’ relief corps only added to the cringe-worthy night. Romine, who made one previous appearance on the mound for Detroit (giving up three runs in an inning against the Twins on Aug. 22, 2014), was the only one of six pitchers for the Tigers to put up zeroes in either the hits or runs column on Saturday.
“Yeah, it’s embarrassing,” Ausmus admitted after the game, adding that he was also concerned about potential injury to Romine, arguably the club’s most versatile player. Slugger Jose Canseco famously needed Tommy John surgery after pitching in a mop-up role in 1993.
And while the Tigers mull who could potentially help spell the bullpen in the short term, the club seems to have considerably fewer options when it comes to Lowe.
“There’s not a ton of options,” Ausmus said. “He’s got to get right.”
Ausmus said Lowe has been “working his tail off to right the ship,” but he just hasn’t been able to yield results.
The 33-year-old Lowe gave up five runs in just a third of an inning Saturday as he watched his ERA balloon to 10.71. He has just one scoreless outing in his last seven appearances.
“When you have guys like Mark Lowe, who is grinding so hard right now, you feel for guys like that. A guy who is such a good guy and tries so hard and has been so positive through this thing, your heart hurts a little bit for him,” teammate Alex Wilson said.
What can teammates even do for him at this point?
“You just gotta be there. At this point, there’s nothing you can say or do personally. It’s just one of those things where he’s in a dark spot right now, and he’s going to come out of it. It’s just a matter of when,” Wilson said. “He’ll come through. He’s too good and he’s too positive, too good of a person for it not to work out eventually.
"Everybody knows he can do it. It’s just a matter of it clicking.”
Ausmus said he won’t overreact to a single game, and he shouldn’t, but the bullpen’s issues have to be a growing concern. During the past week, the Tigers bullpen has ranked dead last in the majors in ERA (10.32), WHIP (2.32) and opponents’ batting average (.388), according to ESPN Stats & Information research. Remove Greene, Wilson and Rodriguez from the equation and the picture is even more bleak (11.25 ERA, 2.50 WHIP and .419 opponents' batting average).
The Tigers will likely receive some fresh arms from Toledo, but beyond that temporary relief, Detroit needs some long-term answers and outs from others besides the usual suspects.