April 5th, 2013

Game 4: The day Fielder went with the splits

The biggest reason behind Prince Fielder’s first .300 season last year was his success against left-handed pitching. He didn’t hit very many home runs, just six in 248 plate appearances, but he raised his singles and doubles rates against lefties. As a result, he hit .289 off lefties. 26 points above his career rate and just three points below his career best from 2009.

So when the Twins went with a lefty reliever Tyler Robertson against Fielder on Thursday, it didn’t seem like it should have much effect. Instead, Robertson spotted a fastball on Fielder, then threw him sliders he couldn’t quite resist. In the process, Robertson got the big second out that set up a Casey Fien showdown with Victor Martinez, which again went in the Twins’ favor and kept the Tigers down for good.

Given that result, it made sense that the Yankees turned to Boone Logan against Fielder, who was just 1-for-6 against him. The way Nova was looking wild, it made incredible sense to pull him regardless, but the matchup Joe Girardi created with it made sense. Fielder couldn’t lay off Robertson’s slider on Thursday, but he shrugged off Logan’s slider on Friday, which left Logan to try to even the count with a fastball.

Fielder didn’t just get a base hit. He got the go-ahead three-run homer. Even that seemed to go against Fielder’s recent lefty splits. Maybe he knew what to expect from Logan after a half-dozen previous meetings, but he wasn’t letting on.

“I wish I could say I did [sit on a pitch],” Fielder said, “but I just try to see and hit it, and it worked out today.”

At some point in the middle of Spring Training, I asked Tigers hitting coach Lloyd McClendon what could be the biggest benefit for Fielder with another year in the league, knowing the pitching, and he believed it was batting average. His home runs and RBIs could be tempered by walks, even with Martinez behind him. His hitting rate doesn’t have those limits.

He might be good enough to win a batting title. In two big at-bats against lefty relievers, though, he was famine one day, feast the next.

Play of the game: If you’re talking highlight play, it had to be Brennan Boesch’s crash into the right-field fence to retire Fielder. If you’re talking about a pure highlight, the attempt by a fan to catch Fielder’s first home run ended up becoming viral on the internet. If you’re just plain talking about a highlight, Alex Avila jumping a Shawn Kelley fastball and sending it more than halfway up the right-field seats was something Tigers fans have been waiting to see.

Biggest out: Had Miguel Cabrera not snared Jayson Nix’s line drive to end the fifth inning, the game could have ended up spiraling out of control for the Tigers before they had a chance to come back. Yes, three runs were already in, and the bottom third of an injury-depleted Yankees lineup was due up. But Fister was already at 96 pitches, and another hit would have meant two runners for Ichiro and Fister nearing the 100-pitch mark. If they had to go to Smyly in the fourth, especially with runners already on base, it would have changed the bullpen usage drastically.

What worked for Smyly: Fastball command. As catcher Alex Avila said, “His fastball command was as good as it can get. Hit both corners of the plate with his fastball, mixed in his cutter when he needed to. He just got on a roll and it was a lot of fun to catch. When a pitcher’s going like that, when he’s hitting his spots, it makes it easy to call a game.”

Strategy: It would be difficult to blame Girardi for playing the percentages with Logan against Fielder, given the numbers. Nova was reeling, and Logan had a track record against Fielder. In this case, it didn’t work.

Line of the day: Drew Smyly with four innings, no hits, no runs, no walks and five strikeouts. It was the longest save by a Tiger since Esteban Yan did it twice in 2004.

Stat of the day: The Yankees didn’t have a fly ball out to the outfield until Chris Stewart flew out to left for the final out of the sixth inning.

Another stat of the day: Austin Jackson had led off the Tigers’ effort in all four games with a base hit. Three times, the Tigers have brought him around to score, each time on a groundout.

Print it: “I’m looking around like, ‘This is great. This is like a college football game. It was like a college football game. It was crazy. It was like tailgating everywhere, people having fun, walking around. It was definitely very impressive. … It was way different. It got me excited. I’m walking in ready to go. It was awesome. It was probably my best [Opening Day] in all my years.” — Torii Hunter on Tigers home opener experience

Home opening lineups: Tigers vs. Yankees

For the Tigers, it’s Opening Day lineup, part II.

For the Yankees, it’s a lefty-heavy lineup, which could lend itself to another save opportunity for Phil Coke if the Tigers have a lead late. New York has different lefties than the lineup Coke mowed down last October, notably Travis Hafner and Boesch, but it’s still lefty-heavy, and it lends itself a little better to playing matchups in the bullpen. Jim Leyland said pregame that he’d check on Darin Downs’ availability, but everyone else in the pen aside from Brayan Villarreal is available to pitch.

By the way, did you know that Brennan Boesch was 7-for-12 for Doug Fister before the Tigers traded for Fister? He was one of the few Tigers who did hit him well during his Mariners days.

You can follow online this afternoon on Gameday (which is pretty useful even if you’re watching on TV, watch on FS Detroit or MLB.TV, and listen on 97.1 in Detroit or MLB.com Gameday Audio online.

TIGERS

  1. Austin Jackson, CF (4-for-11, 3 RBIs vs. Ivan Nova)
  2. Torii Hunter, RF (1-for-7, 2 walks, 3 K’s vs. Nova)
  3. Miguel Cabrera, 3B (2-for-9, 3 walks, 3 K’s vs. Nova)
  4. Prince Fielder, 1B (2-for-5, HR vs. Nova)
  5. Victor Martinez, DH (1-for-4, 3 walks vs. Nova)
  6. Andy Dirks, LF (1-for-2 vs. Nova)
  7. Jhonny Peralta, SS (3-for-9 vs. Nova)
  8. Alex Avila, C (2-for-8 vs. Nova)
  9. Omar Infante, 2B (1-for-2 vs. Nova)

P: Doug Fister

YANKEES

  1. Brett Gardner, CF (3-for-9 vs. Doug Fister)
  2. Robinson Cano, 2B (5-for-17, 3 doubles, HR vs. Fister)
  3. Kevin Youkilis, 3B (2-for-16, 4 walks, 4 K’s vs. Fister)
  4. Travis Hafner, DH (6-for-21, triple, 2 HRs, 4 RBIs vs. Fister)
  5. Brennan Boesch, RF (7-for-12, HR, 3 RBIs vs. Fister)
  6. Eduardo Nunez, SS
  7. Ichiro Suzuki, LF (4-for-9 vs. Fister)
  8. Lyle Overbay, 1B (1-for-6 vs. Fister)
  9. Chris Stewart, C (2-for-3 vs. Fister)

P: Ivan Nova

Boras: “We thought there would be a need”

This is what Jose Valverde’s agent, Scott Boras, said a week ago:

“Our plan was to wait and see what closer options availed themselves at this time.”

This is what Boras said Thursday evening:

“We were patient, and we thought there would be a need in the organization.”

He found it. In the end, it was in the place he targeted all along. Whether Valverde is the one to fill it remains to be seen.

It’s a low-risk signing on the Tigers’ part, basically allowing them to get a look at Valverde against live hitters and see if what they’ve heard about Valverde’s fastball and splitter, and what a team evaluator saw, hold up. It’s a chance for Valverde to essentially showcase himself in the camp where the opportunity is high and the potential reward is higher.

Boras said Valverde had opportunities with other teams (which sounds a lot like similar offers), but that the familiarity with the Tigers and the opportunity to fill save situations on a contending team made the most sense. Boras’ remarks above made it sound like this was where he thought Valverde could fit for a while.

On the Tigers’ side, it appears they’ve been gauging this for at least a week, ever since Bruce Rondon was optioned to Triple-A Toledo. When Boras made the remarks he made last Thursday, he said Valverde had already thrown for a few teams, and had a couple more set to watch him. When Dombrowski announced the signing, he said a scout watched Valverde throw in the Dominican Republic last Saturday.

The negotiations, Dombrowski said, came together Thursday morning, starting with a text message in the middle of the night and reaching a breakthrough with the willingness to take a minor-league contract with no guarantee of the big leagues. While Dombrowski said they’ve discussed “parameters” of a potential Major League contract should the Tigers call him up by his opt-out date of May 5, Boras suggested they had the framework of a deal ready should it come to that.

The opt-out date gives the Tigers about a month to look at him. It might not take that long. Boras said Valverde will report to the Tigers’ Spring Training facility in Lakeland this weekend and start throwing. He’s already throwing bullpen sessions every other day, so it shouldn’t take long for him to stretch out to the point that he’s ready to face live hitting. He could be ready in two or three outings down there for his shot at Triple-A Toledo.

From there, it might just take a handful of outings to get a yes-or-no answer.

“We’re not looking to prolong this,” Dombrowski said. “It’s a situation where he can either pitch and come back and help us here or we probably end that relationship at that time.”

Meanwhile, the Tigers not only have to evaluate Valverde, but also how they plan to work their bullpen going forward, with or without him. If Valverde does get the call, does the 35-year-old automatically assume his old role as the unquestioned closer with the same workload? If not, can he handle the ins and outs of a closer by committee, specifically the ins and outs of pitching sometimes in non-save situations?

Is this the beginning of the end of the closer by committee idea?

“We do not have a dominant closer,” Dombrowski said Thursday, “and most clubs that have a chance to win have a closer. That doesn’t mean you can’t win by mixing and matching, either, but right now we’re in a situation where we’re mixing and matching and if the situation ends up being better with Papa Grande, with Rondon, with whomever it may during times, we’re open-minded to that.”

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