There may not be a position in all of sports that bares more burden than a closing pitcher.
If that closer blows a save, everything is his fault. Even factors he cannot control have faltered to him. Forget about the rest of the game. Every other blustered opportunity—every blatant mistake—means nothing. If that same man blows two saves in a row, he becomes public enemy No. 1.
For the fourth time this season, and twice in the last two games, Francisco Rodriguez has blown a game in the ninth inning for the Detroit Tigers in most terrifying fashion.
On Saturday night’s game against the Oakland Athletics, Rodriguez, nicknamed K-Rod for his excellent control, displayed anything but his status quo. Rodriguez had the A’s to their last out—even their last strike—with nobody on base. But a late rally trailed by a two-run single by Adam Rosales lifted the A’s to victory in game two of the series.
In the series finale, Detroit took the lead late following a clutch two-run homer by James McCann. But once again, Rodriguez waltzed on the mound, and would not leave before blowing another one.
Speed-demon Rajai Davis drew a walk to open the ninth. From there, a line-drive double in the left-center gap by Jed Lowrie was all that was needed to bring the former Tiger home to tie the game at six.
Two batters later, Yonder Alonso hit his fifth home run in six games to bring the Athletics to another victory at Rodriguez’s expense.
Rodriguez’s struggle is a tough pill for Tigers’ fans to swallow. Criticized for poor relievers, Detroit’s bullpen finally perked up in recent games. In fact, the bullpen has only allowed five runs in the past 17 2/3 innings. But all five of these runs came from Rodriguez in the ninth inning.
Rodriguez, whose record has fallen to an ugly 1-4 with an 8.49 ERA, has put Tigers’ manager Brad Ausmus in a difficult situation. Was it wise to place Rodriguez in Sunday’s game after his performance the night before? Was it wise to leave him in the game after Lowrie tied it up?
Ausmus has entrusted Rodriguez late in games, but has paid the price of devastating losses along with frustration from an entire fan base as a backlash.
To Ausmus’ credit, he does have good reason for trusting Rodriguez. After all, Rodriguez does have the fourth most saves in MLB history at 437. He also had an excellent 2016 campaign, recording 44 saves and an ERA of 3.24. In fact, there was a time when Rodriguez was the only solace from a lousy Detroit bullpen.
But this success has not carried over into 2017. What does Ausmus do now? Here are four options.
One option would be the “next man up” strategy. Ausmus’ current structure typically allows the starting pitcher to go six innings or so. This permits Alex Wilson to pitch the seventh inning, Justin Wilson to pitch the eighth and Rodriguez to close. If the Tigers are winning down the stretch of a game, the pitching staff is managed in this way.
If Rodriguez is eliminated from this rotation, Justin Wilson can move up to the ninth. Alex Wilson would then be promoted to the set-up man in the eighth and Shane Greene would likely be endorsed to pitch regularly in the seventh.
Any move in which Rodriguez is no longer the Tigers’ closer would almost certainly result in Justin Wilson seizing his place. Wilson only surrendered runs in his twelfth appearance this season. His ERA is in tremendous shape at 1.32 and he racked up 22 strikeouts, which accounts for more than half of his total outs.
However, there is no major place for Rodriguez with this system. This leaves $13 million on the bench.
Another option for Ausmus would be to continue to play Rodriguez regularly, but as a seventh or eight-inning man. This way, there is still recognition that Rodriguez is an important man on the Tigers’ roster, but also realization that he simply is not the best option to close games. Although not a natural closer, Justin Wilson’s statistics suggest that he may be the best man for the job.
A third option, and perhaps the most practical one, would be to continue with the “next man up” strategy in tight games, but give Rodriguez opportunities during blowouts. With this tactic, Rodriguez would not act as a closer for the time being. But he would play the ninth inning if the Tigers are up or down by a large margin.
Rodriguez needs to re-gain his confidence in low-risk situations. This approach would be temporary and can continue for as long as it takes for Rodriguez to find his game.
A fourth, and perhaps most likely, option is that Ausmus does not do anything. He will probably continue to leave Rodriguez with the burden of saving games, even though it has backfired four times this season.
Ausmus has loyalty to closer, which is not a bad thing in itself. It is important to keep in mind that Rodriguez is a legend in the closer community, and is coming off an outstanding season.
However, it is also important to remember that Ausmus’ goal is to get the Tigers in the playoffs at all costs. In 2016, he missed the wild card by 2.5 games. In previous years, the Tigers have missed the playoffs by even less.
The Tigers cannot afford to go for a sequence, no matter how brief, without a quality closer. One of Ausmus’ biggest criticisms is that he does a poor job of managing the bullpen. If the Tigers continue to struggle in this regard, he only proves these criticisms true.
How exactly Ausmus goes about addressing this issue is unclear. However, if Detroit’s closing pitching does not improve soon, and the Tigers miss the playoffs by a small margin, mark your calendars.
May 7 and 8 will be two days that stick in Tigers’ fans heads for a long time.