Tigers lose because Jim Leyland’s closer-by-committee really wasn’t

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Jim Leyland said all of the right things this spring after Bruce Rondon failed to step up and win the Tigers’ closing gig. He didn’t seem the least bit disturbed to go with a closer-by-committee situation while waiting for things to shake out.

And then he went and seemingly abandoned the idea in the second game of the season.

Game 1 worked out perfectly for Leyland: the Tigers beat the Twins 4-2, with Joaquin Benoit getting four outs in the eighth and ninth and before stepping aside for Phil Coke with lefty Justin Morneau up. Morneau struck out and Ryan Doumit flied out to end it.

Game 2 didn’t. Leyland went with the same exact arrangement in a 2-1 game, even though this time in meant Benoit would face lefties Joe Mauer and Morneau in the eighth and Coke would get the righties in the ninth. Benoit did his job in the eighth, but he walked Trevor Plouffe to start the ninth before getting pulled. Coke came in and retired the lefty Chris Parmelee, only to give up hits to right-handers Brian Dozier and Eduardo Escobar and take a 3-2 loss.

In Coke’s defense, Escobar’s double to the warning track in center should have been caught. It appeared that Austin Jackson and Andy Dirks both thought the other would haul it in. Still, even if it had been caught, it would have been a game-tying sac fly and a blown save for Coke. And it was a well hit ball by a pretty terrible hitter.

But the whole idea here is that Leyland has a bunch of similarly talented relievers and needs to play matchups as a result. And he didn’t. Coke was successful in an expanded role in the playoffs last year, but right-handers torched him for a .396 average in the regular season. Lifetime, righties have hit .299 against him, compared to .232 for lefties. He is a matchup guy, not a closer, and the obvious call was to use him in the eighth tonight.

Leyland, though, trusts Coke. More than he does Benoit. Far more than he does Al Alburquerque, even though Alburquerque has a 1.57 ERA and a .143 average against in 57 1/3 innings as a major leaguer. If not Coke, one gets the feeling it would have been Octavio Dotel finishing this game, even though he’s the third or fourth best right-hander in the pen.

Of course, I’m probably overreacting here. It’s the second game of the season, and Leyland deserves a chance to feel things out. At the same time, given that it is early in the season, why not see what Alburquerque and Brayan Villarreal can do in those pressure situations? The Tigers already know exactly what they have in Coke. And trying to make a closer out of him is like shoving a square peg into a round hole.

Manoah, Merrifield lead Blue Jays to 3-1 win over Rays

Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports
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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Alek Manoah pitched seven shutout innings, Whit Merrifield hit a three-run homer and the Toronto Blue Jays regained the top AL wild-card spot with a 3-1 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays on Saturday night.

The Blue Jays lead Tampa Bay by one game. The top wild card finisher will host all games in their best-of-three opening-round series, while the other two wild cards play strictly on the road.

Manoah (15-7) scattered four hits, walked two and struck out eight while throwing a season-high 113 pitches. The righty worked out of a two-on, one-out jam in the sixth by striking out Randy Arozarena and getting a flyout from David Peralta.

Jordan Romano replaced Tim Mayza with two on and two outs in the eighth and allowed pinch-hitter Harold Ramirez‘s RBI infield single but avoided further damage by striking out Manuel Margot. Romano finished the game to get his 35th save in 41 chances.

Tampa Bay starter Drew Rasmussen (10-7) gave up one run, three hits and two walks in 6 1/3 innings. He struck out five.

The teams combined for 31 runs, with the Rays accounting for 20, in the first two games of the series that were both won by Tampa Bay.

Arozarena got the Rays’ first hit off Manoah with a two-out double in the fourth. He became the first Tampa Bay player and 20th big leaguer to have 40 doubles, 20 homers and 30 stolen bases in a season.

Teoscar Hernandez ended Rasmussen’s night with a double in the seventh. Brooks Raley entered and, after a walk to pinch-hitter Danny Jansen, Merrifield made it 3-0 on his 10th homer of the season.

Merrifield homered twice in Thursday night’s 10-5 loss to the Rays.

Alejandro Kirk opened the second with a single before Rasmussen retired 12 in a row until Merrifield’s leadoff double in the sixth.

Plate umpire Corey Blaser took a hard foul ball by Margot on the mask in the eighth but remained in the game.

HONORING KK

The Rays posted a thank you on the message board for CF Kevin Kiermaier, who is out for the season following left hip surgery. Kiermaier is in the final season of a $53.5 million, six-year contract that includes a club option for 2023 that is expected to be declined.

TEAM AWARDS

Rays ace Shane McClanahan was voted the Don Zimmer MVP award winner by members of the Tampa Bay chapter of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. CF Jose Siri was selected as the outstanding rookie. 3B Yandy Diaz received the Paul C. Smith Champions award as the player who best exemplifies the spirit of true professionalism on and off the field.

TRAINER’S ROOM

Blue Jays: RHP Nate Pearson (lat strain) allowed three runs and three hits over two-thirds of an inning for Triple-A Buffalo.

Rays: 2B Brandon Lowe (lower back) is done for the season.

UP NEXT

McClanahan (12-6), pulled from his start Tuesday in the fifth inning due to neck tightness, will face Blue Jays RHP Ross Stripling (8-4) on Sunday.