Game 8: What to do with Brayan Villarreal
Here’s the good news for the Tigers: In a league where a lot of teams scour to find a high-strikeout specialist they can call on whenever they need a big out with runner on base, the Tigers have two of them.
Here’s the bad news: In a league where teams can make pitchers pay dearly for walking guys, the Tigers have two relievers who can walk their share.
Between injuries and issues, they’ve spent most of the last couple years with only one. By the time Al Alburquerque returned last September from elbow surgery, Villarreal’s late-season struggles had already started to limit his usefulness. Now, with no closer and Leyland playing matchups with his relievers for 2-3 innings a game, you can make the case he needs both of them if he’s going to make it work, just to have one of them available on any given night.
Alburquerque finished out the eighth inning in Tuesday’s win over the Jays. Wednesday was Villarreal’s turn once Toronto put a runner on base on Darin Downs in the seventh to bring the potential tying run to the plate. What followed was 19 pitches, seven strikes, 18 fastballs, one slider, one swing and miss, two foul balls, and no other swings.
And before you ask why he was in there, keep this in mind: Villarreal got ahead on 1-2 counts to both of his final two hitters, Edwin Encarnacion and Mark DeRosa. Both times, he followed with three consecutive pitches out of the strike zone.
There’s a difference between getting ahead of a hitter and losing him, and just completely losing the strike zone.
“it’s amazing really,” Leyland said, “because for the most part the first pitch to every one of those hitters, Villarreal threw a nasty pitch for strike one and couldn’t throw another strike after that, throwing the ball in the dirt. He just had problems.”
So why keep him in after the second walk to Encarnacion to face DeRosa? Well, the aforementioned fact that he was getting ahead of hitters was one reason. The other, ironically, was that they needed a strikeout or a double play in that situation. He had worked himself into such a jam that they needed somebody like him to get out of it, though Leyland said before the game that Alburquerque was available.
“You know he throws strike one nasty,” Leyland said. “If he does get the ball around the plate, he’s got a chance to strike the guy out or has a chance to get a double play.”
He was a pitch away from the strikeout and couldn’t get it, though he threw all fastballs to DeRosa.
Leyland did not regret putting Villarreal in that situation.
“I thought you have a guy that throws 95, 96, 97 mph with a good slider, and you’ve got four right-handed hitters coming up,” Leyland said. “I don’t want to sound like I’m defending my decision, because I’m not. I would make the same decision again. He’s got to pitch. We’ve got to see if he can do it. It’s that simple.”
So far, Villarreal has given up eight runs on four hits with more walks (five) against outs (four). He believes he has a mechanical issue with his shoulder that he needs to watch on video and fix. The question is whether the Tigers can afford to take him out of action for two or three days to work out his issues.
On the one hand, Triple-A is sometimes the best place to work on issues. On the other hand, who from the minors can fill his spot well other than closer in waiting Bruce Rondon, and can the Tigers afford to take Rondon out of development duty?
Play of the game: Octavio Dotel got Valdespinned on Emilio Bonifacio’s comebacker leading off the eighth inning, and still had the presence to field the play and throw to first for the out before hunching over in pain. Win or lose, that deserves some sort of mention.
Biggest out: As badly as Steve Delabar struggled to find the strike zone after replacing Mark Buehrle with back-to-back bases-loaded walks in the fifth inning, the Jays would’ve have had a chance at a comeback had Delabar not settled down from a 3-1 count to get Alex Avila swinging at back-to-back pitches for the strikeout.
Strategy: As mentioned above, Leyland stuck with Villarreal to face Mark DeRosa after back-to-back walks in the seventh, looking for the strikeout or the double play. He got to another 1-2 count before missing on three consecutive pitches.
Line of the day: Brayan Villarreal — 0+ IP, 0 H, 3 ER, 3 BB, 0 K, 19 pitches, 7 strikes.
Stat of the day: 3 — Bases loaded walks for the game.
Print it: “I have a lot of confidence in my fastball. You could see that they couldn’t hit it. Even when they knew that pitch was coming, they couldn’t hit it. That’s my best pitch, and I have a lot of confidence. I just have to throw it for strikes.” — Villarreal on his pitch selection, with 18 fastballs out of 19 pitches.