Tuesday, January 28, 2014

With Addition of Nathan, Tigers Taking No Chances With Ninth Inning

It was something out of a cartoon. Warner Brothers would have been proud.

The right fielder chases the well-hit baseball all the way to the wall, where he then tumbles over said wall and disappears, like the Coyote vanishing in yet another attempt to chase down the Road Runner.

Only, this scene was hardly funny to Tigers fans.

It was Game 2 of the ALCS last October, in Boston’s Fenway Park. The Tigers swiped Game 1 behind a combined one-hit effort from five pitchers. And they led Game 2, 5-1, in the eighth inning. A 2-0 series lead and a surprisingly easy path to the World Series beckoned.

Then disaster struck, like a horror movie. The Red Sox weren’t dead, after all. The Tigers looked at the Bosox, lying prone on the ground, turned around to hug the girl, and when they turned around, the Red Sox were gone.

So was the baseball hit by David Ortiz, off Joaquin Benoit, the Tigers de facto closer by process of elimination.

The bases were loaded with Red Sox when Benoit served up a beach ball to Ortiz, whose nickname is Big Papi, and it’s not one of those “opposite” nicknames, like a bald guy they call “Curly.”

Ortiz slammed a laser to right field, and Torii Hunter, bless his heart, gave it his all, but Hunter ran out of grass and ran smack into the wall, spilling over it and disappearing into the Boston night.

With one dagger of a swing, Ortiz tied the game and as Benoit sagged on the mound, visibly shaken, the Tigers took on the persona of their makeshift closer, eventually losing the game in the ninth inning.

You could say the series was 1-1, in favor of Boston.

The Tigers, of course, lost the ALCS, 4-2, and the fourth loss was punctuated by another grand slam in the late innings, the second one off the bat of Shane Victorino, who teed off on reliever Jose Veras.

Two grand slams into the Boston night, in two different games, both off late-inning relievers. Two swings that effectively canceled out the brilliant starting pitching the Tigers received the entire series.

The bullpen was the Tigers’ fickle lover all year long in 2013. Every time the team felt its advances, it would turn its back on them. And the Tigers got rebuffed one final time, at the worst possible moment.

As the Joker said in “The Dark Knight,” let’s wind the clocks back a year.

A year ago at this time, the Tigers thought they had their new closer to replace the deposed Jose Valverde. He was big, young rookie Bruce Rondon, the roly-poly kid with the big arm and the big smile.

It was a risk and a half. Plunging a rookie into a closer role is like tossing a grenade into a fox hole to test whether it will detonate. You turn your back, stick your fingers in your ears and hope for the best.
Rondon went boom.

It was clear from the get go, after the season started, that Rondon was too green to close anything other than a door.

In May, the Tigers actually brought back Valverde. Papa Grande went boom, for the second time in eight months.

That left Benoit, the Accidental Closer.

It was makeshift, but it sort of worked. Benoit navigated the Tigers out of troubled waters, with the occasional banging into an unlit pier along the way.

The rest of the bullpen was shaky—just unreliable enough to make it a source of worry for Tigers fans heading in to the playoffs.

When FDR said that the only thing we had to fear was fear itself, he obviously hadn’t seen the Tigers bullpen.

The starters were terrific, and the bullpen tried to hold it all together, but then the playoffs arrived and there was a blown game in the ALDS in Oakland, then the debacles in the Red Sox series.

But opposing hitters beware. There’s a new sheriff in town.

“Yeah, there’s pressure. But I will take that pressure with a chance to go out and win, a chance to get to the World Series.”

The speaker is Joe Nathan, talking to the Detroit Free Press during the Tigers’ winter caravan.

Nathan is a real closer. There’s nothing accidental about him. After a few years in the San Francisco Giants bullpen, setting up games in the late innings, Nathan was traded to the Minnesota Twins before the 2004 season and became the Twins’ lock down man in the ninth inning.

He’s been at this closer thing for 10 years now.

Nathan has 341 career saves. The man he’s replacing in Detroit, Benoit, had 13 career saves prior to last season.

Don’t let anyone tell you that moving from set-up man to closer, as Benoit did last year for the Tigers, is like switching lanes on the freeway.

Well, it could be that way, if you’re talking about moving from the shoulder of the road to the fast lane from a dead stop.

There’s a different mentality that the ninth inning man has—that’s why so many of them are nuts.

The closer is the Red Adair of baseball—fighting fires with a ferocity and stubbornness that just isn’t in every man. When the game is the tightest, when the stakes are the highest, that’s when the closer licks his chops.

Nathan signed with the Tigers last November, despite having a very similar offer from his old team, the Texas Rangers. And Nathan is a Texas kid, born in Houston.

The decision to come to Detroit was about winning, and about being the ninth inning man for a team whose bullpen and makeshift closer fizzled out in the playoffs, when someone like Nathan likely would have led the Tigers past the Red Sox and to the World Series for the second straight year.

“All around, I was attracted to … how much this team can do,” Nathan told the Free Press. “Especially with the speed they brought in, (with) the improvement of their defense, which I think is going to be their biggest difference.”

He is too modest.

The Tigers gambled last year with the back end of their bullpen, anointing an unproven rookie and then bringing back a guy who crashed and burned in 2012. They ended up with a set-up man as their closer and the risk caught up to them at the worst possible time.

No risks this year. No messing around. The Tigers, three-time defending division champs, are once again a World Series contender. They were burned once, so now they hired a fireman by trade.

If the Tigers falter in the ninth inning this year, it’ll be because the other guys beat one of the game’s all-time great closers.

Nathan has made the All-Star team six times, all as a closer. In 2013, for Texas, Nathan saved 43 games and had an ERA that you needed a microscope to see (1.39).

He’s 39 years old, but so what? Nathan had Tommy John surgery a few years ago. He’s 39, but his new arm is four.

Nathan’s style of closing is quick and to the point. He doesn’t do the rollercoaster thing with the fans’ emotions. He gets in and he gets out. He works fast. He closes games like he has a plane to catch.

It’s a breath of fresh air from recent years, when Tigers closers often turned ninth innings into a soap opera.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Selig’s Going Away Gift to MLB (Replay) Ought to be Returned

Former big league umpire Dave Pallone once set me straight on the credibility of the men in blue in the baseball diamond.
“Remember, we umpires may not always be right, but we’re never wrong.”
He’s right. The arbiters of the game might miss a call here and there, but their word is final. You’d have better luck protesting at a show trial.
But what is this? Baseball is about to pop open a bottle and let a genie out that has been corked inside for over 125 years.
Get ready for challenge flags and even more TV timeouts. Prepare yourself for confusion. Is this reviewable? Is that?
Video replay is about to be unleashed on the game, and unlike before, where it trickled out for a few select plays, this time Bud Selig isn’t messing around. He’s dumping the genie out fully with a big plop.
Someone once said of baseball’s lazy allure, “In baseball, you can’t run out the clock, like in other sports. You have to get 27 outs.”
Baseball and time have always had a relationship built on trust; they agree not to interfere with each other.
Umpiring the game has been no small part of this timelessness.
Even when technology grew legs and could walk around and visit every game known to man, sprinkling its advances like Johnny Appleseed, baseball always managed to stay unexplored. It was the unconquered game in that respect.
The means to allow umpires to have a peek at video replay to aid in decision making has been present since the 1960s. But half a century went by before baseball seriously considered using it.
The game that has survived the Black Sox, the reserve clause, spit balls, sign stealing, collusion, the designated hitter and George Steibrenner will soon have another cross to bear.
Selig, the outgoing commissioner, apparently wants to be known for more than a tied All-Star game and the wild card.
So he’s about to shove video replay—serious, some-holds-barely-barred replay—down our throats.
This is more than just the occasional home run, fair or foul calls that are now subject to review. Selig is opening up a whole array of plays that will now send the umpiring crew off the field and under a hood.
The list of plays of which managers can begin to challenge umpires’ judgment starting this upcoming season isn’t pretty, if you’re a baseball purist.
The Chicken Little people will tell you that baseball is taking a giant leap toward making every ball and strike an issue. The “let’s get the call right” people will tell you that any delays caused will be worth it.
The truth, as usual, is somewhere in between.
But there is one indisputable repercussion.
Once the videotape machines start whirring, there’s no going back. It’s not too maudlin to say that the game will be changed forever.
Baseball doesn’t change itself forever very often. I guess it figures that it got 90 feet for base paths right on the first try back in the 1850s, so it can be filled with hubris if it wants.
Once Bud Selig’s expanded replay system starts spitting out videos, we won’t have another Don Denkinger or Jim Joyce to kick around anymore, that’s for sure.
Denkinger famously blew a safe/out call at first base in the 1985 World Series that cost the St. Louis Cardinals a game—and maybe the series itself.
Tigers fans and Joyce need no introduction after the latter picked a horrible time to be human in 2010, robbing Armando Galarraga—remember him?—of a perfect game with two outs in the ninth inning, also with a missed call at first base.
We aren’t likely to have any more poster children for blown calls, once managers start using NFL-like challenges and more and more final words are taken from the umpires on the field.
Sounds good, right? The “get it right” people are doing a happy dance.
Since the 19th century, I’d say baseball got along just fine without halting play and making sure that every call was beyond reproach.
Despite the voluminous list of calls subject to review starting in 2014, not every play is covered. So there will still be plays that affect games which could go against a team unabashed.
The trouble with creating subjective lists of plays that are reviewable, is that inevitably plays are left out that will enrage TV viewers in their incorrectness, yet nothing can be done about them.
So baseball will have created a whole new set of problems.
It’s like changes to playoff systems. The more fair you try to be, and the more teams you include, the more changes and tweaks you have to make to validate those already installed.
You think more people have been placated by MLB’s playoff tweaks than were offended before the addition of the wild card in the first place?
Hard to say. But the fact that the answer isn’t clear, says something.
Baseball’s expanded use of replay in 2014 will include everything from safe/out calls to hit by pitch to trapped catches to tag and forced plays, and more. Managers will be allotted two challenges each up to the seventh inning, after which time Big Brother takes over and determines what is going to be reviewed or not.
You can say that if the technology is there, why not use it. You can say that there’s nothing wrong with getting a play right.
You can also say this. Once the videotape machines take over, baseball’s sense of timeliness goes away forever. We’ll be subject to on-screen clocks that are tracking how long reviews are taking to be completed. More fans will be looking at their watches.
Suddenly, a game that has been played at its own pace in time frames ranging from 90 minutes to four hours per match, for over 150 years, will be overshadowed at times by Father Time.
Managers will freely use their challenges—you can count on that, especially in the new system’s initial years. Callers to sports talk radio, as if they need anything else to bitch about, now have another bone with which to pick with their team’s manager.
The talk around the water cooler the morning after a game won’t be about Miguel Cabrera’s home runs or Max Scherzer’s strikeouts. It’ll be about “that challenge” in the fourth inning.
Will more calls be right than were before? Well, that’s the punch line. I have a feeling that video replay will support the original call on the field far more often than not. So play will be halted for several minutes, only for everyone to be told that the original call made by human eyes was not so bad, after all.
And the cry of “Play ball!” will need to be repeated over and over, between challenges and reviews.
How long before we look back longingly at baseball’s “pre-booth review” days?