It takes one to know one, it’s been said, so it was fitting that the Tigers would win a game the way they’ve lost nine already this year: Through the loss of a late-game lead.
A few hours after manager Jim Leyland installed Joaquin Benoit as his primary closer, with no word on when Jose Valverde, who has yielded 11 runs in 7 1/3 innings over the last three weeks, would pitch again -- a déjà vu of their postseason last October -- the Tigers won when Jhonny Peralta hit a two-run walkoff homer to beat Boston on Thursday night.
The Red Sox, meanwhile, have their own closing issues. Andrew Bailey has now blown three of his last five save opportunities and allowed seven runs in four innings. After the game, manager John Farrell, upon being asked whether he’d re-think Bailey as his ninth-inning man, told reporters, “I think so.”
That’s two closer demotions in one ballpark in one night. And guess what? These aren’t cellar dwellers, but a pair of division leaders. The Red Sox have the AL’s best record and a one-game lead over the Orioles in the East; the Tigers have a four-game lead over the Indians in the Central.
While this may be detrimental to the late-game enjoyment of baseball fans in Boston and Detroit this summer, this development could generate high entertainment for neutral observers. New offensive heroes will be christened; late-inning bathroom breaks will be risky; drama could perhaps persist into the postseason.
For now, Benoit appears to be an inspired choice for Detroit. With a 1.80 ERA, 10.5 K/9 and a stellar 1.00 WHIP, Benoit has been the Tigers’ best relief pitcher so far this year. Now, there are reasons to have a first-rate eighth-inning reliever, but lefthander Drew Smyly could be up to that task, given his 1.85 ERA in 43 2/3 innings. Though rookie Bruce Rodon wasn’t good in his first big-league cameo (three runs in 2 1/3 innings), he has the stuff to warrant another look.
When Boston had to fill its closing role earlier this year when Bailey was hurt, the Sox opted to move Junichi Tazawa to the ninth innings and keep Koji Uehara in the eighth -- both have the stuff for either role, rendering the order unimportant. Uehara has a 2.10 ERA in 30 innings with a 6-to-1 K/BB ratio; Tazawa has a 2.51 ERA in 32 1/3 innings with a K/BB ratio that’s more than double Uehara’s outstanding rate at 12.7. No matter the shuffled arrangement late in the games, both Boston and Detroit, barring a trade or inspired call-up, will suffer through some perilous innings after the manager has fetched the ball from his starter. It’ll be taxing on their starters, as they try to stay in the game and stave off that call to the bullpen, and it’ll be tense for those teams’ fans, but terrific for television and terrible for traffic -- with no lead safe, everyone will be watching to the bitter end.