Tigers manager Jim Leyland has tried to stay out of the All-Star voting process. He thinks it comes down to a popularity contest and stuffing ballots. That said, he basically asked Tigers fans to do the same for his catcher.
“I’ve never really got into that, but I think it’s a no-brainer, and I hope that they do get behind him,” Leyland said. “It would be an absolute shame, in my opinion, if Alex Avila’s not on the All-Star team. That would be a shame. He deserves it, so I hope they stuff ballots, do whatever they want. I know I’m contradicting myself, but it would be a shame if he’s not on the team.”
Online balloting is the only way to vote now, and it ends tonight at 11:59 p.m. ET at MLB.com. The latest results as of Thursday afternoon suggest a late rally for Avila votes in recent hours, with close to 90 percent of votes over the last day going in his favor. If that holds, then it’s a question of how big the final-day vote is.
Rick Porcello doesn’t have that look at last year when he talks about his struggles. A year ago, he looked exasperated, like his mind was spinning into overdrive trying to figure out why he wasn’t able to get the ground-ball outs that were so plentiful in 2009. Porcello believes he’s on the right track now, and he sounds mature about it.
That’s his look off the field. On the field, he’s taking a beating these last three starts.
To be fair, one of those three games was a debacle of singles at Dodger Stadium last Wednesday, when he looked like a hard-luck pitcher. Another was a Coors Field game for a sinkerball pitcher, and as Mike Hampton might attest, those don’t go well sometimes.
Tuesday was a different feel. If Willie Harris had gotten to second base on his fourth-inning shot off the right field fence, then Porcello would’ve given up the cycle in four batters and just five pitches. Their singles were not cheapies.
It was the kind of outing that, when coupled with the other two, creates concern on a ballclub and a task for a pitching coach.
“Obviously tonight, it was just one of those things,” Rick Knapp said after the game. “He felt like they were on him, and he tried. He used his other pitches. He used his slider. He used his curveball. I thought he threw a couple good curveballs tonight. But at the same time, if he doesn’t execute his best pitch consistently, that’s when he’s going to get hurt.”
The mix of pitches was there for Porcello on Tuesday. The finishing pitch with two strikes was not. Divide Porcello’s 47 strikes thrown by the 11 hits he allowed, and he had just over 4.25 strikes per hit. He also had just two swings and misses from Mets hitters. His 2-to-1 ratio of groundouts to flyouts was good, but that’s because the vast majority of the balls they hit in the air against him went for hits.
“Tonight he threw some bad pitches that they hit, and he threw some decent pitches that they hit,” Jim Leyland said. “It just wasn’t his night.”
When you hear about hitters doing damage on good pitches, and hitters barely missing any pitches, one of the first things to come to mind is whether a pitcher is tipping his pitches. It’s something pitchers and coaches don’t like to talk about much, and they weren’t saying a whole lot after the game Tuesday. But it’s safe to say they’re looking at it, looking for anything that might even give a hint.
When those numbers are coming against a pitcher like Porcello, who focuses on one very good pitch that can get outs even when hitters know it’s coming, then it can be a different question. Is he throwing his secondary pitches well enough to keep hitters honest? Is he executing the bread-and-butter pitch?
Statistically, Porcello had one of his better mixes going, with double-digit pitch totals in four different pitches. But his slider, which often complements his sinker, just wasn’t working, getting just seven strikes out of 15 pitches, and his changeup was marginally better.
Look at his strike zone plot on brooksbaseball.net, too, and though he had some pitches low, almost all of them were first-pitch balls, which led to second-pitch strikes higher up in the zone. The two swing-and-miss strikes he got were both on high pitches.
“I think it’s just a matter of pitch making,” Porcello said. “I think early on [this season, when he was on], I was down in the zone very consistently and lately, balls have been coming up. I’ve been paying the price for it. It just can’t go any further. I’ve got to squash it and make sure that everything I’m throwing is down in the zone and keeping guys off-balance with a good mix of pitches.
“I definitely felt like today and in previous bad outings, I think guys have been all over my fastball, especially left-handed hitters. That’s been kind of na ongoing thing for me that I’ve got to make sure I shut down lefties in the lineup. Almost all the lineups I’m going to face are stacked with left-handed hitters. That’s just an ongoing challenge.”
I asked Porcello what he saw as the difference, pitch-wise, between what he threw in Pittsburgh in May over eight scoreless innings and what he threw Tuesday night.
“I think there’s not a big difference between my stuff in Pittsburgh and now,” he said. “In fact, I think velocity-wise, it was the best my fastball has been all year. I felt like I had a pretty sharp slider again. It’s just a matter of throwing strikes and putting the pressure on them to (with) pitches.”
It might well have been that the Pirates simply didn’t hit him well, or that the Mets hit him particularly well. But unlike last year, he calls this a bump in the road.
I know the question will come up among fans whether Porcello needs to go to Toledo to work things out. At this point, I would say no. It wasn’t that long ago that he was pitching effectively, and it’s abundantly clear that the Tigers need to get him going here to have any shot at doing things in October. I don’t see any other clear candidate as a third starter right now. I don’t think Jacob Turner is ready for that yet, and I think Andy Oliver has his own set of circumstances. You have to be able to throw someone other than Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer at a team, and when Porcello is right, he’s by far the best of the rest.
Jim Leyland doesn’t argue very many calls, at least not as many as his personality would suggest. If he’s coming out of the dugout to talk with an umpire, he’s more likely looking for an explanation than a fight. He knows he isn’t going to change anybody’s mind, so what’s the point? He doesn’t believe in ejections as motivational tools for his team.
And then there are times like Monday.
There was Leyland, arms flailing, head bobbing as he shouted at Ed Rapuano. There was rookie outfielder Andy Dirks in the background of the camera shot, and it was hard to tell if he was looking on in shock or trying to keep a straight face.
Yes, I remember when Leyland took an argument into the seventh inning stretch and stopped for God Bless America before picking it up. I also remember Leyland last August at Yankee Stadium and hearing the famous line, “They’re going to the playoffs, I ain’t going anywhere.”
To me, Monday topped that. The theatrics are the difference. There was a split second when I half-expected Leyland to stomp on first base. Thankfully, he didn’t.
It wasn’t the call he was arguing, but the method in which the call was reached. And that actually contributed to the theatrics.
Somewhat surprisingly, we didn’t hear a lot of stories about Sparky Anderson on Sunday, though the few that were told were pretty good. His daughter, Shirlee Engelbrecht, admitted that even she sometimes didn’t agree with her dad’s decisions to pull the starter.
“I did get caught a couple times booing when Captain Hook would come out,” she said Sunday morning. “I did get up, and one time he noticed when he was coming back [from the mound]. I was screaming with the crowd. But I think he set a trend, because there’s not a whole lot who start a game and finish it now.”
To family, he wasn’t Sparky. He was either George or dad. But he still had the ability to deal with people and get the best out of them.
“One time in fourth grade, I got three D’s, and I was petrified to tell my dad,” Engelbrecht said. “And my mom said I had to. He was sitting on the stairs, and I had to tell him. And I went over and I told him. He said, ‘Young lady, did you do your very best?’ I said, ‘Oh, yeah, of course I did.’ He said, ‘Did you study? Did you do all your homework assignments?’ And I said, ‘Aw, yeah.’ And then I started realizing what he’s getting at.
“And by the end, he said, ‘If those D’s are your best, those are A’s to me. And if it’s not your very best, then do something about it.’ And I did. I brought them up.”
Sparky’s kids brought out a side very few of us had heard about, but a reflection of what many knew all along, that he had a big heart off the field. His former players reflected that more in lessons than in quotes.
“I still live to this today: It’s not rocket science, as he used to put it,” Dan Petry said. “It’s just to treat people like you would want to be treated. That’s pretty easy. You don’t want to be treated poorly by people and be run over and abused. That’s the way Sparky lived each and every day, that no matter who you were or how high on the totem pole or anything, everybody was treated the same.”
The best quote of the entire weekend, I thought, came from Larry Herndon. When he asked if there was one big lesson he learned from Sparky, he summed it up like this:
“I was an average ballplayer,” he said, “and so my ability took me as far as I could go. But being around Sparky taught me I didn’t have to be an average man or an average person.”
This is what Jim Leyland was talking about when he talked about Verlander meeting his potential for so many years, when he talked about how good he can be. He obviously wasn’t the only one.
Verlander has gone on tears during June before. He has said in the past that he believes he had better stuff in the start before his no-hitter in 2007, starting a stretch in which he won four straight starts with four runs on 16 hits allowed over 29 innings, and struck out 35.
This is something different. If not for a 24-pitch eighth inning, he would’ve had a chance at his third straight complete game and his third shutout of the year. He’s 6-0 with a 0.72 ERA over his last six starts, allowing just 26 hits and five walks over 49 2/3 innings with 51 strikeouts.
Stretch it out to 10 starts, beginning with the no-hitter at Toronto, and he’s 8-0 with a 1.56 ERA, 43 hits allowed over 80 2/3 innings, nine walks and 73 strikeouts.
He’s leaving hitters guessing whether they’re going to get a hard fastball or a curveball that he drops in the strike zone. And on Saturday, you can make the case that the curveball was the more dangerous pitch. He threw the curve for a higher percentage of strikes (19-for-25, 76 percent) than he did with the fastball (33-for-50, 66 percent), according to brooksbaseball.net and MLB.com Gameday.
He threw eight of nine sliders for strikes, and 16-for-25 changeups.
The run he’s on is better than any stretch Jack Morris had in 1984. It was better than Mark Fidrych’s eight wins in eights in 1976, though it’s hard to top an 11-inning complete game.
To get a stretch like this, you might have to go back to Mickey Lolich in 1972. From April 25 to May 21, he went 7-0 in seven starts with a 1.14 ERA, allowing 48 hits over 63 innings, with 15 walks and 48 walks. And even that might not compare.
If you thought Alex Avila saw home run on that eighth-inning drive off the left-field wall and didn’t run it out like an extra-base hit, you would be right.
“When I hit it, I thought it would either be over [the left fielder's] head or out,” Avila said, “and I looked down. They say you’re never supposed to take your eye off the ball when you’re running, and I looked down and hit first base. And I looked up, and he was throwing it in, and by then I was gone. I was going to be out no matter what. I guess it just caromed right to him. That was a heckuva throw. He threw a bullet in there.”
It was an odd play for Avila, who has managed to run his way into some extra bases this year (two-triple game) that defy his image. But his teammates managed to have a little laugh over it.
“That was a little embarrassing,” Avila said, “but Miguel all year has been making fun of the way I run. He thinks it’s funny, so he was joking the way I look when I run was funny to him. But I’ve still got a couple steals over him.”
Avila also took another pitch in the dirt that hit him in his right wrist — right above where he took Ryan Perry’s wild pitch Friday night, Avila said. Jim Leyland said he plans on resting Avila on Sunday.
A month ago, it would’ve been difficult to envision Jim Leyland turning to Al Alburquerque to protect a lead with the bases loaded. He can get a strikeout when he needs one, but the risk of backfire with a walk and no base open would just be too big the way he was pitching.
If Leyland had some alternatives, he might not be turning to him either. But with Joaquin Benoit pitching setup and Jose Valverde closing, and four left-handers in the bullpen, Alburquerque is the only right-hander available for the seventh inning or earlier.
“The point is,” Leyland said, “who do you bring in?”
For more reasons than one, Leyland has to watch his situations with Alburquerque. For better or for worse, Thursday was one. Alberquerque’s fly out from Adam Everett for the third out made it for the better.
It isn’t a situation where a strikeout is any better than an out put in play, but under the circumstances, Leyland felt Alburquerque had the best chance at an out there. He could’ve let Scherzer face Everett and put in a lefty against Sizemore, but he didn’t want to wait for that.
Alburquerque needed two sliders to get Everett. The first, he spotted for strike one. The second got a swing and a fly ball. He stayed on to pitch the seventh, albeit with a pair of 3-0 counts, and handed the lead to Benoit for the eighth.
It marked Alburquerque’s first string of pitching back-to-back days since the end of May, and his first string of three outings in four days in nearly a month. It’s a little unusual for an improving young reliever, but Leyland has to protect the arm right now.
“I got a little problem one week ago in my elbow,” Alburquerque said after Thursday’s game.
It was pain, Alburquerque said, when he threw his slider. That’s not necessarily unusual. But for someone whose slider unusually accounts for more than half of his pitches, obviously, that’s not good. But some rehab work with the medical staff, he said, has it feeling better.
It puts a little extra importance on the fastball, potentially to keep him from throwing too many sliders and putting too much more stress on the elbow. If he’s going to throw the fastball, he has to command it.
“Right now, I’m trying to come back with my fastball,” Alburquerque said. “I got sometimes scared to trust my slider. I tried to come back working with my two-seamer, too.”
Alburquerque hasn’t given up a run over his last 10 outings, covering nine innings in which he has struck out 16.
It’s an interesting factor for a bullpen that doesn’t have anyone else who can do quite what he can. At some point, the Tigers are going to add a right-handed reliever. Ideally, it would be Ryan Perry, if he can show he has fixed his early-season issues at Triple-A Toledo. If that doesn’t happen, though, it isn’t hard to envision right-handed middle relief on the Tigers’ priority list before the July 31 trade deadline.
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 roster move to make room for Magglio Ordonez’s return was never really a question. The Tigers had an extra reliever in the bullpen that they didn’t need after getting out of Texas in fair shape. The reliever that was headed out, however, might have been a surprise.
Adam Wilk came up a week ago as a fill-in reliever once David Purcey went on paternity leave. It could’ve just been for a day. It might be a while now.
Though Enrique Gonzalez was a veteran long reliever who could warm up in a hurry and eat innings, the Tigers see a chance for Wilk to learn the ropes of relief up in the big leagues. Thus, the Tigers outrighted Gonzalez to Triple-A Toledo to make room for Ordonez, and kept Wilk up.
That doesn’t necessarily mean he’s here for the long haul. Brad Thomas will begin his Minor League rehab assignment at Triple-A Toledo on Tuesday, and there’s nothing clear yet how that will shake out. But Wilk has an opportunity.
“He’s done OK,” manager Jim Leyland said. “He’s ideally probably a left-handed long guy, to break him in the right way. Probably not necessarily good for the team, but probably good for him. He’s an ideal left-handed long guy if you get behind early. It’s not because you don’t like him, but because that’s how he can get some experience with a little less pressure on him.”
Leyland noted that it’s the way they broke in Charlie Furbush. Now, Furbush has the opportunity for some other situations as a third lefty reliever behind David Purcey and Daniel Schlereth, who retired his first hitter and walked another in the eighth inning before Miguel Olivo homered off Joaquin Benoit’s first pitch.
“Left-handed relief pitchers cannot walk left-handed hitters,” Leyland said.
He said it was a general philosophy, rather than directed at anyone in particular. Still, it was clear what he meant.
How much stock do the Tigers put in moving into a virtual tie atop the AL Central in June? Depends on who you ask.
- Alex Avila: “It’s nice to get there. It definitely means something, because that’s what we’re working towards. We want to win as many games as possible and be in first place [at season's end]. That’s the goal. But at this point, that’s not something we’re focused on. We’re trying to win the game that day.”
- Brennan Boesch: “It feels good. It’s a long way to go obviously, but the Indians were playing such good baseball early on that it just shows that this team, when we put our heads down and play hard, that we can be a force to be reckoned with and it feels good to be there right now.”
- Max Scherzer: “Yeah, it feels good, but we’ve got [about] 100 games left. That’s a lot of games. A lot of things can happen. But you’ve got to love the talent on this team. You’ve got to love what our offense is doing, love what our pitching staff’s doing. We’re in a real good position, and we’re starting to really come on strong. I definitely like our team.”
- Austin Jackson: “It definitely is [a sense of satisfaction], but we’ve still got a long way to go. We understand that. We just need to keep playing good baseball and just take care of what we can take care of.”