April 8th, 2013

Game 6: Leyland looks to sort out bullpen

One of the things about a bullpen by committee with few (if any) set roles is that if a reliever can’t retire a hitter he is supposed to retire, his struggles tend to put the rest of the bullpen order out of whack. Left-handed pitchers who can get right-handed hitters out make a world of difference. A left-handed pitcher giving out a hit to a left-handed hitter, while inevitable, tends to have a bigger effect.

Phil Coke’s struggles against right-handed hitters are well-known, and Jim Leyland admitted said Sunday’s game that he left Coke in to finish out the eighth inning to give him a chance against some right-handed hitters. The results were a Vernon Wells double and a Francisco Cervelli RBI single.

For all practical purposes, though, the inning began to fall apart with a left-handed hitter. Travis Hafner greeted Coke with a first-pitch single to right on an elevated breaking ball, putting a runner on ahead of Wells’ double. That meant Ichiro’s fly ball to right, instead of the third out to strand a runner on second, was a sacrifice fly for the second out before Cervelli’s two-out single.

Hafner was 1-for-6 with two strikeouts against Coke heading into the day.

That said, Leyland didn’t diminish the importance of Coke retiring right-handed hitters.

“We’ve got to get Cokey, Dotel and these guys going,” Leyland said. “That’s why I let him pitch to the right-handers. But he’s going to have to get these guys out.”

As you might remember, right-handed hitters went 40-for-101 against Coke last year. They’re 4-for-5 off him so far this year. The one out was pretty notable, as it came from switch-hitting Ryan Doumit for the final out on Opening Day at Minnesota.

According to STATS, Coke threw fastballs with 69 percent of his pitches to right-handed hitters last year, with just 19 percent changeups and 12 percent breaking balls. Against left-handed batters, he threw close to an even split of fastballs and breaking balls.

Coke’s percentage of fastballs to right-handed hitters was even higher in 2011 at 72.5 percent. But then, so was his fastball percentage to left-handers that year.

“It’s just puzzling to me with Coke because he has the repertoire that he has,” Leyland said. “If you’re a one-pitch pitcher or something like that, or one pitch with just a mediocre second pitch, OK, I can figure that out.”

At that point, it was a 5-0 game, and Dotel needed to pitch. He began the ninth inning against right-handed hitting Jayson Nix and gave up a leadoff single, Nix’s third hit of the day. After a single from left-handed hitting Brett Gardner and a groundout from lefty-hitting Robinson Cano, he gave up a two-run single to right-handed hitting Kevin Youkilis.

It was just Dotel’s second outing of the regular season. He faced two batters Thursday against the Twins.

“We’ve got to get Dotel going,” Leyland said. “He hadn’t really pitched much in Spring Training. He needs to get out there and throw some pitches.”

Play of the game: As mentioned in the game story, Jayson Nix was 1-for-11 with five strikeouts off Justin Verlander before he got a hanging changeup and sent it out to left for a two-run homer in the second inning and a 3-0 Yankees lead. It was a pitch selection Leyland questioned, and one that Brayan Pena regretted.

Biggest out: The Yankees shut out the Tigers offense by holding the middle of the order — Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder and Victor Martinez — to a 1-for-12 performance on the game between CC Sabathia’s seven shutout innings and David Robertson’s inning of relief. One of the outs was Robertson’s strikeout of Miguel Cabrera on a check swing following Torii Hunter’s leadoff single. It didn’t stop the rally, because Fielder singled a few pitches later, but is slowed the momentum and kept the Tigers from putting something serious together.

Strategy: Matt Tuiasosopo made the Opening Day roster to serve as the left fielder against tough lefties, and he filled that role admirably with two singles and a walk against CC Sabathia. So why did Leyland keep Tuiasosopo in the game to bat against the right-handed Robertson? Long short story, Leyland was looking for a three-run homer to get them back in the game, and a right-handed pull hitter getting a ball up in a wind blowing out to left was what he saw as his best chance.

“In case you’re wondering, I left him in there that inning because the ball was [carrying] to left and it wasn’t going anywhere to right,” Leyland said. “And I was just hoping with two guys on, he might run into one and get one up in the wind. That’s why I left him in there. He’s got the capability of hitting a home run, so you’re trying to get a quick three there.”

Robertson struck out Tuiasosopo on three pitches.

Line of the day: Jayson Nix went 3-for-4 with a two-run homer and two runs scored.

Stat of the day: 1 — Run allowed against the Tigers by Mariano Rivera since 2000. It was a Curtis Granderson home run in an 8-6 Tigers loss at Comerica Park on April 29, 2009.

Print it: “I think CC’s actually better as a pitcher. He’s a pitcher now, and not a thrower.” — Torii Hunter