Detroit manager Jim Leyland proved a master of understatement during his postgame press conference Sunday night. Comparing his bullpen’s performance in Game 2 of the American League Championship Series to Saturday night’s Game 1, he said “it wasn’t quite as good.”
That was more than a charitable assessment. In Game 1, Detroit’s relievers pitched three shutout innings in a 1-0 win. In Game 2, the bullpen melted down in spectacular fashion, sparking a Red Sox rally that produced a 6-5 victory and evened the series, 1-1.
It was the kind of rally that leaves managers at a loss. Leyland knew that a tremendous starting effort by starter Max Scherzer — two hits, 13 strikeouts in seven shutout innings — was wasted in a half-inning marked by a parade of relief pitchers.
“It’s playoff baseball,” said Leyland. “It looked like we had one in hand and we let one get away. There’s no question about that. But there have been two great games. Scherzer was terrific. He was spent. [Saturday] night our bullpen was flawless, and tonight it just wasn’t quite as good.”
Jose Veras replacing Scherzer to start the eighth. Up until Shane Victorino flared a single to left in the sixth, Scherzer had held Boston hitless, frustrating one Boston batter after another. With Scherzer out of the game, the Red Sox bats came to life. Meanwhile, Leyland tried desperately to find a pitcher who would work.
After Stephen Drew grounded out to lead off the eighth, Will Middlebrooks doubled to left. That was it for Veras, with Leyland calling for lefthander Drew Smyly to face Jacoby Ellsbury. Ellsbury earned a walk, and that brought Leyland out again, removing Smyly for Al Alburquerque. Alburquerque struck out Victorino for the second out of the inning.
But Alburquerque was not long for the mound. Dustin Pedroia made sure of that when he singled to right, loading the bases. And it was time for another pitching change, with closer Joaquin Benoit replacing Alburquerque. On the first pitch he saw from Benoit, David Ortiz hit a grand slam to right field and Fenway Park erupted.
The first postseason grand slam of Ortiz’s career marked a new low for Detroit’s relievers. It also prompted questions about why Leyland didn’t use lefthander Phil Coke against Ortiz. Coke had missed the Division Series with elbow problems, but was added to the ALCS roster. When Leyland added Coke for the ALCS it was expected to be for moments like Ortiz’s at-bat in the eighth Sunday night. Ortiz is 2 for 18 lifetime against Coke.
When asked about bringing in Benoit to face Ortiz rather than Coke, Leyland said, “Coke hadn’t pitched a big game for quite a while. Benoit is our guy against the lefties, and we felt he gave us the best chance to get the out.”
Reality proved different. Rick Porcello came on to pitch the ninth and completed the collapse, allowing the game-winning single by Jarrod Saltalamacchia. While Leyland didn’t engage in a game of coulda, woulda, shoulda, it was clear wasting Scherzer’s start stung.
“You try to have a game plan going in and [Scherzer] was terrific,” said Leyland. “It’s a shame to let that one get away, but that’s baseball.”