Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Red alert! Tigers 0-7; our in-game, postgame analysis

Pregame

Just like Justin Verlander had an opportunity to stop the winless skid Sunday night, the veteran Kenny Rogers has that same chance today—albeit under completely different circumstances.

Rogers is going to be entering a rowdy and festive atmosphere in Fenway Park, with the Red Sox being honored before the game with their 2007 World Series rings. The players will be pumped, the fans will be jacked, and outside of Detroit there probably aren’t too many people that aren’t laughing at the Tigers right now.

For some reason—and I can’t lie to you I’m sure I’ve felt this every game—but I have a good feeling about today. I think the change of scenery will be good for the guys and give them a chance to breathe a little bit. The pressure is off of their backs and onto the Red Sox to win their home opener.

I also like the matchup between Rogers and the Red Sox offense. Rogers is a soft-tossing, crafty pitcher that can’t overpower batters, and the Red Sox lineup is a notoriously good fastball-hitting bunch. Game time temperature is expected at 46 degrees with a nice wind, cooling the lumber.

They need to stop this streak. It’s gone from making me barely concerned on Saturday to making me angry on Sunday after their performance on national T.V. Every loss is another two-game struggle to break even—and now it’s starting to get serious. It’s like, let’s just quit it with the joke can we?

A few minutes until game-time and the only question that’s left to ponder before the first pitch is how in the world they make American flags and championship banners big enough to span the Green Monster. It’s crazy.

Top first

Mickey York just called the Red Sox ceremony before the game “One of the best things I’ve ever seen.” One of the best things I’ve ever seen. Don’t you think that’s glorifying it just a little too much?

Polanco has got to have the most uncomfortable swing in the majors. Striking out swinging on a curveball for the second out of the inning, it just looks so painful.

Sheffield singles on a ground ball that looks like the third out but gets up the middle and Ordonez flies out to center. Rod Allen mentioning his pregame chat with Lloyd McClendon count: Two.

Bottom first

Youkilis tags a hanging curveball into centerfield for a single and those stupid “Youk!” chants rain down at Fenway.

Big Papi walks but should have been rung up on a 2-2 fastball that apparently was just a little too high and outside. The gambler’s control isn’t pinpoint early on but he gets Manny to ground out to an outstretched Guillen—a really nice play, potentially taking away a run.

According to Rod, look for Guillen to sport a new glove in the next coming days. Rumor has it he doesn’t like it and sought out advice from the Mayor—Sean Casey—on a new glove. That seems like a familiar excuse I used to use when I’d make an error. Stupid glove.

Lowell flies out to Ordonez in right to close the inning. After one, no score.

Top second

After yet another weak groundout to the left side of the infield for Cabrera, Guillen flies out to rightfielder J.D. Drew in centerfield. Weird, huh? Here’s what happened: Coco Crisp lost the ball in the sun and it looked for a second as if he was going to try to field it like a punt until Drew saves the day from right field. Nice backup by Drew.

Dice-K blows an 89-MPH fastball by Pudge to end the inning. The story continues. The Tigers haven’t hit anything hard—including Sheffield’s single.

Bottom second

Drew pulls a leadoff single past Polanco, followed by a Rogers balk. Home plate umpire Greg Gibson ruled Rogers didn’t stop his motion between the stretch and set. The rules say it must be a complete stop. It was close, but I don’t want to argue balks. Drew to second.

Varitek lines one directly—and I mean directly—at Rogers glove. Only problem is that the ball is two inches higher and gets up the middle, prompting Rogers to freeze and give the leather a blank stare.

Boston takes the lead with a Crisp sacrifice fly to center, scoring Drew.

The sun is really bad in centerfield. First Crisp couldn’t field it in the top of the inning, now Inge almost loses Lugo’s fly out.

The crowd gets loud and it’s that hawk again. This is a weird story, but bear with me. This hawk has been living in a nest right below the Fenway press box and last week a middle-school class was doing a walk-through field trip kind of thing. So what does the hawk do? Naturally, it tries to attack this 13-year old girl named Alexa Rodriguez. Some of the stuff in that rivalry is so eerie.

After the Greek God of Walks Kevin Youkilis does just that, Ortiz flies out on a deep—and I mean deep—fly ball to the warning track just to the left of Pesky’s Pole. Coming off the bat, I thought it was 5-0. Sox up by one after two.

Top third

This lineup just isn’t hitting. They get made quick work of again. A pair of fly outs to center and left and an Inge strikeout. Their approach to Dice-K doesn’t look good. He’s getting ahead and – no pun intended – is dicing them up.

This is a guy that threw 250 pitches in a high school game in Japan. 250 pitches. That’s insane. My arm would feel detached after 75. But what I don’t get it is, why is his pitch count such a big deal? Shouldn’t he be able to throw a good 400 by now?

Bottom third

Manny pounds a Rogers pitch to that odd-shaped canyon in right-center. He hangs his head immediately, thinking it’s gone. It’s gone, but not in the way you think. It bounces right in front of the bullpen wall. Inge fumbles with it, and to my surprise, Manny’s still running! I’m thinking no way. I figured he’d have stood there for a few seconds, admired it like usual (which I think is hilarious) and taken his customary double. Chugging for third, Polanco’s throw skips over Cabrera, into the Tigers dugout, and Manny is awarded home. More importantly, it’s not an inside-the-park homer, but a triple with an error on Polanco. Polanco? Error? What? It’s his first error since midseason 2006 in Pittsburgh.

Mario notes that it’s a tough break for the Tigers. It’s no tough break. If Inge would have scooped that ball clean and Polanco made a good throw, they would have nailed Manny at third by a couple of feet.

Kenny gets the next three in order, highlighted by Jacque making one of those diving catches that makes you wonder how the guy didn't break his wrist. End of three, Sox up 2-0.

Top fourth

Polanco walks followed by Sheffield grounding into a picture-perfect 5-4-3 double play, the Tigers 12th this season, trailing only Minnesota. Then Ordonez goes down looking to end the inning. He hasn’t been able to catch up to Dice-K’s fastball or onto his off-speed stuff in his two at-bats, looking rather lost.

The FSN guys say he hit triple-digits in Japan. Are people making this up or what? Like I said earlier, I’ll pay a lot of money to see him throw 250 pitches, and I’ll pay even more to see him do it while throwing 100.

Bottom fourth

The speedster Crisp grounds out to Rogers on a really nice defensive play. I don’t remember if it was a bunt or not, but Rogers – quick as a cat – pounced on it and made a nice play.

Not to disappoint, we follow with an error. This Guillen experiment has been a debacle at first base. Mark my words, he’s going to get hurt. Cabrera knocks down the ball at third, makes an errant throw to Guillen, who yet again has his left foot on the foul side of the baseline. Someone is going to run him into the ground. His positioning is awful. The ball gets by him and into the camera well, and Lugo is awarded second.

Pedroia singles directly up the middle, between Rogers legs, followed by a Youkilis sacrifice fly, driving in Lugo. We have our first Jason Grilli sighting, and I’m pretty sure that signals the white flag. Down three in the fourth inning, with Kenny around 85 pitches and an exit not too far away, things are looking as bleak as ever. This bullpen throwing five innings against that lineup is like throwing fresh meat to a pack of wolves. 3-0 Red Sox after four.

Top fifth

Cabrera walks and the skipper puts the hit-and-run on the very next pitch to Guillen, but he flies out to right. I like the idea. You have to try to get something going, especially for a team that has been so snake-bitten by the double play.

Pudge doesn’t guess right and strikes out, and Jacque doubles down the right-field line, moving Cabrera to third. As I wait for Mario to say yet again, “This might be what the Tigers needed,” Inge flies out to Manny being Manny in right field to end the inning.

Bottom fifth

Kenny retires Manny looking and Manny instantly blows a gasket, turning around and jawing with Gibson at home plate. Gibson gives it right back to him. Umpires these days don’t back down, they give it right back and I love it.

Rogers strikes out Drew after Lowell walks, and Varitek follows with a single to right, Mario’s tone of voice so matter-of-factly that Rogers last pitch of the day has been thrown.

He’s right, Leyland wants Grilli, and you’re going to want to get the kids out of the room. Grilli in with two outs and runners on first and second.

He induces a Crisp pop out and the Tigers escape. Bring the kids back in. Maybe.

Top sixth

With one out, Polanco drops a single in that may or may not have been a catch. Crisp charged in and attempted a sliding grab, but two different camera angles provide different evidence.

O.K., now that was weird. Sheffield hits a blooper that drops in front and to the left of Pedroia at second, just about 10 feet past the infield dirt. But Sheffield doesn’t see where the ball is. On replays, he’s looking into left field, then he finds it and starts running. Pedroia twists off-balance in mid-air and just misses nabbing Sheffield at first.

Once again, Mags doesn’t have a prayer against Dice-K. He reaches back and blows an 88-MPH fastball by the defending batting champ.

Cabrera walks on four straight pitches, and the bases are juiced for Guillen. I have no reason to believe something good will happen here, I just don’t. He works the count full but flies out to center, leaving three ducks on the pond.

Bottom sixth

Lugo singles up the middle, almost taking Grilli’s right leg off, and Grilli responds by striking out Pedroia looking.

He jumps ahead of Youkilis with no balls and two strikes, and decides he’d like a hanger right down the heart of the plate to follow. Youkilis plops the generous Grilli offering right in front of Jacque – who misplays the ball – and it bounces off the hard surface of the warning track to the wall. Lugo scores, Youkilis on second with one out.

Pudge and Grilli have to convene on the mound twice during Ortiz at-bat to see how they can dance around the inevitable meltdown. They’re not on the same page, and probably shouldn’t be on the same team.

After all that talk, Ortiz walks. Manny’s up with two on and one out – and I hate to say this – but regardless of what he does, this game is over. This team is in no position to put up four runs in three innings, especially with Dice-K throwing the way he is and staring down Okajima and Papelbon in the later innings. Not going to happen. The ghosts of 2003 are creeping just a little bit closer …

Cabrera makes a great diving stop on a hard-hit Ramirez grounder and there’s Guillen again straddling the bag. People, he is literally standing over first base as he receives the ball. If Manny wanted to be Manny in a mean kind of way, he could lower his shoulder and put him on the DL. Whenever at a loss of words, Rod always comes up clutch. “I just don’t know what he’s doing out there, really,” he says.

Grilli walks Lowell and Drew back-to-back – Drew’s producing a run -- to finally chase himself. It’s 5-0 in the sixth, Leyland wants Aquilino Lopez, and Dave Dombrowski is posting job openings for pitchers on CraigsList.

Lopez strikes out Varitek with a back-door breaking ball, and shows off a little fist pump. Are you kidding me? A fist-pump when you’re down five and about to fall to 0-7? That just shows what kind of makeshift relievers we have. Let’s get done with this. 5-0 Sox after six.

Top seventh

As is the norm with Tigers at-bats this year, there’s nothing to talk about this half-inning. More notably, Dice-K exits after walking Inge with two outs. His line: 6 2/3 IP, four hits allowed, seven strikeouts and four walks. 108 pitches though, so I don’t ever want to hear about this guy throwing 250 pitches in high school again. Renteria flies out, Tigers are out. Again.

Bottom seventh

Another bold prediction: Pudge won’t make it through this season with the way he’s getting beat up behind the plate because these relievers seem to believe the dirt is part of the strike zone. “Must be the shadows between the mound and the plate,” I mutter to myself. Must be. Heading into the eighth, 5-0 Red Sox.

Top eighth

Someone left a comment down there about the youngster Porcello – currently playing on the Lakeland Flying Tigers – being ready for the show. My take is this: If he’s as impressive as we were told he was in the spring, he should be up here sooner rather than later. It’s become blatantly obvious that this team has serious pitching issues both in the rotation and the bullpen. I understand that he’s only 19, but what are the Tigers waiting for? This team is built to win a championship now, not next year or the year after that – the optimal time to ship him north. If he can get major league batters out, he should be here, regardless of age or experience.

Just to remind you, if the Tigers don’t give me something to talk about when they’re up, I’m not going to force it. Another easy half-inning for Boston pitching.

Bottom eighth

Youkilis singles the Red Sox 12th hit to center field, just flipping his wrists at the ball, then Ortiz grounds into a double play. I’m down with anything that speeds this debacle up. Lopez gets Manny to swing out of his shoes to end the inning, giving his customary fist-pump as if that was a big out or something.

Top ninth

Hideki Okajima is a crazy cat. This guy doesn’t even look at the plate when he throws the ball, and yet he still has Guillen striking out swinging like he doesn’t see the ball. Pudge flies out and Jacque strikes out to fittingly end the seventh Tigers strike out of the season.

Postgame

I’m sitting here at a loss for words. I honestly don’t know what to say. A little birdie on my left shoulder is telling me that they’re just in a funk, playing badly and lacking confidence. But another birdie on my right shoulder is telling me that the other birdie is na├»ve and ignoring the problems that have seemed so prevalent thus far this season.

I keep thinking back to something Sparky Anderson once said: "Over 162 games, if my big guys are hitting and we get even halfway decent pitching, we'll beat their (our opponents) brains out.”

Which is what makes this early season pill that much tougher to swallow. The pitching has been decent, assuredly good enough for this lineup to close an eye or take a couple one-handed swings and still squeak out a couple of runs for the win. But this offense has just been so stagnant, that the only thing I can think of is a shake-up in the lineup.

If I were skip, I’d move Cabrera into the No. 3 hole, followed by Ordonez and Sheffield. I have this gut feeling that Cabrera might not relish hitting a couple spots deeper than he really should be. But what do I know – Leyland’s forgot more about baseball than I know.

Another thing: I don’t like the approach they’re taking at the plate. They seem more passive than aggressive. Dice-K was feeding them first-pitch strikes and taking control of at-bats, and most of the lineup looked uncomfortable, not swinging at quality pitches and squaring up on balls. This is a collection of scary hitters, but they aren’t to be feared if they don’t swing the bat.

And for Pete’s sake, would one of the coaches get Guillen onto the field early and teach him how to maneuver around first base? The fact that he’s been doing this for a full week is inexcusable.

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