Blue Jays, Tigers play game of the year

They call this time of the baseball season the dog days, a phrase that apparently goes back to ancient Greece when Sirius -- the "dog star" -- was closest to the sun and was believed to cause the intense heat of summer. And you thought John McGraw or Ty Cobb came up with it to describe why some tired opponent just got steamrolled.

Anyway, what do you call a 19-inning game in the middle of the dog days? Well, that depends ... our Tigers blog, Walkoff Woodward, headlined its wrap-up "Tigers Waste Nearly Seven Hours Of Everyone's Life." Toronto's Ryan Goins and Detroit's Nick Castellanos, both removed from the game earlier, may have called it a chance to play rock, paper, scissors in the 17th inning.

I'd call it the best game of the year considering it involved two playoff contenders, lasted 19 incredible innings with Toronto winning 6-5, featured the Tigers blowing a 5-0 lead with David Price pitching, and cemented the impression that the AL Central is suddenly up for grabs. Detroit's lead is down to a mere half-game over the red-hot Royals, who won their seventh in a row Sunday.

The Tigers jumped on Mark Buehrle for an early lead before Dioner Navarro touched Price for a two-out, two-run homer. After a walk and single to start the seventh, Price exited, making it his shortest stint since May 8 although he threw 112 pitches. Price was worked heavily by Joe Maddon in Tampa -- he leads the majors in innings and total pitches -- and wasn't sharp Sunday, walking three in six-plus innings. Phil Coke allowed the two inherited runners to score, as the Tigers failed to turn a double play on one ground ball and Castellanos misplayed another (Castellanos' defense at third, by the way, has been a big problem; his minus-22 defensive runs saved entering the day was the worst mark in the majors).

While Coke wasn't completely to blame, he's a symbol of Detroit's biggest problem these days -- the bullpen. Joakim Soria was acquired to help provide depth, but he'd been terrible and was just placed on the DL, along with starter Anibal Sanchez. Before Sunday's game, Christina Kahrl wrote this on the Detroit bullpen:

[Y]ou have the challenge of replacing Soria at a time when Joe Nathan is doing his best Papa Grande impression when it comes to late-game spontaneous combustion. Nathan isn’t alone when it comes to failing to provide relief: Al Alburquerque and lefties Ian Krol and Phil Coke have combined to allow 35 of 101 inherited runners to score, worse than league average, and much worse than what you’d expect for a late-game crew handed plenty of leads on a contending team. That all three have inherited more than 30 baserunners apiece reflects their usage pattern, because rookie skipper Brad Ausmus has already been very matchup-conscious this season: Tigers relievers average less than an inning per appearance, getting an AL-low 2.8 outs per appearance.

Prophetic words. With Nathan unavailable in the ninth, Ausmus turned to Joba Chamberlain, who entered with a 3.13 ERA and .246 average allowed while serving as the team's primary setup guy. Those seem like pretty good numbers, but in this day of lights-out relievers, they're not that impressive for a premier late-inning guy, and the Jays tied it up. Consider that among all relievers with at least 35 innings (152 pitches), Chamberlain now ranks 87th in ERA, 100th in batting average allowed, 105th in OBP allowed and 67th in strikeout-walk ratio. He's good, but every team has a couple of guys as good.

Both teams had runners galore in extra innings but couldn't score. As the game stretched on, Blue Jays reliever Chad Jenkins turned into the hero, scattering seven hits over six scoreless innings, with his biggest out a bases-loaded double play against Torii Hunter in the 16th. Jenkins is the kind of reliever a lot of teams don't even carry anymore -- the long man who can pitch multiple innings or go as long as needed in a game like this. He's a former starter (and started four games at Triple-A Buffalo this year), and that paid off for Toronto. The Tigers eventually had to turn to starter Rick Porcello. Meanwhile, Nathan allowed two runners in his one inning (a soft single and intentional walk). It will be interesting to see if the Tigers stick with him as closer. He blew a save on Friday, and while he has a 2.92 ERA over his past 13 appearances, he's allowed eight walks in 12.1 innings during that span.

Walkoff Woodard pointed to another Tigers issue:

Andrew Romine went 2-for-9. One of his hits was a single that moved Bryan Holaday to third. Romine, apparently unwilling to stop at first and set up a nice run scoring opportunity, inexplicably got himself hung up between first and second. A series of awful decisions later, he was ruled out via replay at second base, so instead of two on with one out and the top of the order coming up, it was one on with two outs. The Tigers did not score. (All this does is underscore the fact that for all of the emphasis on baserunning in spring training, the Tigers remain a poor baserunning team).

Indeed, Fangraphs ranks the Tigers 24th in baserunning runs. It's not a killer stat (they're about 12 runs worse than the No. 1 teams, the Royals and the Nationals, which is worth about one win).

Still, it's a little thing. Note that the Tigers' biggest weaknesses -- bullpen, defense and baserunning -- are three areas at which the Royals excel. That's one reason this AL Central race is so fun: two teams with contrasting styles.

More than a week ago it looked like the Tigers would coast to a fourth straight division title. They were up five games and had just acquired Price. Now the lead is a half-game, the bullpen is in semi-shambles, Sanchez is on the DL and the Tigers have to overcome the dog day blues.