For three months, manager Brad Ausmus leaned primarily on the trio of Al Alburquerque, Ian Krol and Joba Chamberlain to carry leads from his starters to closer Joe Nathan, enough so that all three entered the break on pace for career highs for appearances. They have relievers they trust. It's whether they have enough of them to get by.
Friday began a stretch of 55 games in 55 days, including three doubleheaders in seven weeks, putting their depth to the test. For the second time in as many games this week, Ausmus turned to his bullpen in the seventh inning of a game in the balance with a starter falling apart and lost.
On Sunday, it was Justin Verlander giving up four straight singles to open the seventh. On Thursday, Anibal Sanchez allowed four consecutive baserunners to open the seventh, one more than he allowed in the first six innings combined, turning a 3-0 Tigers lead into a setup for disaster. In both cases, all the runners scored, though Alburquerque came within a strike of escaping a bases-loaded, no-out jam Friday.
With less than two weeks before the non-waiver Trade Deadline, the Tigers have to decide whether they have enough bullpen relief to get through the stretch run. They've been linked to setup/closer hybrids Joakim Soria and Joaquin Benoit, the latter they know well from his previous three seasons in Detroit. However, the Rangers have reportedly been seeking two or three prospects in return, something the Tigers aren't likely to do for a reliever -- even Soria, whose contract includes a $7 million club option for next season.
Benoit has been stellar again in setup for the Padres so far this season, allowing just 22 hits over 38 2/3 innings with nine walks and 45 strikeouts. He's 16-for-16 in holds and 1-for-1 in saves. The Tigers have scouted the Padres heavily this summer.
Astros closer Chad Qualls has also been linked to the Tigers, with solid numbers over the last couple years. Detroit traded for last year's Astros closer, Jose Veras, around this point a year ago, but got mixed results down the stretch.
Before Friday's game, Ausmus said he can't worry about the trade market.
"I just concern myself with the guys who are in this clubhouse," Ausmus said.
After the game, Ausmus came to his bullpen's defense.
"Well, it was underwhelming early," Ausmus said. "The last couple games, it was underwhelming. But we had some good outings in between those. ... Overall, underwhelming at times, but I think we're moving in the right direction.
"I think the 'pen is getting better. I think the first month of the season, the 'pen underperformed. I think there should be a correction in the second half as a result."
Detroit's bullpen posted 5.37 ERAs in the opening month of the season and in June. It had allowed three runs over 27 1/3 July innings before Friday.
More telling could be the ERA by inning. Their 6.01 ERA in the ninth stems mainly from Nathan's struggles, but not entirely -- just 22 of their 56 ninth-inning runs are charged to him. Their 2.37 ERA in the eighth inning rests mainly on Chamberlain's success. More concerning could be their ERAs in the sixth (4.79) and seventh (5.18). More than half of the seventh-inning runs have come off the bullpen.