Ok, be honest: How many of you at this point believe Justin Verlander won’t throw another no-hitter this season?
The more outings he pitches like Tuesday, the more the expectation builds. At the same time, the longer he goes without another one, the more anticipation builds that his next outing might be the one.
Now that Verlander has again looked like he had no-hit stuff, his outings are shaping up to be a very interesting part of summer.
Verlander was asked whether he expects to throw another one.
“The way I’ve been answering questions, I would have to say yeah,” Verlander said. “But this is a funny game. You look at some of the pitchers that have come through the Major Leagues, some of the outstanding Hall of Fame pitchers that have never thrown a no-hitter. There’s a lot of things that have to go in your favor. You have to get lucky. I would like to say I’m able to, but things have to be on my side.”
Alex Avila wasn’t as sure as his teammates that Verlander was going to pitch a no-hitter Tuesday. But short of outrighting saying it, Avila sounded quite confident Tuesday.
“He’s got the stuff,” Avila said. “He’s got the preparation that goes into his starts. It’s all there. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that he’s been close so many times this year.”
The Mariners made no secret they were going to be aggressive on the basepaths and take advantage of the Tigers napping. Brendan Ryan took second base in the series opener when the Tigers forgot to cover it after his single. Chone Figgins stretched out a double the next night when the Tigers outfield didn’t expect it.
Come the fifth inningSaturday, when Greg Halman dribbled a slow grounder to short that both Jhonny Peralta and Don Kelly tried to charge, Peralta and Ramon Santiago were thinking what Figgins was thinking.
“I was anticipating Peralta, he made a good fake,” Santiago said. “Nobody’s on third base, because Kelly and Peralta both went to get the ball. But Peralta knows he doesn’t have a chance at first, so he kind of faked, and that was the key play.”
Figgins fell for it and rounded second, leaving Peralta with a rundown to execute for the third out. It was a huge play, because it turned what would’ve been an at-bat for Ichiro with two men on into Ichiro leading off the sixth inning and having to start something. If Ichiro’s triple happens in the fifth rather than the sixth, it’s a whole different ballgame.
It was one of the better displays of awareness all season from the Tigers by a double-play combo that doesn’t get to play together very often.
“Figgins, he’s a very good baserunner. He likes to take advantage of mistakes. When you don’t pay attention to them, they take advantage.”
Magglio Ordonez said Tuesday afternoon that unless something changes for the worse, he hopes to return to action for the Tigers when they return home Thursday.
Ordonez, who has been on the 15-day disabled list for the past four weeks with weakness in his right ankle, has been on a rehab assignment with Triple-A Toledo since last Friday. Originally, the Tigers left open the possibility that he could return for this week’s series at Texas. But while Ordonez said Tuesday his ankle feels good, he wants to feel right at the plate when he comes back up.
“I think I’m driving the ball really good,” Ordonez said. “Every time that I hit it, I’m hitting the ball with authority. But I’ve got to get the timing, see a lot of pitches.”
He didn’t feel right when he began the season, and it resulted in a slow start at the plate. Now, he said, he’s able to push off the ankle and get a lot of lower body strength in his swing. It’s not only a stronger swing, but a quicker one in his opinion.
“More drive and quick,” Ordonez said. “Because the power’s always going to be there. The quickness is a process. That’s why I was hitting so many ground balls, because everything was upper body, no drive.”
Ordonez played nine innings in right field on Tuesday, going 1-for-4 at the plate with a hard-hit ground ball through the left side in the opening inning. He grounded out to third, struck out on a called third strike around the outside corner and popped out to second. The numbers put him at 6-for-21 on his rehab assignment. He said after the game that his swing felt good.
Ordonez also made caught two fly balls in right and moved around well without any signs of difficulty.
“I didn’t see any health problems, and that’s why he’s here,” Mud Hens manager Phil Nevin said. “He’s taking his swings. He’s getting his cuts in. We’re not looking for results. It’s about the swings, how he feels.”
Ordonez is scheduled to play nine innings in right field again Wednesday. The Tigers haven’t officially announced anything past that, but manager Jim Leyland has said more than once they’re going to rely on Ordonez for the word on when he feels ready.
Ordonez is hoping that’ll be Thursday.
“The ankle is fine,” he said. “I just need to play nine innings and get used to playing every day and go from there, see what happens.”
If you read the site — not the blog, the Tigers site — you might have seen the Tigers notes from last Sunday on Ryan Raburn’s slow start and how it compares to previous seasons, especially last year and the similarity of his batting average to this year day to day.
After Raburn hit a grand slam this Sunday to help beat the White Sox, Jim Leyland went to the comparison himself.
“Check what he was hitting last year in May,” Leyland said. “I’m not sure, but I don’t think it was real good. I said the other day I think he’s starting to come around, and I believe it.”
Chronologically, he’s right. As mentioned in last Sunday’s notes, Raburn owned a .186 average on May 29 of last year thanks to a 1-for-22 slump. His .195 average on May 29 this year doesn’t look quite so bad in comparison.
The difference is the number of at-bats. He’s pretty much going at double of last year’s pace on playing time through two months, and he’ll obviously keep that up if he’s playing close to every day at second base. Thus, he has had more opportunity to break out of his slow start this year compared to last.
The Tigers are hoping this is the start of that. He has five straight one-hit games, which have raised his average above the Mendoza line to .201 on the year. As of June 5 last year, he was batting .179. He didn’t top .200 until late June, and he didn’t really heat up until after that. His strikeout pace last year was a little slower than it has been so far in 2011.
The Tigers rallied in the seventh and eighth innings to pull out their third straight win overall and their eighth straight over the Twins, now back-to-back late-inning losers. In that light, it’s hard to second-guess too much.
But if Jim Leyland was doing it after the game, everyone else can, too.
“I should’ve brought [in Charlie] Furbush for [pitching to] Morneau,” Leyland lamented after the game. “That was dumb on my part. I thought Max [Scherzer] was fine. He was throwing the ball 95 that inning. But it was a little late in the game, [Morneau] hadn’t seen Furbush yet.
“I mean, it was set up perfect, and I blew it. It was my fault. Nobody’s fault but mine. And the guys picked me up tonight. That’s a good feeling. They picked the manager up. It was a bad decision.”
The main concern over inserting Furbush there was a pretty shrewd move by Twins manager Ron Gardenhire in mixing up his lineup. By putting Michael Cuddyer in the cleanup spot between Morneau and Jim Thome, Gardenhire avoided having two left-handed hitters in a row against a team that has three left-handed relievers. The Tigers have lefties in abundance, but they were a man down with closer Jose Valverde off.
Short-handed, Leyland didn’t want to go lefty-righty-lefty to get through that stretch, so he stuck with Scherzer. Conceivably, Scherzer could’ve pitched around Morneau with first base open and opted to face Cuddyer. Once he put Morneau in an 0-2 count, that wasn’t happening.
He was nowhere near the strike zone on his next three pitches as he tried to get Morneau to chase. Morneau didn’t swing until he got to a full count, and Scherzer left a fastball over the plate that was supposed to be down and in, where catcher Victor Martinez placed his mitt.
“I left it over the middle,” Scherzer said. “Obviously he’s a good enough hitter where he’s going to be able to hit it to the seats. That’s the frustrating part for me, knowing I had a shot to get out of that inning — especially when I was up 0-2 on him — and he ends up hitting a home run.”
Leyland finally went to Furbush to face Thome, whom he retired.
The other decision came way earlier, when he opted to put Ryan Raburn back in left field after telling him a few days earlier that he was the regular second baseman. While no one said the move caught Raburn by surprise, it was clear that he had focused most of his efforts on second base since this past weekend.
Once he stepped back into left field, he arguably looked more like a second baseman. An odd route to Danny Valencia’s second-inning double in the gap left Raburn chasing the ball towards the fence. An inning later, Matt Tolbert hit a fly ball that sailed over Raburn’s head once he broke in on it.
Leyland said Raburn would “probably” start back at second base on Saturday. But Leyland also came to his defense as an outfielder.
“I don’t know why he’s taking heat,” Leyland said. “The ball fooled him a little bit. The wind was blowing. The ball was hit a little better than he thought. The wind took it. It sailed on him and went over his head. He’s played good in left field this year.”
Why start Raburn in left and Brennan Boesch at DH? In that case, Leyland was looking ahead to the late innings. If he put Raburn in left field and Boesch at DH, he could shift Raburn back to second base late in the game, when he might use Andy Dirks as a pinch-hitter for Worth. Turns out that was wasn’t needed, and Don Kelly replaced Raburn for defensive purposes.
Somebody in the Comerica Park box office put it best: No matter whether the umpires ruled on the eighth-inning interference call, whether Jhonny Peralta was allowed to score or had to stay at third base, one manager was going to get thrown out of the game.
Since Peralta came home with the go-ahead run and wasn’t sent back, it was Twins manager Ron Gardenhire getting tossed. And upon further review, he might have been right to react that way.
It was a very close play from a distance that no umpire usually has to make a ruling like that. And to be fair, I can’t be sure whether crew chief Gary Darlling actually meant that the fan in the orange shirt committed the interference that was called, or whether he was one of the people who touched it after one of the fans leaning over the railing touched it. The latter makes more sense, and from the camera angles available during the game, I thought it was hard to tell. It seemed like the indication on the field was that the second fan leaning over the railing might have touched it. One would think it would’ve been easier to tell from field level.
But if it really was the fan in the orange who was the first to touch the ball, replays showed he wasn’t leaning out into the field of play to do it. He really wasn’t leaning out at all until after the ball hit the boy beside him. That’s the difference between an interference call and a ground-rule double, which is the difference between an umpire’s discretion to allow a runner coming around third to score, and an automatic two-base ruling which would’ve left Peralta at third.
“I don’t care who it hit,” Gardenhire said. “When it hits a fan in the stands, it’s a ground-rule double and you don’t score. However you want to call it, that guy doesn’t score. So it doesn’t make sense to me, and what they told me didn’t make any sense, either.”
I’ve seen people on the message boards make the case that Delmon Young paid for giving up on that play too quickly, that he was supposedly too lazy to run it down and make a play at the
play plate. Sorry, but whatever the ruling, I’m not buying that. Every player I can think of on highlights like that goes for the interference signal as soon as they notice it. I’ve never heard anybody coached not to do that. The sooner the signal, the sooner the call, the better chance of getting the runner held at third. If the two sides were reversed and it’s, say, Ryan Raburn or Andy Dirks in left field and he plays through the play, he would be crucified for not making it clear that ball was interfered with.
Let’s be honest: That’s a play where, based on how the umpires rule, whichever team benefits from the call supposedly did everything right to sell it. And on the other side, somebody will use it as further evidence for expansion of replay review.
Remember all the calls that went against the Tigers last year around this time? Jim Joyce? The phantom strike three on Johnny Damon in Atlanta? Well, this one went in their favor.
A few other notes before I finish up what’s left of this holiday weekend:
- If you thought Brad Penny was throwing a lot more curveballs than usual, you would be right. According to brooksbaseball.net, using data from MLB.com Gameday, 28 of Penny’s 105 pitches were curveballs, or about 26 percent. That’s double the percentage of curveballs from all his previous outings this season, according to fangraphs.com. Both Penny and Alex Avila said the curveball was working well and they wanted to establish it early, then it waned a bit later. By contrast, brooksbaseball.net had him with only 14 sinkers today, a lot less than he’s been throwing it lately. But fastball command probably played into that.
- Jim Leyland talked after the game about guys needing to expand their strike zone just a bit when they get into two-strike counts in situations where they need to put the ball in play to get a run in. He said that comes with experience. Still, it’s hard to accuse Austin Jackson of not expanding his strike zone, sometimes a little too much in some situations.
- For all that will be made of Leyland’s decision to hit Casper Wells in place of Andy Dirks, it’s very difficult to dismiss the righty-lefty idea in that situation, especially with Phil Dumatrait on the mound. Wells played with Dumatrait at Triple-A Toledo early last season. For Wells so far this season, the splits are reversed, he has actually been a little better against right-handers than left-handers, and his strikeout rate is higher against lefties.
Before we get into dissecting Joaquin Benoit, let’s make something clear: Anyone who expected Benoit to duplicate his 2010 numbers from Tampa Bay was kidding themselves. When we point out that Benoit already has given up four more earned runs than he did all of last year, it’s almost more for entertainment purposes, because those numbers were ridiculously good. The fact that he’s now more than two-thirds of the way to his 2010 hit total in about a quarter of the innings is more concerning, because it’s more relevant, but that’s a little deceptive, too.
Also worth noting: Nobody, and I mean NOBODY, was a Brandon Lyon fan at this point in 2009. He had allowed 12 earned runs on 16 hits over 15 2/3 innings then, including 11 walks. He gave up just 40 hits over 63 innings with 20 walks and 52 strikeouts after that, and then was paid handsomely on the open market.
Got it? Good. Now, what the heck is going on with Benoit?
“If I would know that, I would give you an answer,” Benoit said. “I’m trying to figure it out.”
To Benoit’s credit, he stood in front of TV cameras and microphones and answered all the questions asked of him, which lasted a little more than three minutes. He didn’t have a whole lot of answers, but he tried.
“I’m probably giving the hitters more credit than what they deserve,” Benoit said later. “I’m probably throwing the pitch that they’re looking for, and in their location. There’s not much I can do when that happens. It’s wrong pitch selection.”
Manager Jim Leyland and pitching coach Rick Knapp have a little different take. To Knapp, pitch selection and pitch execution are pretty good. Pitch location is not.
“I can’t figure out what’s going on,” Leyland said, “because we don’t see anything that indicates something wrong, with the exception that he’s just [not] locating the ball. He’s just not getting the ball where he’s trying to throw it, it looks like to me. The velocity is certainly OK, but it looks to me like he’s not locating the ball where he’s trying to get it for some reason. That means you’re out of sync or something, and he has been for a few times out now.”
Benoit agreed that his health is fine.
“I mean, I’m pitching,” Benoit said. “I have my velocity. Things are not going right.”
He does not have his location, for whatever reason. Or at least, he has it inconsistently. The game-turning double from Aaron Hill came in a five-pitch at-bat that started off with two nasty pitches to put Hill in an 0-2 hole. He pitched to catcher Alex Avila’s mitt on the next two pitches, but Hill didn’t chase.
The last pitch, the 2-2 pitch, was supposed to be low and away. It was up and over the plate.
“He made four pitches to Hill that were good,” pitching coach Rick Knapp said. “The fifth one’s bad. He just missed the spot.”
Knapp has his own ideas why.
“Is it mechanics? I don’t think it’s mechanics,” Knapp said. “I think it’s just confidence. Throw the ball down isn’t really something you can think about. You have to leverage it that way. You have to know that you’re going to throw the ball down and not have to think about it. When you have to think about it, then you have a better chance to make a mistake. And that’s kind of about where he’s at right now. He’s trying to execute pitches maybe too hard and he’s not.”
Both Knapp and Benoit said they felt his previous outing last week at Minnesota was a big step forward. He gave up three hits over 1 1/3 innings and a game-tying run that was unearned thanks to a double-error play, but he also kept the Twins from pulling ahead with help from two eighth-inning strikeouts.
When he’s on, he’s a swing-and-miss pitcher more than a contact pitcher.
“It was really better in Minnesota,” Benoit said.
Knapp believed the Minnesota outing was something to build on.
“I think Minnesota was a good positive stepping point,” Knapp said. “It just didn’t work out for him tonight. He’ll get more opportunities. It’s one of those deals where you have to execute to get confidence. Confidence isn’t something that you’re going to just show up with. It isn’t something that just walks through the door. You have your swagger, but I think right now he’s a little bit in his own head.”
Just about everyone was asked whether the three-year, $16.5 million contract, and the pressure to pitch up to it, could be contributing to that.
“I’ll answer that by saying I don’t know the answer to that,” Leyland said. “Something’s not right. He’s obviously a little frustrated, trying to do too much. That’s a possibility. That’s something we’ll have to look at it. He’s an important piece of the puzzle, but we’re going to have to look at it and figure something out. I’ll have to figure out the strategic part.”
Benoit had that question posed as well.
“There’s always pressure when you’re pitching and you don’t perform to the level that everybody expected,” he said.
Said Knapp: “I don’t know that he’d be out there in those situations if he didn’t perform like he did the year before. He deserves what he got [contractually]. Like I said, we need him to be good — not great, just good.
“I know it isn’t because he’s not trying. He’s digging in. He’s looking at tape. He’s trying to feel it, trying to make sure. There’s a fine line between trying to do too much and maybe his stuff dropping off. I don’t think it’s a stuff issue. I think his stuff is fine. I think now we have to get him zeroed in on hitting the glove, staying on the spot, executing the pitch he’s trying to make.
“I think everybody wants him to perform, nobody moreso than him. Like I said, I don’t see the stuff falling off. I see him missing his spots, which means we’re getting closer to where we need to be.”
Jim Leyland said late last week that he was sticking with his lineup, the players in it, and believes in the team he has. In the same conversation, though, he made the point that it’s ultimately not his final call.
“I think you’re watching and you’re watching,” Leyland said Friday, “and the general manager and the manager and the coaches are watching. And all of a sudden one day, the general manager says, ‘Let’s do something.’”
The Tigers were in Cleveland. Team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski was not with the team over the weekend, but he was obviously around Monday with the team at home.
Dombrowski and Leyland met about the team Monday. By Monday night, Scott Sizemore was getting ready to head to Detroit, nearly a year after the Tigers sent him down from his season-opening second base job last year.
“We’re looking for a little punch,” Leyland said. “Sizemore’s hitting .400. He’s a second baseman. Rhymes is a second baseman. So [Rhymes] kind of got the short end of the stick, to be honest with you. But that’s just the way it is.”
He probably won’t be the only one.
One big obstacle seemingly stopping Sizemore’s return until now was the flexibility needed to fit Ryan Raburn and Brennan Boesch in the same lineup once Victor Martinez returns from the disabled list on Wednesday. If Raburn was going to get starts at second base, and Sizemore wasn’t going to be an everyday player, then why promote Sizemore from Toledo to sit on the bench in Detroit?
Instead, Sizemore is indeed expected to start the majority of games at second. That leaves Raburn likely to get more starts in the outfield, where Magglio Ordonez will be looking for starts once Martinez returns to Detroit to DH.
Ordonez’s average has fallen to .151. His spot in the lineup appears poised to drop as well.
“When we get Victor back, I might drop [Ordonez] down a little bit,” Leyland said. “I have a plan for that. Once we get Victor back, I have some thoughts. It might make sense for a while to drop him down a little bit.”
It could also make sense to get him days off if he’s going to play the outfield and test his surgically repaired ankle.
Leyland said they were making the Sizemore move “to start with” to get the offense going. Asked if any other hitters could get to Detroit shortly, Leyland was noncommittal, saying it was “putting the cart before the horse.”
Meant to post this last night, but didn’t get it online: There were two potential bunting situations that received no shortage of scrutiny last night. The decisions were different in the fifth and 13th innings, but the general idea was the same: Try to get two hitters going in the middle of the order by putting them in situations where they know they can succeed.
The first came in the fifth inning, after Austin Jackson drew a leadoff walk. Leyland opted to have Will Rhymes lay down a sacrifice bunt and move Jackson to second, knowing full well that it would leave first base open for the Indians to intentionally walk Miguel Cabrera two batters later.
Leyland did it anyway, because he wanted to create an RBI situation for Magglio Ordonez, his slumping third hitter.
“I’m trying to get Magglio going,” Leyland said. “If Magglio gets a base hit, they can’t walk Cabrera, because [first] base is occupied.”
It goes back to something Leyland said earlier this weekend: If they can’t get production out of Ordonez, it’s going to be tough for them to win. They can put somebody in his place, but they don’t have an obvious candidate to replace his production.
The worst-case scenario Saturday was to bring Boesch, one of their best hitters in April, to the plate with two runners on and two outs. That’s what happened, of course, and Boesch flew out to end the threat on his way to an 0-for-6 night.
The question with Boesch in the 13th was whether to have him bunt once Cabrera led off the inning with a double. It would’ve created a sac fly opportunity for Ryan Raburn, whose fly ball to deep center would’ve driven in a run.
The problem there is two-fold. First, Boesch has one sac bunt in his pro career, majors and minors. To ask him to do it in that situation is a risk. Second, the Tigers didn’t have an obvious option off the bench to lay down a bunt, since they already used Ramon Santiago as a pinch-hitter for Will Rhymes. Don Kelly was the one guy left on the bench with sac bunt experience, and it isn’t as extensive as one might think, having laid down four bunts at Triple-A Toledo.
Four weeks ago, Max Scherzer stood in the visiting clubhouse in Sarasota and looked like someone in deep, deep — well, concern.
“I’m not going to write anything off,” Scherzer said after giving up more runs (11 earned) and hits (nine) that day than he recorded outs (seven). “I wanted to be dialed in today, and I wasn’t. I look forward to making the adjustments I need to make going into my first start.”
Mechanically, he was off, and it was hurting his velocity. His normal power fastball was coming in around the low 90s rather than mid-90s, leaving not a whole lot of difference between that and his changeup. And it clearly bothered him.
For the spring, Scherzer allowed 20 earned runs on 25 hits over 17 1/3 innings with 10 walks and 12 strikeouts. The thing was, for all the issues with his fastball and his overall command, his slider was biting better than it ever had.
Four weeks later, that’s turning out to be a valuable pitch for him. Now that he has his workhorse pitches in order, he has a better three-pitch package than ever, and he isn’t afraid to mix it.
I remember talking with Scherzer about his pitches at one point in the spring, and his slider seemed like a distant third on the confidence level. That seems to be changing. More and more, it’s looking like an offspeed pitch he can play off his changeup. A look at the stats so far on fangraphs.com shows he’s throwing it slower, and getting more movement out of it.
According to the data from MLB.com Gameday and posted on brooksbaseball.net, he threw more sliders than changeups Sunday against the White Sox. That might not be all that accurate, since the two pitches can look similar at times. But even if it’s a little bit off, it shows he’s throwing it more after getting away from it the last couple years.
Meanwhile, a mechanical adjustment over his first two starts has him back in form with his normal fastball-changeup combination. The result is a difficult mix for hitters to handle.
The next couple starts are going to be interesting for Scherzer. No team had more base hits off Scherzer last year than the Indians, and that was largely without a healthy Grady Sizemore. Travis Hafner and Shin-Soo Choo are a combined 11-for-19 off Scherzer, and they’ll get their first look of the year at him Friday night in Cleveland. After that, it’s a rematch with the Yankees, who used the friendly dimensions of their stadium to homer four times off him April 3. He has a challenge ahead, but at least it looks different than the challenge he faced coming out of spring training.