It's the postseason. Maybe it's the wild-card game. Maybe it's the Division Series or the ALCS or even the World Series. The Detroit Tigers are leading 3-2. It's the ninth inning. Say Max Scherzer or David Price has gone the first eight innings, but either of them are right at 100 pitches or so.
What do you if you're Brad Ausmus?
That's the question I'm left wondering about after watching the end of Tuesday's game in Detroit. Price, bouncing back from a poor outing his previous start, took a three-hit shutout into the ninth against the White Sox, having thrown 95 pitches and holding a 3-0 lead.
You can't really blame Ausmus for leaving Price in at that point. He's a workhorse with 21 starts of at least 110 pitches on the season. He's thrown the most pitches in the majors. The White Sox hadn't touched him. The Tigers needed the win to maintain their one-game lead over the Royals, who had already defeated the Indians, and Price looked strong.
So, sure, leave him in. Plus, you know, that Detroit bullpen doesn't actually have Mariano Rivera sitting down there.
On the other hand, there's this argument:
1. Price has thrown the most pitches in the majors. I just said that, which is both a positive and a concern. (Scherzer, by the way, has thrown the second-most). You're going to need a strong Price for five or maybe six postseason starts, so why not save a few pitches for October?
2. Considering some of his bad starts with the Tigers, get him out of there after a dominant outing, with something positive sitting on his brain before the playoff begin.
3. You don't trust your bullpen with a 3-0 lead?
4. You're going to need to trust your bullpen at some point in the postseason.
Adam Eaton hit a slow grounder up the middle as Joe Nathan warmed up in the Detroit bullpen. Alexei Ramirez hit a line-drive double into the corner. With Jose Abreu up the Tigers broadcast crew asks, "Now what do you if you're Brad Ausmus?" Ausmus' answer: This is David Price's game. Abreu fans on three pitches, Price spitting and chewing on his yellow mouthguard and shaking off Alex Avila before getting Abreu on an 0-2 cutter. Avisail Garcia singles up the middle to score two runs. Ausmus comes out of the dugout and the fans boo, assuming he's going to bring in Nathan.
Price stays in. The fans cheer. Dayan Viciedo flies out. But then Paul Konerko bloops a single to left, and then Marcus Semien hits a soft liner to right-center on Price's 19th pitch of the inning and 114th of the game and suddenly the game is tied.
Finally, Price is removed. Nathan walks a batter to load the bases but escapes the jam. Then the Tigers win it in the bottom of the ninth, Miguel Cabrera knocking in the winning run.
So the question has to be asked again: What does Ausmus do now? The fans' reaction tells you all you need to know about the confidence they have in Nathan. I think the way Ausmus managed that inning tells us all we need to know about his confidence in Nathan. And it's not like the set-up crew with Joba Chamberlain and company inspires much confidence either. Maybe Anibal Sanchez will be able to help out out of the bullpen, but let's see him pitch before saying he's ready.
The Tigers have been here before. In 2012, Jose Valverde had a mediocre season closing, with a 3.78 ERA and poor strikeout rate. He imploded in the Division Series against the A's and then again in Game 1 of the ALCS, so Jim Leyland patched together the bullpen the rest of the way, with Phil Coke getting two saves as the Tigers reached the World Series. The 2013 season is remembered for Joaquin Benoit serving up that grand slam to David Ortiz, but Benoit and Drew Smyly had actually been terrific, with ERAs of 2.01 and 2.37 in the regular season, so the late innings didn't seem like a huge issue heading into October.
At some point, Ausmus will need his bullpen. Scherzer has one complete game in his career. Justin Verlander has pitched eight innings once since April. Price was given this game and couldn't finish it off.
The Tigers may win the division. The Royals may catch them. Either way, the ninth inning looms large in Detroit's future.