May 23rd, 2010

Now pinch-hitting … Dontrelle Willis?

Yes, Jim Leyland said, he really was prepared to let Dontrelle Willis bat in the ninth inning. He was not simply a decoy, though he ended up being a pretty good one at that.

It was a piece of National League strategy that most American League teams never pull out in Interleague Play, especially in a nine-inning game. But Detroit’s bench was down one hitter with Austin Jackson out. Leyland used Ryan Raburn as a pinch-hitter for Rick Porcello in the seventh and lost another bench player when he put Don Kelly into the game as a defensive replacement in left field in the bottom of the eighth.

That left Alex Avila and Adam Everett on the Tigers bench when the pitchers spot came back around for the ninth. Once Brandon Inge drew a leadoff walk, Leyland got Dontrelle Willis ready to hit.

Willis was on deck when Danny Worth’s single put runners at the corners with one out, making it an RBI situation.

“I felt like I wasn’t going to waste a player unless I had to,” Leyland said.

Willis’ hitting prowess from his National League days is well-known, enough that some critics have wondered whether Willis could become a position player if his past pitching struggles proved unshakable. He’s a .232 career hitter with 10 doubles, five triples, eight home runs and 35 RBIs in 354 at-bats. Even better, he’s 5-for-11 in his career with a runner on third and less than two outs, and he’s 6-for-18 as a pinch-hitter.

The vast majority of those chances, however, came in the National League. He has barely hit over the last two years. However, he had two at-bats in his start against the Dodgers Friday, so he was fresh.

It was serious enough that manager Joe Torre went to the mound and replaced right-hander Ronald Belisario with left-hander George Sherrill. Leyland immediately countered by pulling back Willis and sending Adam Everett to the plate.

After swinging at the first pitch and taking two others to get ahead in the count, Everett laid down a well-placed squeeze bunt, scoring Inge. But Leyland said he wouldn’t have hesitated to let Willis hit had Torre kept Belisario in.

“If he hadn’t brought the lefty, I would’ve let Dontrelle hit,” Leyland said. “I felt comfortable with him swinging the bat. He hit what would’ve been two sacrifice flies probably [Friday]. Then if something happens to an infielder, I’ve still got Everett.”

Asked if that could happen again, Leyland said, “I think you could possibly see that in Interleague Play if we were short of players. I doubt that you’d see it in the American League.”

By contrast, he rarely ever feels comfortable with the squeeze bunt, never has. But it was something to try there.

“I hate the squeeze play,” Leyland said. “I’ve always hated the squeeze play. I hate it putting it on. It seems like it’s an hour before the pitch is delivered. But you try it with Adam Everett. We just took a shot. He got a decent pitch to bunt. He bunted it to the middle of the field, which is what you’re supposed to do, and we picked up an extra run on it. We were fortunate.”

Jackson could be back Tuesday

As I wrote on the site today, Austin Jackson’s left eye was almost completely swollen shut this morning, putting serious question into how many days he’ll be out of action. After Sunday’s win, however, Leyland said head athletic trainer Kevin Rand was optimistic they could get him ready for Tuesday’s series opener at Seattle.

“Kevin seems to
think he’ll be ready Tuesday,” Leyland said. “He thinks if you really work at
it, it’ll be fine by Tuesday. But I’ll take all precautionary
measures.”

That would be a huge gain for Leyland, who already has to figure out how to get through the Seattle series without cleanup hitter Miguel Cabrera. Add Jackson back at the top of the lineup, and you can potentially move Johnny Damon down towards the middle of the order if Leyland doesn’t want to bat Boesch cleanup. Ramon Santiago could stick in the second spot for a couple days.

At the very least, it helps give Leyland options, not to mention his center fielder back.

Cabrera to miss Seattle series

Miguel Cabrera will miss the Tigers’ upcoming two-game series at Seattle to be with his wife in Florida for the birth of their second child.

It leaves a big void for Detroit to fill against the Mariners. But as manager Jim Leyland pointed out, it’s a loss they can completely understand.

“We’re going to be playing a little bit short, but for the right reason,” Leyland said. “I wish him the best of luck, obviously, with the child and everything.”

Cabrera’s wife, Rosangel, is scheduled to have labor induced on Tuesday near their home in Miami and give birth to their second daughter. Because the Tigers play Tuesday night and Wednesday afternoon in Seattle, it would be just about impossible for Cabrera to return in time for Wednesday’s series finale.

Instead, Cabrera will rejoin the team back in Detroit for the start of their upcoming homestand Friday night.

Cabrera hit his 10th home run of the season in Sunday’s win over the Dodgers. His 32 RBIs lead the Major Leagues, and his loss will leave the Tigers tinkering the middle of the lineup. With Carlos Guillen on a rehab assignment with Triple-A Toledo, Detroit doesn’t have a proven run producer to fill in. They could conceivably give rookie Brennan Boesch a chance in the cleanup spot, or they could move Johnny Damon down in the order.

Both Tigers superutility players, Don Kelly and Ryan Raburn, have experience playing first base. So it appears unlikely the Tigers will make a short-term roster move to add a position player.

“I’ve got plenty of options,” Leyland said. “I’m not worried about that. You don’t like that bat being out of there for a couple of days, but I’ve got a couple guys who can play first base. I’m not worried about that part of it. You worry about losing that offense for a couple days — like I said, all for the right reason.

“We’ll make the best out of it. Hopefully everything works out for Miguel and his wife. We’ll move forward.”

Sunday: Tigers at Dodgers

Relatively good news on the Austin Jackson front: He was in the clubhouse this morning and felt fine, still a little bit of a headache. However, his left eye is really swollen, almost completely shut.

“I can see down,” Jackson said, “but if I have to look at anybody straight [ahead], I have to lean back.”

Needless to say, Jackson isn’t available this afternoon, and unless they get the swelling down in the next couple days, he might have a hard time playing Tuesday in Seattle. Right now, they’re taking it day to day.

With that in mind, Johnny Damon is back in center field today, flanked by Brennan Boesch and Magglio Ordonez. Gerald Laird is catching Rick Porcello, as he usually does.

TIGERS

  1. Damon, CF
  2. Santiago, SS
  3. Ordonez, RF
  4. Cabrera, 1B
  5. Boesch, LF
  6. Inge, 3B
  7. Laird, C
  8. Worth, 2B
  9. Porcello, P

DODGERS

  1. Russell Martin, C
  2. Xavier Paul, RF
  3. Matt Kemp, CF
  4. James Loney, 1B
  5. Casey Blake, 3B
  6. Garret Anderson, LF
  7. Blake DeWitt, 2B
  8. Jamey Carroll, SS
  9. Hiroki Kuroda, P
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