October 13th, 2011

With bullpen gassed, it’s Verlander or bust

The Tigers’ postseason hopes are going to ride or die with Justin Verlander.

With manager Jim Leyland ruling out both closer Jose Valverde and setup man Joaquin Benoit after three straight days of pitching, the only opponent that’s going to knock Verlander out of Game 5 in the American League Championship Series is his own pitch count.

It’s the opposite approach to the quick hook many managers use in elimination games in the postseason. But with a 24 regular-season wins, a pitching Triple Crown and a very strong case for AL MVP, he isn’t a typical pitcher, even in an elimination game.

“The only thing I’m worried today is his pitch count,” Leyland said Thursday morning. “I’m not worried about the results. If he gives up some runs, he gives up some runs. That’s just the way it is. Too bad, and [in that case] we’ll probably get beat.”

Given the pitch counts Verlander has piled up this season, he’s going to be out there a while. The only real concern Leyland cited is if Verlander throws a lot of pitches in the early innings and struggles to conserve pitches through the middle innings.

The only reliever Leyland mentioned by name for being on call today is left-hander Phil Coke, who mopped up the 11th inning Wednesday night after Nelson Cruz’s three-run homer gave the Rangers their 7-3 lead.

Leyland said Coke could pitch two innings “if he has to.”

“I hope he doesn’t have to,” Leyland said. “If he has to, we’re probably not going to win.”

In other words, Leyland continued, “I’m hoping Verlander can give us nine [innings].”

Verlander has thrown 13 innings over three starts this postseason, but two of those were shortened by rain. The one that wasn’t came in Game 3 of the AL Division Series against the Yankees, and he delivered eight innings of four-run ball in that outing.

Valverde not only pitched three straight days, his limit during the regular season, he pitched multiple innings in two of those. His second inning of work Wednesday night was his downfall, giving up three hits and an intentional walk that led to four runs, three of them on Cruz’s homer.

When Leyland was asked about Valverde’s availability before Game 4, he had a one-word answer: “Postseason.”

Even the postseason, however, has its limits.

“I’m not pitching either one of them,” Leyland said. “Valverde’s going to say that he’s OK, but I’m not pitching him. We’re going to get somebody hurt if we’re not careful. We’ve got a guy that saved 51 games in a row, and you’ve got an option on him. I mean, people can bark, but they’re pitching on fumes and heart right now.”

ALCS Game 5: Messing with Texas

Victor Martinez and Delmon Young are again tentatively slated in the starting lineup. Cabrera and Martinez are again batting third and fourth.

TIGERS

  1. Austin Jackson, cf
  2. Ryan Raburn, rf
  3. Miguel Cabrera, 1b
  4. Victor Martinez, dh
  5. Delmon Young, lf
  6. Jhonny Peralta, ss
  7. Brandon Inge, 3b
  8. Alex Avila, c
  9. Ramon Santiago, 2b

P: Justin Verlander

RANGERS

  1. Ian Kinsler, 2b
  2. Elvis Andrus, ss
  3. Josh Hamilton, cf
  4. Michael Young, dh
  5. Adrian Beltre, 3b
  6. Mike Napoli, c
  7. Nelson Cruz, rf
  8. David Murphy, lf
  9. Mitch Moreland, 1b

P: C.J. Wilson

Decisions loom large in approach to Cabrera

The good news for the Tigers, or the silver lining in their Game 4 loss, is that they finally have Miguel Cabrera back in the form where he’s arguably the most feared hitter in the league. The bad news for Detroit is that he didn’t get many chances to show it.

One chance vanished because of a daring move by Rangers manager Ron Washington. Another vanished by the Tigers’ own choice.

Out of 144 regular-season intentional walks for Cabrera’s career, only one came with the bases empty, that coming in 2007. But with one out in the eighth inning, Washington gave him one for his postseason career as well. After watching his Rangers relievers try and fail to pitch around him during this ALCS, Washington effectively took it out of their hands.

“We tried to pitch around Cabrera twice, and he got us,” Washington said. “So this time I wasn’t taking any chance. And it almost came back and bit me. But he’s the best baseball player out there. I mean, this guy can just do so much.”

It was Victor Martinez’s base hit that followed which almost brought Cabrera back to haunt them. But in the end, the injury-riddled lineup which Washington saw fit to face with Cabrera on base paid off for him once Delmon Young’s fly ball to medium depth right field set up Nelson Cruz to throw home and get Cabrera, who was sent home there rather than held for slumping Alex Avila.

The Tigers were effectively helpless there, though they could have pinch-hit for Young if they so chose and likely risked putting Don Kelly against lefty Darren Oliver. By contrast, the move that took the bat out of Cabrera’s hands in the 10th belonged to Austin Jackson.

It was his green light to try to steal after being hit by a pitch with one out, and he tried to take it. His manager defended him on it afterward.

“Absolutely,” Leyland said. I agreed with it 100 percent.”

But while it was an aggressive move, it’s hard to find the upside rewarding enough to make it the right move. If Jackson isn’t successful there, and he wasn’t, the Tigers risk  running themselves out of an inning. If he were successful, he would take away the double-play possibility for Ryan Raburn, but he’d almost surely take away an at-bat for Cabrera, who would’ve been intentionally walked with first base open. So while they would’ve had two at-bats with the winning run in scoring position, neither of them would’ve been with Cabrera at the plate.

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