Thursday, June 15, 2006

Rollercoaster That Jones Rides Is A Thrill Tigers Can Live Without

The thrill you get after riding a really good rollercoaster is heart-thumping, scary, and electrifying. Then you can't wait to go again.

Todd Jones, though, has taken the Tigers and their fans on a rollercoaster this season that none of us care to ride again, thank you.

Jones, at times, can be the lights out closer -- one-two-three, with nary a sniff of trouble. Other times, he can be the struggling, late inning pinata for the opponents. Up. Down. Up. Down. And around, in between.

As the July 31 trade deadline looms about six weeks away -- unless Jonesy puts a screeching halt to his thrill ride -- GM Dave Dombrowski might be forced into a hard decision: Ride -- no pun intended -- with Todd Jones toward a likely playoff push, or seek another late inning man via trade?

This is all about baseball. For if this were about good people, then Todd Jones would be Mariano Rivera, Rollie Fingers, and Bruce Sutter rolled into one. You won't meet many nicer in baseball. But alas, this is about baseball, and if a player cannot perform his sole duty with any measure of consistency, then that player is vulnerable to replacement.

Manager Jim Leyland, the other night after the Tigers disposed of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, defended Jones and Fernando Rodney, who's had some tough outings recently.

"Those guys [Jones and Rodney] are good pitchers," the skipper said. "They have a tough job. And when they, quote-unquote 'blow' one, people want to make a big deal. It's because when they don't get the job done, because of the game situation, it stands out."

Jones has 17 saves. Only a few of them have been the one-two-three, painless kind. But the bottom line is results, and by that measure, Jones has indeed saved 17 Tigers victories -- even if he's placed many of those games in dire peril.

But it's not Jones' saves, of course, that will determine whether he remains the closer throughout the season. It'll be the ones that got away. His ERA is hideous, and opponents bat well over .300 against him. Those are not two stats you'd prefer to see from the man who's supposed to slam the door shut on the bad guys in the ninth inning.

Jones saves, but he also giveth away

Last night, Jones was blitzed for four runs in the 12th inning. The Tigers lost. The inning before, he was one-two-three. Two nights earlier, Jones was magnificent in the Tigers' extra-inning defeat of the Rays. Friday night in Toronto, Jones was the pinata again -- contributing mightily to the Blue Jays' eight-run eighth inning. The Tigers lost. The night before, Jones was one-two-three in Chicago in the ninth -- with a comfy four-run lead. A week ago Friday, in the ninth inning against the Red Sox at home, Jones was one-two, but gave up a two-run homer before he could get out #3. The Tigers lost.

It's hard to imagine anything other than a brilliant run in the next month changing the Todd Jones dilemma. The Detroit News' Jerry Green called Jones an "enigma" in his online column Sunday. That's about right.

As a person, there's nothing rollercoaster about Todd Jones. He's forever kind, personable, and a good teammate. As a relief pitcher, he's a wild ride, spinning out of control at times.

One-two-three? Sometimes. Sometimes not.

Can the Tigers live with that throughout September?


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