April 25th, 2013

Game 20: Two ways to attack a Moose

Jim Leyland took a chance on Wednesday when he brought in right-handed setup man Joaquin Benoit to face Mike Moustakas with the tying run on base, opting against left-hander Phil Coke. It went against the lefty-lefty matchup Leyland usually prefers, but the combination of Moustakas’ success against Coke (3-for-7 lifetime) and Benoit’s ability to retire left-handers (including Moustakas, who’s 1-for-7 against him) convinced him to do it.

The other problem Leyland cited was that the matchups became difficult if Coke couldn’t retire him, with right-handed hitter Jeff Francoeur following him. He would need different pitchers to get out of the inning. On Thursday, that difficulty became evident following a different decision and a walk that changed the complexion of the 10th and final inning.

This time, with Lorenzo Cain on second and one out, Leyland kept Phil Coke in the game to face Moustakas. It was a slightly different situation Thursday in that the go-ahead run was on base with less than two outs, and it was a speedster in Cain. Considering the Angels just stole three bases in as many tries off Benoit and Brayan Pena in the 10th inning on Sunday, running on Benoit and Alex Avila and producing a sacrifice fly, as they did off Bruce Rondon in the eighth inning to tie the game, could’ve been a bigger threat than hitting off Benoit.

Instead, Cain came around on Coke’s struggles. Five pitches later, Moustakas was on first with a walk. A first-pitch ball in the dirt to Francoeur for a wild pitch moved both runners up, and made Leyland’s decision simple to walk him and load the bases, trying to set up a force play at the plate or a double play to end the inning.

It wasn’t necessarily that Moustakas had beaten Coke. He didn’t get a chance. As Leyland put it afterwards, Coke lost the strike zone. He didn’t find it in the favorable matchup that followed, a bases-loaded showdown with left-handed hitting backup catcher George Kottaras that ended in a walk, driving in the go-ahead run.

Up came Alex Gordon, whose grand slam off Darin Downs’ 2-0 pitch put it away.

“We lost command of the strike one there late in the game,” Leyland said. “We had some left-handed hitters there and the conditions were a little rough and rain. Not making excuses, obviously, but we just didn’t throw the ball over the plate, and it killed us.”

Play of the game: Though the game turned on Detroit’s bullpen, the Tigers had a chance to break it open in the fifth after Torii Hunter had singled in Omar Infante to make it a 3-2 game. Cabrera had runners on first and second with one out and hit a sharp liner. Moustakas snared it, leaving Austin Jackson in no-man’s land between second and third for an easy inning-ending double play. Detroit didn’t get another hit the rest of the afternoon.

Line of the day: Coke was charged with four runs on one hit over 1 1/3 innings thanks to four walks, two of which were intentional.

Stats of the day: 37 — Walks allowed by Tigers relievers in 66 2/3 innings this season. That leads all Major League bullpens, as do the 80 strikeouts from Tigers relievers this season. All of that comes over 66 2/3 innings of relief, 13th among Major League clubs.

Thursday’s lineups: Tigers vs. Royals

Andy Dirks and Don Kelly have the exact same numbers against James Shields (both 1-for-3), but Kelly gets the start in left today. Everything else is the regular lineup.

It’ll be interesting to see how Jim Leyland uses his bullpen today, though Verlander’s start means he shouldn’t need his bullpen for many innings. Jose Valverde has pitched four of the last six days if you count his minor-league stint in Lakeland. Al Alburquerque says he’s fine after his hip tightened up on him last night, but Leyland did not sound like he wants to pitch him if he can help it.

TIGERS

  1. Austin Jackson, CF (5-for-13, 3 K’s off James Shields)
  2. Torii Hunter, RF (10-for-32, 8 K’s off Shields)
  3. Miguel Cabrera, 3B (13-for-26, HR, 2 walks, 4 K’s off Shields)
  4. Prince Fielder, 1B (1-for-6, walk off Shields)
  5. Victor Martinez, DH (7-for-19, 6 K’s off Shields)
  6. Jhonny Peralta, SS (10-for-22, 3 HR, 2 walks, 5 K’s off Shields)
  7. Don Kelly, LF (1-for-3 off Shields)
  8. Alex Avila, C (4-for-15, HR, walk, 7 K’s off Shields)
  9. Omar Infante, 2B (2-for-16, 5 K’s off Shields)

P: Justin Verlander

ROYALS

  1. Alex Gordon, LF (10-for-47, 2 HR, 4 walks, 17 K’s off Verlander)
  2. Alcides Escobar, SS (5-for-22, walk, 4 K’s off Verlander)
  3. Billy Butler, DH (21-for-53, 2 HR, 4 walks, 7 K’s off Verlander)
  4. Eric Hosmer, 1B (2-for-20, 3 walks, 4 K’s off Verlander)
  5. Lorenzo Cain, CF
  6. Mike Moustakas, 3B (3-for-18, walk, 5 K’s off Verlander)
  7. Jeff Francoeur, RF (6-for-26, HR, 7 K’s off Verlander)
  8. Salvador Perez, C (3-for-8 off Verlander)
  9. Chris Getz, 2B (6-for-22, walk, 3 K’s off Verlander)

P: James Shields

Game 19: The return of the Big Potato

I have no idea how Jose Valverde’s return is going to work out. For people to look at Valverde not throwing a splitter on Wednesday night and point out that October weather is cold in Detroit, too, requires a huge presumption about Valverde closing.

This wasn’t a move made for October. The Tigers can find a closer for October at the Trade Deadline if they don’t think they have that guy in house then. This was a move made for now.

What I know is that the Tigers did not want to continue with a bullpen by committee. They wanted a set closer. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have scouted Jose Valverde a couple days after sending Bruce Rondon to Triple-A Toledo at the end of Spring Training, and a couple days before the season began in Minnesota.

This wasn’t an indictment of how Joaquin Benoit was pitching, or even about how Phil Coke was pitching. Once the Tigers signed Valverde to a minor-league contract, the question was simply whether he was pitching better than he did last year. Once they saw that, they didn’t need to run him through the motions at Triple-A Toledo. They saw all they needed.

Say what you will about the case for using your bullpen situationally the whole way through, using your best reliever in the eighth inning for the middle of an opponent’s lineup if those are the toughest outs. The Tigers were never going to be in that school of thought, right or wrong.

“Ideally, you’d like to have a one-person closer at the end of the game with a good club,” team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski told the Detroit Economic Club on Wednesday at their annual luncheon. “We looked at some different alternatives. It really didn’t fall into place with getting that one person.”

Jim Leyland can play matchups, but he feels better playing them from the sixth inning through the eighth than doing it into the ninth too.

That showed on Wednesday. With the ninth inning set, he used Al Alburquerque in the sixth inning for just the second time this season. He played the matchups in using Benoit against Mike Moustakas with two outs in the seventh, not only because Moustakas had good numbers against Phil Coke, but because he knew he’d want Benoit against the right-handed hitters that followed anyway.

With the ninth inning set, no matter who’s up, it lets Leyland focus on matchups with the seventh and eighth. With the ninth inning set, it lets Leyland avoid wondering what he’ll do if the leadoff man reaches base in the ninth.

Is Valverde the man for that long term? No idea. He’s the man for now, and they’ll see how it works out. Remember, Santiago Casilla was closing games for the Giants at this time last year. The Tigers are on the hook for Valverde for just $2 million guaranteed, and have $3 million more tied to incentives. If they decide they want to go in a different direction this summer, they can. If they decide Bruce Rondon is ready in the summer, they can go that way, too. If they like what they see with Valverde, they can say he’s their guy and gear their bullpen around him.

Valverde’s stuff at least gives them hope he can handle the job right now. The fastball has new life. Whether it’ll have that same life after a couple months of closing, nobody really knows. If it does, the Tigers have to like what they have. If it doesn’t, the Tigers don’t have to sit around hating it.

One more note, and an ironic one at that: If one believes in the notion that any decent reliever can get you at least 25 saves without much problem, as one scout floated this spring, then one should believe that if Valverde has better stuff than he did at the end of last year, he can handle the job. Of course, if you believe in that theory, then you probably tuned out this closer debate a long time ago. Time will tell.

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