October 5th, 2011

Kelly at third base, Magglio in right field for Game 5

Remember how closely Jim Leyland guarded his lineup and rotation leading in the postseason? With his team’s strengths and weaknesses pretty well known by now, he was much more open Wednesday when talking about Game 5.

“I’m playing Don Kelly at third base tomorrow, and Magglio Ordonez in right field,” Leyland said.

When asked about Al Alburquerque’s struggles in this series, Leyland admitted he’ll be tight with his bullpen tomorrow. And he named names.

“Basically, being totally honest with you, I would like to get through this game tomorrow with Fister, Coke if necessary, Benoit and Valverde,” Leyland said. “There’s no secret to that. That’s what we would like to get through the game with.”

In other words, he’ll go with his experienced relievers.

On the list of possibilities at third base, Kelly might have been viewed as Plan C. Wilson Betemit struck out three times over three plate appearances and 10 total pitches Tuesday night, dropping him to 0-for-8 in the series. That seemingly pointed to Brandon Inge starting Game 5. But as well as Inge has been hitting, so has Kelly, and he’s a left-handed bat.

Ordonez, meanwhile, provides a veteran bat in right field. If Kelly was going to play regardless, the choice would’ve been between Ordonez and Inge.

Valverde wins MLB Delivery Man of the Year

When it comes to naming the best closer of the season, it’s hard to beat perfection.

Statistically, Jose Valverde had it, going 49-for-49 in save opportunities. Now, he has the Major League Baseball Delivery Man of the Year award to go with it. He becomes just the second Tiger ever to win the annual honor for the game’s most outstanding relief pitcher.

Valverde didn’t win any of the six Delivery Man of the Month awards. There was always somebody with a better performance over the short term. For the entire season, however, Valverde’s performance ranks among the best of all time.

Only former Dodgers great Eric Gagne saved more games without blowing an opportunity than Valverde, whose 49 regular-season saves obliterated Guillermo Hernandez’s franchise record of 32 straight saves in 1984. He also toppled Todd Jones as the Tigers’ single-season saves king.

Jones set a Tigers record with 42 saves in 2000, earning himself what was then called the Rolaids Relief Man of the Year award. He paid Valverde high honors Tuesday night by impersonating Valverde’s save celebration after throwing out the ceremonial first pitch prior to Game 4 of the AL Championship Series at Comerica Park.

“I think we’re both right-handed, but I think after that, the comparisons kind of go away,” Jones said. “Jose has had an amazing year. He’s an amazing closer. People don’t really realize how hard 50 out of 50 saves is until you watched me or had a chance to go out there yourself.

“He’s a fierce competitor, and I think everybody enjoys him in the clubhouse. Everybody on the team has said nothing but great things. He’s just had an amazing year.”

Valverde posted a 2-4 record and a 2.24 ERA, allowing 52 hits over 72 1/3 innings with 34 walks and 69 strikeouts. Opponents batted just .198 against him, demonstrating what manager Jim Leyland has called a tremendous ability to keep hitters from centering his pitches.

In just save situations, the numbers were even more formidable, with just three runs allowed on 26 hits over 49 innings with 20 walks and 50 strikeouts. Two of those runs scored on home runs.

Those numbers complemented the bottom line, the saves converted. Though Milwaukee’s John Axford, Atlanta rookie Craig Kimbrel and Pittsburgh’s Joel Hanrahan received votes, they weren’t going to beat out Valverde.

The results for a Tigers team that won its first division title since 1987 provided the substance behind a style that has made Valverde one of the game’s unique personalities. Time and again, his save celebrations have delighted fans and irked opponents, whether it was a crossing of his arms or a dance around the mound. His superstitions before he throws a pitch have become ingrained in Tigers fans’ memories.

“I don’t know what I do [after the game],” Valverde said earlier this year. “You guys can tell me what I do, but I don’t know. Somebody told me you do something different. I told him I have no idea what I’m doing. I swear to God. When I’m pitching, I’m not paying attention to what I’m doing. My mind is on doing my job quick and that’s it.”

For all the celebration he displays puts on a save, Valverde has downplayed every individual honor that has come his way this year. His goal, he said, is for the team, not himself.

“I’m not looking at what I do this year,” he said. “What I look at all the time is how my team’s doing. I have to figure out how to win the game, enjoy the game. My numbers stay over there. If we go to the World Series, we’ll remember this for a very long time.”