DETROIT - Admit it, every time the Tigers' bullpen performs poorly, blows a lead, or loses a game, it takes you back to last season.
You know, the American League Championship Series - where the Tigers had outstanding outings by their starters, only to lose late from bullpen meltdowns.
Enter Sunday afternoon against the Minnesota Twins.
The Tigers did something they hadn't done all year. They lost a game after leading through seven innings. Coming into Sunday, they were a perfect 19-0 in games leading after seven innings.
But the Twins scored three runs in the eighth inning to score a 4-3 come-from-behind victory and take the series from the Tigers.
The bullpen wasted an outstanding outing by rookie Robbie Ray, who pitched six scoreless innings.
Al Alburquerque gave up a run in the seventh and Joba Chamberlain gave up three in the eighth.
Granted, the Tigers (21-12) are in first place in the AL Central. And yes, the Tigers came into the Mother's Day game with the best record in baseball. Still, everybody knows that if there's one glaring weak spot on this team, it's the bullpen.
Coming into the game, the Tigers were second to the bottom in bullpen ERA, 4.79. Their bloated ERA was ranked 14th in the league.
And although the bullpen had settled down from a rocky start in April, it should still be a concern.
"The bullpen has been good," Tigers' manager Brad Ausmus said. "Joba has been outstanding in the eighth inning. It was just an off day.
"You're not going to be perfect. Nobody's perfect."
And to be fair, Chamberlain had actually been pitching pretty well out of the pen. In his previous five outings, Joba was 1-0 with an 0.00 ERA. He also struck out eight batters in 5 1/3 innings covering those outings.
Here, Chamberlain gave up three runs (two earned) on two hits. He walked a batter and struck out two. For sure, it was a bad day at the office.
"It's one of those days," Chamberlain said. "Obviously, it's a rough one. I'll wear that one. That one is on me."
All eyes will be on Chamberlain this season. First, he didn't have a good year last season in New York with the Yankees. Plus, he was rocky to start the season and people wondered if he had anything left.
But he turned it around and gave many hope that he is the answer for the important eighth inning setup spot.
It's key because you have to be able to get the ball to closer Joe Nathan. If not, Nathan could be rendered null and void.
You saw that on Sunday where Nathan wasn't able to close out a game that looked to be in the bag when the Tigers were leading 3-0 going to the top of the eighth inning.
In his last nine appearances, Nathan has been lights outs with a 1.00 ERA with six saves and 12 strikeouts in nine innings of work.
You don't want to overreact to one bad outing because the pen appeared to have righted itself.
"We've been throwing the ball great," said Chamberlain about the pen. "April is one of them months that has to figure itself out and get itself into a routine."
Ausmus is still convinced he has what he needs in the pen to keep winning. "I still have complete faith, especially the back half the way it's been set up since the first 10 games of the season," he said. "It's kind of settled down. Guys have settled into roles.
"You're not going to win every game when you have a lead late, but we're going to win the vast majority of them with the way the guys are throwing now."
And then there's Phil Coke. He continues to struggle. In his last five outings, Coke has a chubby 7.11 ERA, allowing 10 hits, five earned runs in 6 1/3 innings of work.
Meanwhile, the starters have been masterful with a 2.73 ERA after Ray's outstanding start. It was all for not, though.
"This one hurts a little bit," Chamberlain said. "The effort that Robbie put forth and the runs we got."
But the bullpen didn't do its job.
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