March 30th, 2012

So is anyone winning the 5th starter race?

Remember way back 24 hours ago when Jim Leyland was talking about how big of a day Friday was going to be for the Tigers?

“It’s a lot of pins and needles right now, to be honest with you,” Leyland said Thursday night. “Hopefully we’ll be a little closer after tomorrow.”

After today’s outing Duane Below, it doesn’t feel much closer to a resolution on the fifth starter. The only way it feels closer is that the outings might be done — unless the decision goes to the final day, in which case Drew Smyly might be able to pitch Monday against the Blue Jays.

Regardless, with just a few days left, there’s no clearer sense of a favorite.

Of all the fifth starter candidates going into camp, Below seemed the least likely to battle control problems. He’s the guy with the combination of experience and command, with enough velocity blended in.

That’s what made his outing Friday all the more perplexing. If he had gotten hit around, the Tigers might have been able to live with that. Maybe if those walks had been lengthy battles with several foul balls, or if they had been spread out over the various innings, it would feel different. But in walking four Orioles in the second inning, all on five pitches, he showed a struggle trying to correct his mechanics in the middle of an inning. Instead of going to offspeed pitches to try to correct his fastball command, he kept firing fastballs throughout the inning, and they kept sailing high and outside to right-handed hitters.

So where does this leave the Tigers? It certainly leaves them without a favorite. Realistically, they’re left with nobody having stepped up to grab the spot. In the end, you can make a case that the tiebreaker might be as much philosophical as anything.

Statistically, Smyly was more effective, both in damage and command. Nobody, not even those who totally bought into Smyly as a realistic candidate, could’ve expected that out of this group. He arguably had the best stuff of them all, a fastball up to 94 mph to go with at least three offspeed pitches.

But before he’s anointed the deserving winner, ponder this question: If you commit to him to open the season, do you have to commit to him for the year (unless things go completely sideways)? If you’re going to open the season with a “placeholder” in the fifth spot until you can get more clarity, is that something Smyly can handle, or would he risk suffering some of the same problems Oliver has encountered the last couple years? Would Below, by virtue by his experience and starter/relief versatility, be better suited since he could jump to the bullpen to make way for somebody else?

Just throwing some thoughts out there, thoughts that completely my own.

One thing that might make you feel a little better about how all this unfolded is the fact that the Tigers won’t need a fifth starter until April 14.

Inge out with sore groin

As recently as Friday morning, Brandon Inge was on the travel roster for Friday’s trip to Sarasota to face the Orioles. But when the Tigers were taking batting practice before the game, Inge wasn’t out there. This time of year, an absence like that — especially a player with as much speculation surrounding him as Inge — creates suspicion.

In this case, manager Jim Leyland said it’s an injury situation. Inge supposedly had a sore groin that he tweaked trying to run out Thursday night’s game-ending double play.

“He had a little groin [injury] last night. That’s why he didn’t come,” Leyland said. “He was getting treated all day. That last ball of the game, running to first, coming out of the box, he felt it a little bit. But I don’t think it’s anything serious. It didn’t appear to be, but it was a little sore, so I scratched him from the trip.”

The Tigers have another road trip Saturday, this time to Disney’s Wide World of Sports complex for a game against the Braves. Every position player except Delmon Young is on the travel roster for that one, but we’ll see Saturday morning if Inge makes the trip.

Laird leaves with left knee sprain

Tigers backup catcher Gerald Laird left Friday’s game against the Orioles with what the team called a left knee sprain after colliding with first baseman Don Kelly on a pop-up.

Laird will be re-evaluated on Saturday, according to the team. He’ll be evaluated on a day-to-day basis from there, but Laird said he should be ready to go again in a couple days.

“It’s all right, right now,” he said. “It feels fine. My biggest goal is to be healthy for the season. I’m just glad I can make the season. Being a catcher, I don’t want to mess with the knees.”

The injury happened in the second inning with the Tigers holding a 3-0 lead. Starting pitcher Duane Below had walked the bases loaded before inducing a high pop-up from Jai Miller.

The ball went almost straight up, leaving Laird just a few steps to camp under it. With a sunny sky over Ed Smith Stadium, however, Don Kelly kept tracking it. Laird said he called for the ball, but that Kelly didn’t hear him.

Kelly continued to chase it until the last second. When he tried to duck away, he ran into Laird’s left knee as Laird made the catch.

Laird held onto the ball as he tumbled to the ground, but he immediately clutched at his knee right afterward. Head athletic trainer Kevin Rand came out of the dugout to attend to him, and helped him off along with non-roster infielder Brandon Douglas. Laird was seemingly unable to put weight on his left leg.

“When I first felt it, it was something I didn’t feel before,” Laird said, “so I was kind of a little nervous more than anything. I’ve never had a knee injury. I was more nervous than anything. And then after a while I started getting the feeling back in my knee, and it felt better.”

The move came hours after the Tigers sent insurance catcher Omir Santos to minor-league camp for an expected starting role at Triple-A Toledo. Detroit can recall him in case of injury, but he would have to be placed on the 40-man roster to do so.

That no longer appears necessary.

“I’m fine,” Laird said. “It’s just a little sore, but that’s about it.”

Friday: Tigers at Orioles

As expected, Miguel Cabrera is in the lineup at third base. Jim Leyland said he doesn’t know how long he’ll be in the game, but he’ll be playing.

TIGERS

  1. Austin Jackson, CF
  2. Brennan Boesch, RF
  3. Miguel Cabrera, 3B
  4. Don Kelly, 1B
  5. Delmon Young, LF
  6. Ryan Raburn, 2B
  7. Clete Thomas, DH
  8. Ramon Santiago, SS
  9. Gerald Laird, C

P: Duane Below

ORIOLES

  1. Nolan Reimold, DH
  2. J.J. Hardy, SS
  3. Adam Jones, CF
  4. Matt Wieters, C
  5. Mark Reynolds, 3B
  6. Wilson Betemit, 1B
  7. Endy Chavez, LF
  8. Jai Miller, RF
  9. Robert Andino, 2B

P: Brian Matusz

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