By the time Yorman Bazardo ended the eighth inning with a strikeout of former Tiger Sean Casey, he was throwing Detroit's 212th pitch of the evening, 113 of them for strikes. Those later pitches, however, weren't the ones that decided the game, or the ones that manager Jim Leyland targeted afterward.
"Where you go with the bullpen is where you go with the starters," Leyland said. "That's where you go with the bullpen. You get five innings night after night with 110 pitches, there's not a bullpen in the history of the game that will survive. That's where it starts."
It wasn't the way Nate Robertson's night started. He commanded the inside part of the plate to strike out five of the first 12 batters he faced, two of them on called third strikes. He reached just two three-ball counts in that span, and allowed just two balls in play out of the infield.
Facing the middle of Boston's order in the bottom of the fourth, Robertson used a slider on the outside corner to fan David Ortiz for the first out. He proceeded to put Manny Ramirez in a 1-2 count.
With Ramirez down, Robertson tried to get him on the corners, first outside, then inside. He was close, but missed, and with three straight balls lost him to a walk.
From there, Robertson's pitch count ballooned, essentially doubling what he had thrown through three innings. Leyland theorized that the at-bat lingered with him and got him into trouble after that. Robertson didn't disagree.
"I didn't get the call and I need to move on," Robertson said. "[I] threw a four-seamer in and a two-seamer away that were close pitches, but you need to move on. I probably let that leak a little bit into my next at-bat with [Kevin] Youkilis, and I put him on, as well."
That was a five-pitch walk, and it brought the go-ahead run to the plate. What frustrated Robertson more, however, was the at-bat that followed. After putting J.D. Drew in a 1-2 count with back-to-back called strikes and a foul ball, he missed the outside corner for ball two, then lost a pitch over the middle of the plate. Drew lined it to right for an RBI single.
"I need to put those guys away," Robertson said. "I threw a pitch up and right over the middle of the plate, and that really can't happen."
Robertson didn't walk another batter the rest of the night, but he fell behind on nearly everyone else. Coco Crisp's double tied the game, then Kevin Cash singled on a 2-0 pitch that put Boston ahead for good.
It was a pitch count matter, but at the heart, it was a matter of pitches.
"The fastball command was really good," Robertson said. "My slider isn't as sharp as it needs to be. The changeup was off and on. I've got some things to work on. If I have a good slider to put [Drew] away in situations like that, I make the pitch."
If it was just Robertson, it wouldn't be such a pressing matter. But it's all over the rotation. Jeremy Bonderman is the only Tigers starter so far this season to get an out in the seventh inning, and that was the third game of the season. Detroit's starters are averaging just over 5 1/3 innings per outing, third-lowest among American League clubs, and Robertson hit right on average.
"That's not good enough," Leyland said. "There's not a bullpen in the world that will survive that. I think that's where you start, and we'll worry about the bullpen after we get that straightened out."
Detroit's starters averaged just under six innings per outing last year, and Leyland said over the winter he was looking for an extra out or two on top of that. Tigers starters averaged better than six innings per start in 2006, when the Tigers went to the World Series.
"It's frustrating that I haven't taken the efficiency of Spring Training into my first two starts," Robertson said. "And I know I've got to be more efficient. We were headed in that direction tonight, and then I ran into the fourth. But we'll get that ironed out."
The inefficiency rose as the relievers followed. Zach Miner entered and, despite stranding two in the seventh, walked three of the seven batters he faced before Ramirez doubled in two runs in the seventh. Francis Beltran followed an intentional walk with an unintentional one, then fell behind on Casey for his two-run single. Yorman Bazardo walked Ortiz and Ramirez consecutively in the eighth to load the bases for a Youkilis two-run double and Drew sacrifice fly.
Seven of the 12 Red Sox runs reached base on walks. The last of those four-run innings came after Detroit scored twice in the top of the eighth and brought the potential tying run to the plate with nobody out.
"That's always a no-no," Leyland said.
On this night, it was a theme that overshadowed a better night from Detroit's offense, which overcame a nasty knuckleball from Wakefield to plate a couple runs and then rally later off of Boston's bullpen.
"We battled back," Brandon Inge said. "Didn't get quite enough."
If they're going to battle out of the hole that they're in, the latter could be said of their starting pitching, too.