May 17th, 2011

Tigers-Jays rained out, Porcello gets skipped

The sight of Phil Coke leaving soon after the clubhouse opened this afternoon was a pretty good sign the Tigers anticipated a long night. They were sending him to Boston on a flight ahead of the team. As it turned out, the rain never allowed them to get going.

After waiting for nearly two hours, the Tigers finally called the game just after 9 p.m. They’ll make it up with a 7:05 p.m. ET game on Monday, June 27, which was a scheduled off-day for both Detroit and Toronto. Fans holding tickets for tonight’s game can use it for that night with no exchange necessary.

As for the rotation, Phil Coke and Justin Verlander will remain on turn for the upcoming two-game series at Boston. The Tigers are skipping tonight’s scheduled starter, Rick Porcello, who hasn’t pitched since his rain-shortened start last Tuesday at Minnesota. He’s expected to make his next scheduled turn Sunday at Pittsburgh. Again, that’s weather permitting, which given the forecast for Boston is far from a sure thing.

It’s the second time this season Porcello has been skipped. When the Tigers did it last month, though, it was planned well ahead of time, with two scheduled off-days in a five-day span. Porcello pitched April 20, then not again until April 30. The rest did nothing to cause rust, as Porcello kept rolling through what is now a five-game stretch with seven earned runs over 31 2/3 innings, good for a 1.99 ERA.

Tuesday: Tigers vs. Blue Jays

Andy Dirks is back in the lineup for the Tabbies against Jays right-hander Jesse Litsch, who’s allowing a .344 average to left-handed hitters so far this season. In fact, 13 of the 14 extra-base hits Litsch has allowed have come from the left side. Not coincidentally, three of the top five hitters in Detroit’s batting order are left-handed batters.  The exceptions are Austin Jackson and Miguel Cabrera.

TIGERS

  1. Austin Jackson, CF
  2. Andy Dirks, LF
  3. Brennan Boesch, RF
  4. Miguel Cabrera, 1B
  5. Victor Martinez, DH
  6. Jhonny Peralta, SS
  7. Alex Avila, C
  8. Scott Sizemore, 2B
  9. Brandon Inge, 3B
P: Rick Porcello

.

BLUE JAYS

  1. Yunel Escobar, SS
  2. Corey Patterson, LF
  3. Jose Bautista, RF
  4. Edwin Encarnacion, 1B
  5. Aaron Hill, 2B
  6. J.P. Arencibia, C
  7. Eric Thames, DH
  8. Jayson Nix, 3B
  9. Rajai Davis, CF
P: Jesse Litsch

What is going on with Benoit?

Before we get into dissecting Joaquin Benoit, let’s make something clear: Anyone who expected Benoit to duplicate his 2010 numbers from Tampa Bay was kidding themselves. When we point out that Benoit already has given up four more earned runs than he did all of last year, it’s almost more for entertainment purposes, because those numbers were ridiculously good. The fact that he’s now more than two-thirds of the way to his 2010 hit total in about a quarter of the innings is more concerning, because it’s more relevant, but that’s a little deceptive, too.

Also worth noting: Nobody, and I mean NOBODY, was a Brandon Lyon fan at this point in 2009. He had allowed 12 earned runs on 16 hits over 15 2/3 innings then, including 11 walks. He gave up just 40 hits over 63 innings with 20 walks and 52 strikeouts after that, and then was paid handsomely on the open market.

Got it? Good. Now, what the heck is going on with Benoit?

“If I would know that, I would give you an answer,” Benoit said. “I’m trying to figure it out.”

To Benoit’s credit, he stood in front of TV cameras and microphones and answered all the questions asked of him, which lasted a little more than three minutes. He didn’t have a whole lot of answers, but he tried.

“I’m probably giving the hitters more credit than what they deserve,” Benoit said later. “I’m probably throwing the pitch that they’re looking for, and in their location. There’s not much I can do when that happens. It’s wrong pitch selection.”

Manager Jim Leyland and pitching coach Rick Knapp have a little different take. To Knapp, pitch selection and pitch execution are pretty good. Pitch location is not.

“I can’t figure out what’s going on,” Leyland said, “because we don’t see anything that indicates something wrong, with the exception that he’s just [not] locating the ball. He’s just not getting the ball where he’s trying to throw it, it looks like to me. The velocity is certainly OK, but it looks to me like he’s not locating the ball where he’s trying to get it for some reason. That means you’re out of sync or something, and he has been for a few times out now.”

Benoit agreed that his health is fine.

“I mean, I’m pitching,” Benoit said. “I have my velocity. Things are not going right.”

He does not have his location, for whatever reason. Or at least, he has it inconsistently. The game-turning double from Aaron Hill came in a five-pitch at-bat that started off with two nasty pitches to put Hill in an 0-2 hole. He pitched to catcher Alex Avila’s mitt on the next two pitches, but Hill didn’t chase.

The last pitch, the 2-2 pitch, was supposed to be low and away. It was up and over the plate.

“He made four pitches to Hill that were good,” pitching coach Rick Knapp said. “The fifth one’s bad. He just missed the spot.”

Knapp has his own ideas why.

“Is it mechanics? I don’t think it’s mechanics,” Knapp said. “I think it’s just confidence. Throw the ball down isn’t really something you can think about. You have to leverage it that way. You have to know that you’re going to throw the ball down and not have to think about it. When you have to think about it, then you have a better chance to make a mistake. And that’s kind of about where he’s at right now. He’s trying to execute pitches maybe too hard and he’s not.”

Both Knapp and Benoit said they felt his previous outing last week at Minnesota was a big step forward. He gave up three hits over 1 1/3 innings and a game-tying run that was unearned thanks to a double-error play, but he also kept the Twins from pulling ahead with help from two eighth-inning strikeouts.

When he’s on, he’s a swing-and-miss pitcher more than a contact pitcher.

“It was really better in Minnesota,” Benoit said.

Knapp believed the Minnesota outing was something to build on.

“I think Minnesota was a good positive stepping point,” Knapp said. “It just didn’t work out for him tonight. He’ll get more opportunities. It’s one of those deals where you have to execute to get confidence. Confidence isn’t something that you’re going to just show up with. It isn’t something that just walks through the door. You have your swagger, but I think right now he’s a little bit in his own head.”

Just about everyone was asked whether the three-year, $16.5 million contract, and the pressure to pitch up to it, could be contributing to that.

“I’ll answer that by saying I don’t know the answer to that,” Leyland said. “Something’s not right. He’s obviously a little frustrated, trying to do too much. That’s a possibility. That’s something we’ll have to look at it. He’s an important piece of the puzzle, but we’re going to have to look at it and figure something out. I’ll have to figure out the strategic part.”

Benoit had that question posed as well.

“There’s always pressure when you’re pitching and you don’t perform to the level that everybody expected,” he said.

Said Knapp: “I don’t know that he’d be out there in those situations if he didn’t perform like he did the year before. He deserves what he got [contractually]. Like I said, we need him to be good — not great, just good.

“I know it isn’t because he’s not trying. He’s digging in. He’s looking at tape. He’s trying to feel it, trying to make sure. There’s a fine line between trying to do too much and maybe his stuff dropping off. I don’t think it’s a stuff issue. I think his stuff is fine. I think now we have to get him zeroed in on hitting the glove, staying on the spot, executing the pitch he’s trying to make.

“I think everybody wants him to perform, nobody moreso than him. Like I said, I don’t see the stuff falling off. I see him missing his spots, which means we’re getting closer to where we need to be.”

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