MINNEAPOLIS — On another night when Detroit’s offense didn’t bring much to the table, the Tigers’ bullpen showed up in a big way.
Though Andrew Chafin gave up a run in his Tigers debut, that’s all the relievers gave up in three innings of work in Wednesday night’s 5-0 loss to the Twins at Target Field. That actually bumped their team bullpen ERA up slightly, but at 2.25 it’s still the second-best in the Major Leagues, trailing only the Giants.
“They’ve been keeping us afloat, there’s no doubt,” catcher Eric Haase said. “They’ve come into terrible situations, one after the other and just put up zeros for us. So it’s been huge [and] keeping us in ballgames. We don’t get a whole lot of run support, so that’s huge for the back-end guys to keep us afloat like that.”
The past week alone has shown how important relievers have been to the Tigers’ season so far:
• 4/21 vs. NYY: 4 IP, 4 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 2 K’s
• 4/23 vs. COL G1: 3 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 2 BB, 4 K’s
• 4/23 vs. COL G2: 4 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 8 K’s
• 4/24 vs. COL: 4 1/3 IP, 3 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 1 BB, 3 K’s
• 4/26 at MIN: 2 1/3 IP, 1 H, 2 R, 0 ER, 3 BB, 4 K’s
• 4/27 at MIN: 3 IP, 2 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 3 BB, 1K
That adds up to two earned runs on 12 hits and 10 walks with 22 strikeouts in 20 2/3 innings pitched, good enough for a 0.87 ERA.
“Our ‘pen’s been good,” manager A.J. Hinch said. “Each of our guys has been pretty good when you go down there. Lotta good guys to choose from. You’ve just got to get the lead, so they can pitch with a lead.”
That’s where the issues begin. The Tigers’ bullpen has been terrific to this point, and the team’s starters haven’t been terrible — their 4.37 ERA ranks 22nd in MLB. The offense has been simply unable to put up runs, having scored just 57 runs in 17 games — tied for 25th in all of baseball. And there doesn’t seem to be a magic button that Hinch can push to fix his struggling hitters.
“I think it’s all individual,” he said. “Collectively, when you don’t hit you’re always looking for a theme, but each guy’s battling something a little bit different. We’ve got to get our guys jump-started to have a better offense.”
Chafin makes his debut
While no reinforcements are on the way for the offense, the bullpen picked up yet another weapon this week when Andrew Chafin was reinstated from the 10-day IL. One of the top relievers in the Majors last year, Chafin signed with the Tigers in Spring Training, only to land on the IL with a strained groin to start the season.
Now that he’s back to full health, it’s up to Hinch and pitching coach Chris Fetter to figure out how to use him. His first appearance came on Wednesday night, when he came on to pitch the seventh inning with the Tigers trailing 4-0. He allowed some loud contact to the first two hitters, as Trevor Larnach and Ryan Jeffers greeted him with back-to-back doubles.
But Chafin settled down after that, retiring Nick Gordon on a weak grounder, freezing Byron Buxton with a sinker for a called strike three, and getting Luis Arraez out on a routine grounder to second.
“That’s his game — locking guys up and getting some weak contact. That’s his game right there,” said Haase, who caught Chafin. “Maybe a little rusty the first hitter or so, but he snapped right back in there and he made some good pitches toward the end.”
Hinch said he expects to use Chafin in high-leverage situations, but when none presented themselves in the first two games, he decided it was more important to let his newest reliever get his first outing under his belt. The veteran lefty didn’t seem to mind one bit.
“The way I look at it, it doesn’t matter when I go in,” Chafin said. “I’m just trying to get hitters out, whatever the situation is. I’m just [going to] do my best to do that and answer the phone when it’s for me.”