Monday, July 28, 2008

Monday Morning Manager

(my weekly take on the Tigers)

Last Week: 4-2
This Week: (7/28-31: at Cle; 8/1-3: at TB)

Todd Jones was a closer for another time -- a time when you bit on bullets to deal with pain, and they used mustard plasters for everything from headaches to internal diseases. A time when sports trainers taped an aspirin to your damaged knee and told you to get back out there.

Jones closing a ballgame was often tantamount to having that "little procedure" in the doctor's office without the benefits of anesthesia, local or otherwise. He was the Tilt-a-Whirl, on turbo, right after you had a big lunch.

That's what you get when your closer "pitches to contact" and lacks a true strikeout pitch. And what you get when he allows opposing hitters to ding him successfully to the tune of a .375 clip, as the statisticians say has occurred in Jones's last 11 outings.

Todd Jones is a great guy. He's a great Tiger. He would appear to bleed Tiger blue and orange. But a closer cannot, CANNOT, have hits rained on him at a .375 pace. It's just not acceptable. It's not playing with fire -- it's venturing into a blazing building with a gasoline suit on.

The news that Jones is being replaced -- and we don't know if it's permanently or not -- as team closer by Fernando Rodney has been, I know, well-received by the Tigers faithful. Doesn't take much of an observer to figure THAT out. The gut-wrenching loss to the White Sox on Friday night, in which Jones was one strike away from bringing the Tigers to within 4-1/2 games of first place, only to end up serving a game-winning homer to Jermaine Dye, was the last straw for manager Jim Leyland. That loss hurt as much as any other in recent years, and Jones was sacrificed. There was a little bit of Donnie Moore and Ralph Branca in that loss, as over-the-top as that may seem. Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory in that manner -- hell, not the jaws of victory but the esophagus of victory -- was as bad as it gets, at least for a late-July game.

But that horrific moment on Friday night wasn't just a hiccup. No little blip on the screen. It was the culmination of a month-long's worth of shakiness, even when the saves were being recorded and credited to Jones. Shakiness that a team fighting for its playoff contention life simply cannot afford.

Leyland's job is to give the Tigers their best chance to win. He has said that despite all the money and guaranteed contracts, the manager's trump card is, and always will be, the lineup card. Or, in this case, the bullpen management. You use the players who give you the best chance to win. And Leyland has correctly deduced that Todd Jones does not, at this time, give him that.

"I'm 40 years old," Jones said in the wake of the news of his de-frocking, and the inference is clear: that he's old enough to know that he works in a results-oriented business. And when the results are not there, then changes are made. Good guy or not.

But then there was this, when Jones was asked if he saw the move to de-frock him coming.

"Not at all," was his reply.


Chalk it up to that "can't see the forest for the trees" thing. Although, maybe Jones didn't see it coming because Leyland has always stuck with him, despite the anesthesia-less moments spent watching Jones close ballgames. Jones had no reason to feel his job was in jeopardy, because Leyland has never pulled him from the role, despite those all-too anxious moments. Why should this current 11-game slump be any different?

But every man has his threshold for pain, I suppose, and Leyland has reached his. Clearly, the manager has a higher tolerance than his team's fan base.

As fate would have it, Jones may be called upon to close tonight's game in Cleveland, due to Rodney's 42-pitch effort yesterday, and Joel Zumaya's bad tricep. It's like breaking up with your girlfriend, then asking her out a day later because you're in a jam and need a date.

As Richard Nixon once said, when he was threatening to get out of politics back in the day, "You won't have Todd Jones to kick around anymore."

With the exception of maybe tonight. For old time's sake.



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