May 2011

Benoit back in setup role

Joaquin Benoit’s respite from the Tigers’ eighth-inning setup role lasted less than a week. It isn’t necessarily a matter of the Tigers feeling confident he’s completely back so much as the recent performances from the rest of the bullpen.

“I’d have liked to go a little bit longer [working him along],” manager Jim Leyland said, “but with some of the kids struggling, I’ve just got to hope he gets the job done.”

Benoit’s last eighth-inning appearance came last Monday against Toronto, when he entered in a tie game and gave up three runs. He has made one appearance since, albeit an encouraging one with a two-strikeout perfect inning Friday night.

After that game, he sounded cautiously encouraged, but also patient.

“I’m just going in there and trying to hit the spots, not thinking about what’s happened already,” Benoit said Friday night. “Whatever happened is in the past, try to move forward.”

The past four games have been an outright struggle for the Tigers bullpen to find some order without the late innings set. Both losses at Boston came as a result of runs in the eighth inning or later, and the losses here Friday and Saturday came largely from sixth- and seventh-inning runs.

Add it up, and Detroit relievers have given up 13 runs over the course of their five-game losing streak, more than Tigers hitters have scored in that same stretch.

Sunday: Tigers at Pirates

Jim Leyland loaded up his lineup with right-handed hitters today against Pirates lefty Paul Maholm. Thus, Brennan Boesch and Andy Dirks are out, and Ryan Raburn and Casper Wells are in. Victor Martinez gets his second start of the series.

TIGERS

  1. Austin Jackson, CF
  2. Scott Sizemore, 2B
  3. Ryan Raburn, LF
  4. Miguel Cabrera, 1B
  5. Victor Martinez, C
  6. Jhonny Peralta, SS
  7. Brandon Inge, 3B
  8. Casper Wells, RF
  9. Rick Porcello, P
PIRATES
  1. Andrew McCutchen, CF
  2. Jose Tabata, LF
  3. Garrett Jones, RF
  4. Neil Walker, 2B
  5. Lyle Overbay, 1B
  6. Steve Pearce, 3B
  7. Chris Snyder, C
  8. Ronny Cedeno, SS
  9. Paul Maholm, P

Saturday: Tigers at Pirates

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As expected, Alex Avila gets to catch tonight. Victor Martinez gets the day off. Meanwhile, Andy Dirks moves up to the third spot in the order, with Boesch filling in for Victor at the five spot.

TIGERS

  1. Austin Jackson, CF
  2. Ramon Santiago, 2B
  3. Andy Dirks, LF
  4. Miguel Cabrera, 1B
  5. Brennan Boesch, RF
  6. Jhonny Peralta, SS
  7. Alex Avila, C
  8. Brandon Inge, 3B
  9. Max Scherzer, P

PIRATES

  1. Andrew McCutchen, CF
  2. Jose Tabata, LF
  3. Garrett Jones, RF
  4. Neil Walker, 2B
  5. Lyle Overbay, 1B
  6. Ryan Doumit, C
  7. Brandon Wood, 3B
  8. Ronny Cedeno, SS
  9. Kevin Correia, P

Thomas to 15-day DL, Furbush called up from Toledo

Charlie Furbush’s rapid rise through the Tigers farm system has landed him his first shot in the big leagues. The Tigers called up the deceptive left-hander from Triple-A Toledo on Saturday morning to take the place of lefty reliever Brad Thomas, who was placed on the 15-day disabled list with left elbow inflammation.

Furbush makes the trip from Toledo presumably to fill Thomas’ bullpen spot, and some have projected him as an eventual strikeout lefty in the Majors. But his numbers at Toledo this year, and at three different levels last year, came as a starter with multiple out pitches. After ranking second among all Minor League pitchers last year with 183 strikeouts over 159 innings, the 25-year-old southpaw leads the International League with 55 strikeouts over 46 1/3 innings this season with the Mud Hens.

Just as impressive, and a big step in his development, he has managed to largely hold down hitters even when they put the ball in play. His 4-3 record over eight starts belies a 2.91 ERA, which kept him in some low-scoring affairs. Two of his starts were one-hit performances over seven and eight innings, the latter coming in defeat against Charlotte on the same day Justin Verlander pitched his no-hitter at Toronto.

The numbers and the pitching made Furbush one of the primary prospects to watch in Toledo alongside fellow lefty Andy Oliver, while another southpaw, Duane Below, has pitched himself into the conversation. Speculation had been building for Furbush and Oliver to get their shot shortly if they kept up this stingy pitching.

Furbush’s opportunity came from injury with Thomas, whose left elbow locked up on him Friday and left him unavailable for the series opener here against the Pirates. Thomas was scheduled to be checked out Saturday morning, but the Tigers couldn’t wait long without a roster move. His absence for any stretch would’ve left Daniel Schlereth as the lone left-hander in Detroit’s bullpen.

While there was talk out of Spring Training about the Tigers possibly getting by with one lefty, that depended on having an effective Joaquin Benoit pitching the eighth inning and a healthy Joel Zumaya fastball for the seventh. Neither of those have happened so far, though Benoit looked more like last year’s form in a mop-up inning Friday night.

Play catch for Diamonds and Dreams, earn a ball for Think Detroit PAL

Normally, I don’t tweet a lot of play-by-play or game updates during Tigers games, figuring the telecast is readily available enough that most people who are following tweets are watching anyway. It’s going to be a little different tonight, the first game this season — and one of two this year — that aren’t televised on any channels because to the FOX blackout. There will be a broadcast online at MLB.TV and radio, of course.

Whether folks watch online or not, hopefully it’ll be a night for some online buzz, which I’ll try to help with some updates for those of you out and about. In turn, hopefully we can turn that activity into a good cause by “playing catch” online.

It’s an idea from the Diamonds & Dreams program, which is sponsored by Chevrolet and MLB. While many have the privilege of watching and playing baseball on well-equipped fields, there are many children across America that never get that opportunity. Diamonds & Dreams provides prizes, which include field makeovers, clinics and equipment packages for youth baseball communities across America.

Anyone can enter for a chance to win the prizes as well as a trip for four to the MLB All-Star Game or a new Chevrolet. You can find out more and even play a mini baseball game here: http://on.fb.me/g2H59j

If you’re on Twitter today or tonight, you can help by either retweeting my #playcatch tweet, or by starting a game on your own that includes the #playcatch hashtag and a link to the Diamonds & Dreams Facebook tab: http://on.fb.me/g2H59j

Every unique “thrower” or retweet today earns a real baseball for Think Detroit PAL, which runs baseball programs in the city of Detroit from t-ball all the way up to high school or RBI level play. Hopefully we can hit the top contribution of 100 balls.

Thomas getting elbow checked out

For those who missed Jim Leyland’s postgame interview and were wondering why Leyland stuck with Brayan Villarreal against left-handed hitting Garrett Jones instead of using a lefty, word from the manager was that Thomas had some elbow problems and wasn’t available.

“Thomas’ elbow kind of locked up,” Leyland said. “We couldn’t pitch him, really, so we got into a little bit of a bind with some of their lefties. We didn’t want to go to [Daniel] Schlereth that early, so we kind of got into a little bit of a bind. That hurt a little bit.”

Would it have made a difference in the outcome of the game? Probably not, since the Tigers were down 3-1 at that point and still would’ve needed runs. It might have made a difference in the inning, considering Jones is 1-for-11 off left-handed pitching. But then, Thomas has given up a .400 (8-for-20) clip against lefties this year as part of his struggling start. Schlereth (4-for-24) has fared better for the year, but he also has struggled lately against lefty hitters.

Bullpen coach Jeff Jones said Thomas will be getting his elbow checked out. We’ll see where it leads. If it’s any sort of lengthy injury, it’ll be interesting to see how long the Tigers can fare with one lefty in the bullpen.

Friday: Tigers at Pirates

I’m a little late on the lineups, I know. You’ll see Jhonny Peralta and Brandon Inge both getting a game off. I talked with Inge this afternoon, and he’s been battling some sort of virus that has him dealing with headaches.

TIGERS

  1. Austin Jackson, CF
  2. Scott Sizemore, 2B
  3. Brennan Boesch, RF
  4. Miguel Cabrera, 1B
  5. Victor Martinez, C
  6. Andy Dirks, LF
  7. Don Kelly, 3B
  8. Ramon Santiago, SS
  9. Brad Penny, P

PIRATES

  1. Andrew McCutchen, CF
  2. Jose Tabata, LF
  3. Garrett Jones, RF
  4. Neil Walker, 2B
  5. Lyle Overbay, 1B
  6. Ryan Doumit, C
  7. Brandon Wood, 3B
  8. Ronny Cedeno, SS
  9. Jeff Karstens, P

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

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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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