For six innings, Game 3 of the Royals-Tigers series was a pitcher’s duel. Both starting pitchers, Jason Hammel and Matthew Boyd, had pitched well and the score was 2-2 going into the seventh inning.
But Boyd started the seventh by giving up two doubles and the lead.
With the score 3-2 and nobody out, Boyd had thrown 98 pitches and was about to start a fourth trip through the Royals order. Time for the Tigers to go to the bullpen.
Detroit reliever Warwick Saupold got the call.
The game’s turning point
Pitchers do not have the same quality stuff every night, so every time a manager brings in a new pitcher nobody knows for sure how that guy is going to pitch and that often includes the pitcher.
Saupold came into Wednesday night’s game with an ERA of 3.81 and in 25 of 36 appearances hadn’t allowed an earned run. Saupold’s job was to hold the Royals to a one-run lead and give the Tigers’ offense a chance to come back.
But on Wednesday night, Saupold didn’t have it. He gave up three straight hits and by the time Saupold left the mound, the score was 5-2.
For the Tigers, things would go downhill from there.
How things go from bad to worse
Big-league managers can never say they gave up on a game because that sounds bad. But you can often tell what a manager is thinking by the relievers he uses.
Most of the time, smart managers do not burn quality relief innings in games they’re unlikely to win.
So down by three runs in the seventh inning, Tigers manager Brad Ausmus went to Jairo Labourt, a rookie with two innings in the big leagues: not the move a manager makes if he’s going all out to win. After a pitch went to the backstop and Lorenzo Cain scored, the Tigers went into the bottom of the seventh down 6-2.
Ned Yost had the lead, so in the bottom of the seventh, he could go to one of his best relievers: Peter Moylan.
The Tigers didn’t score in the seventh and in the top of the eighth, Ausmus used Joe Jimenez, another rookie pitcher; Jimenez got battered.
Ausmus then went to another rookie pitcher, Zac Reininger, and he also got lit up. By the time the top of the eighth inning was over, the Royals were up 13-2.
So to sum up:
The Tigers were already losing by multiple runs so Ausmus ran three rookies to the mound to see what they could do and the rookies got knocked around the yard.
Ausmus did use a quality reliever in the ninth inning, Shane Greene, and when that happens — a good pitcher used in a blowout — check the last time the pitcher appeared. Greene hadn’t pitched since September 1, so he was probably just getting in some work.
The opponent matters
There is a tendency for fans to think that when their team hits it’s because they’re good hitters and when their team doesn’t hit it’s because they’re lousy hitters.
But as Wednesday night’s game showed, the pitcher matters.
The Royals didn’t suddenly figure out how to hit in the seventh and eighth innings; in those two innings they got to face a good reliever who was having an off night and three rookies who appeared to be overmatched. Then, when a quality reliever came in to pitch the ninth inning, the Royals suddenly turned human again and only managed one hit.
Tonight the Royals start a four-game series against the Twins.
Whichever team has the lead when their starting pitcher is finished will have the advantage. With a lead, the manager can use the better relievers in his pen; if his team is behind, the manager might have to use some relievers who are scuffling.
And that’s how a pitcher’s duel becomes a blowout.